For me, my Deerfield journey started with a fib. My parents dismissed the idea of me applying to boarding school. We were poor. We lived in Compton, CA—yes, that same notorious Compton – which was nice in my early years but which changed dramatically during my teen years in the late 70s and early 80s. The idea of me attending a Boarding School in Mass., I’m certain, seemed ludicrous to my parents, who grew up in the Jim Crow Era, segregated South.
But, I was determined to find an escape from the poverty and danger of my neighborhood. When Mom and Dad forbade me from applying to Deerfield, or any other school, my Counselor, Mrs. Cardell Brooks, and I launched a new plan. She told me to submit all of my paperwork through her and don’t tell my parents anything. So, I set out to be counted among you—Deerfield graduates.
I applied for fee waivers for the application and the SSAT testing fee. I wrote those waiver requests in Mrs. Brooks’ office.
Next, I had to fill out the application and submit my parents’ tax returns. That was required for financial aid. I was 14 and had no idea of the reason for tax returns.
But, I knew my brother, Eric, who was in college, needed them for his scholarship. I asked him to make me a copy. He said he couldn’t and to me to do it myself. I asked, “How?” He reminded me that Mom and Pop always kept a copy of the tax returns in the cabinet, where mom kept the fancy dishes.
I looked in the cabinet and found the tax returns. But, they were in pencil, and they were not signed. I asked my brother to sign them. He told me to sign them myself. So, I needed to forge my parents’ signatures. My dad was a gambler—he bet on horses, and I recall seeing his pay slips with his initials “DW” on them. At least I’d get those right.
My mom, on the other hand, was a church lady. She had at least five bibles around the house, and, I remembered—she always signed the inside cover of her bibles. So, I found her Big Bible, opened the cover, and there it was: her signature. I practiced a few times and then signed the Tax Forms – in pencil, so it matched. Then I needed to make copies and get them mailed before Mom and Dad got home. My mom did not drive, but we had an extra car—a hoopty—that my sisters or brother would drive from time to time. While my parents were still at work, I’d taken the car out a few times to drive around the neighborhood, just to “practice”, always staying on the side streets, and only making right turns.
So, I drove to the Post Office, took some extra quarters to make copies there, and put the tax returns in the envelope with the Financial Aid application. I drove home without being caught and got the car back into the garage before Mom and Dad got home.
A few weeks later, I got up early on a Saturday and rode my bike to Jordan High to take the SSAT. I was happy with my score, and waited, and waited, and waited ….
About three months later, as I sat in first-period English class, the school principal got on the school-wide loudspeaker and announced that I was accepted into Deerfield and had received a scholarship through A Better Chance. That’s how I found out. But, Mom and Dad still did not know a thing.
At that time, perhaps even now, the children of Black folks who grew up in the segregated era, with fire and brimstone religious beliefs—we have an interesting social compact. Stay out of trouble, and there won’t be any trouble. And, I knew that if Mom or Dad ever had to come to my school, and especially leave their jobs—because I was in trouble, it was very bad news for me. They did not spare the rod. I was told that if I ever got caught for something and went to jail, don’t bother calling home.
My father worked in a foundry, shoveling sand and pouring molten metal. My mom was a preschool teacher. We lived check to check, and sometimes not even that, with Dad’s gambling luck. Every penny counted, and when they were called to come to Willowbrook Jr. High because of me, they arrived red hot and ready for a short conversation, a quick ride home, and an evening of discipline for their youngest son.
Mr. Freeman, our school principal, my counselor, Mrs. Brooks, and the Head Counselor, Mr. Smith (for extra muscle), greeted them and led them into the principal’s office. I later heard that Mom and Dad just asked to see me, so we could go home. But, they were told to wait. I was summoned from class that afternoon, and before I arrived, they were told that I was accepted into Deerfield. I got to the office just in time to hear them say I couldn’t go. It was too far. We didn’t have enough money. I needed winter clothes. We couldn’t afford the airfare. “He’s not ready,” my mom said.
They learned the scholarship covered all those things. But I’d never seen or visited Deerfield. Neither had they. (My late father, even after I’d graduated, never saw this place.)
Then, Mr. Freeman told them, “You’re not leaving this office until you give him permission to go.” It was another half hour or so before they relented and said I could go—with one condition: I had to do whatever it would take to make it work. No crying on the phone, no whining about the work or the weather, no coming home early. We had only enough for one plane ticket, and back then, phone calls cost too much. I could call home once a week, on Sunday night, only.
So, it began. I was afraid to leave home, but I knew I couldn’t stay. I was afraid that I’d never see my family—my mom, who’d been ill—again. She told me that if she died, I was to stay at Deerfield and finish school. She later told me that when we were at LAX airport, she saw my lips tremble. So she kissed me on the lips and nudged me toward the jetway. A layover and another flight later—about 12 hours—I landed at Hartford airport at night by myself.
I was waiting for my luggage and looking for anything familiar. I heard a voice, “Victor!” When I turned around, I saw a huge, bulking white man (Dan Burdick), and all I could think was, “How does this white guy know my name?” But I answered, “yeah!”, just glad that someone would help me. He introduced himself, and he drove me to campus.
For a City Boy, I’d never seen it so dark at night. Three years later, I sat where you all sit today. It was all worth it: the Deception, Tax Fraud, Kidnapping, (enduring my parents’) Criminal Threats, Bribery, Conspiracy, Forgery, and the Traffic Violations. What I had to do to be counted among you was all worth it.
You may not realize it yet, but if you have paid attention, Deerfield has prepared you for every obstacle, every success, every challenge, and ethical dilemma. If you need help with any of these, call upon me, your classmates, teachers, or any number of other Deerfield graduates. We are here for you.
Deerfield is not an easy place to be. It has its problems, just like any other institution. But, as you have learned, if you work hard, you will learn a lot—enough to sustain you for the rest of your lives. With you, I share what it’s like to be caught in the rhythm of the Deerfield Bubble. Where school, homework, studying, dinner relationships, and life on campus become so important that all outside forces start to dissolve.
That Deerfield effect is a necessary condition to survive campus life. It is intense, joyful, maddening, and rigorous in ways that can’t be described but only experienced. It is what all Deerfield students share.
You will, as I have found, see echoes of yourself and your experiences all over this campus and in the surrounding fields, valleys, mountains, rivers, and townships.
You will feel comfortable and a little uneasy as that apprehension about a class, an assignment, or a test, creeps into your psyche. At the same time, our minds are filled with successes, large and small, and the words of teachers and students will echo in your minds for years and years.
In your time here, you have been challenged and stretched to your limits, but you have survived and emerged stronger for the experience. In the words of Shakespeare, you can show your scars, recall your wounds, and recall with pride that you have survived and will be remembered amongst those who have come before you on this most difficult path, which leads to great rewards.
“We few, we happy few, we band of sisters and brothers.” You have shed blood and tears with those who have gone before you, and never shall a day go by when others do not wish that they could have been with you and the other Deerfield kids.
As I have said before, Deerfield is a special place. It does not follow you; it leads you. It takes you places where few can go. It resides in you and with you. It creates and manifests its own luck. No matter what happens, you are worthy.
Looking at each of you is a reminder of what Deerfield meant to me, of what Deerfield means now, and what Deerfield will become in the future—especially to those who need her most.
Hopefully, your time here has helped you to recognize each of your talents and gifts. Chief amongst those talents is leadership. Leadership to spread kind acts, good deeds, compassionate listening, and a fearless examination of your comfortable existence. This day is proof that you are ready to do so.
You have been here through incredible hardships but cherish this time. You will not get it back. We are proud of you and excited about your future. You are one of the very few. A happy few. You have made remarkable sacrifices, and it will be worth it. Thank you for allowing us to celebrate and experience this special time in your life. Congratulations, Class of 2022!