- Bulletin Features
Photography by Robert Falcetti
Speaker Linda Saarnijoki
I am very aware of the honor of speaking today. Thank you. A friend wished me luck in giving my "commencement address." Oh dear, I thought, that formal? An "address"? No, not that. Not my style. Instead, this admittedly one-sided conversation is a series of musings....My theme is our mutual graduations—mine and yours....
Of course, my last graduation speech was 45 years ago, June 1971, when I graduated from high school....I began with a quotation. Lots of great speeches start that way, my reasoning went. Mine came from a hit song of the time....Don't all good speakers quote song lyrics, my reasoning continued?
So I quoted Simon and Garfunkel, their song "Bookends." I think Paul Simon must have written it for adolescent girls to use as a quotation at graduation:
Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They're all that's left you.
A bit cheesy, perhaps? But it makes you think, right? Although wait: memories are all that's left us? Really?!
Another popular Simon and Garfunkel song in my high school years was "Kodachrome," a song perhaps familiar to parents in the audience. It has the memorable lines we all gleefully sang along with: "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Oh we thought we were so cool! And so antiestablishment in those days. Rather ironic I would be quoting [and singing] it now, isn't it? And we had no idea what we had really learned anyway.
But I digress. For those of you who don't know, Kodachrome film for cameras was a revelation once upon a time: it gave us pictures not in blacks and whites and greys, but in vivid color....
"Today we will shift from the physical Taft to the Taft that is more abstract. The physical Taft is...this very campus, in all its glory, with students going about their daily routine. Abstract Taft is the realm we enter today as soon as our name is called. We are now living success stories, legends of the Taft community that validate why this place is so great." —Mani Capece '16, Head Monitor
Here I am at graduation 45 years later, still talking about photographs. I have been at Taft for 40 years. Ten times—10 times—longer than any of you. I remember telling my sister, in 1976, when she observed that I would likely be here for the rest of my life, that no, of course not, no one stays at her first job more than a couple of years. Well, um, yeah.
It has indeed taken me a heck of a long time to graduate. What would that be, 36 PG years? So we are both graduating today, in a way. Perhaps my longevity means I have 10 times as many photographs in the album of my memory as you do....Here are just a few of the many photos:
Cranking out copies on a mimeograph machine or sitting at a typewriter, typing my class comments on triplicate paper because Xerox copiers had not yet been invented. Reading students' handwritten papers, or trying to. No Google docs. None of you students knows what that life was like really— these are not your memories. I share these for the sake of your parents and grandparents. Yes, I'm that old.
But here are other pictures, more vibrant for you seniors:
Here's a particularly happy Kodachrome image: Super Sunday. Every bright color of paint imaginable spread over every face and every blade of grass, blue and yellow and red swirling in a deafening mess of colors and smiles and shouts and pie crust and new friends made on this first weekend of the year, every year.
Standing by the rock up there on the hill on a brilliant November Hotchkiss Day, surveying the fields below filled with red and blue teams in glorious battle, the many roofs of the school like a small village, and an army of red charging from field to field, the distant bleat of their horns clear over the hills.
"Today, I want to challenge us to look beyond the fact that we are losing high school and the many memories that accompany it, and to realize that even when we graduate college, our trajectory of growing, learning, and maturing will still have only just begun." —Caroline Elliot '16, Head Monitor
Here's one from today: standing with my colleagues on the sidewalk under Centennial arch, watching you seniors walk between us, catching the eye of an advisee or a student, wondering what life will hold for them, thinking about what they had been when they came to school here and how much older [they are] now.
My favorite: On a winter night, small flakes gently drifting down through the light from the windows of the main building, I'm walking by the pond toward the library for duty. A young student comes off the dark pond into a circle of light, skates in hand, cheeks red with cold and fierce skating, smiling a greeting to me, and then running past and up the steps into HDT, hoping not to be late for study hall.
Memories. Kodachrome, full-color photos.
And the last photograph I want to share comes from a moment earlier this spring. After a meeting one evening, as I walked out of the back of Voge toward the parking lot by the softball field, I looked around at the softly lit buildings beside and behind me, and at the fields spread out in front of me, their imperfections lost in the twilight. I felt a profound sense of belonging, of knowing, of being an essential part of a familiar, vibrant, and comfortable place. A confident sense that I had had some influence on what Taft is.
Some of my feelings I know had to do with the beauty of this place at any time of day but especially on this spring evening, some with the success of the meeting where I had just been among good people—students and teachers—talking and deciding together, and some feeling surely had to do with this remarkable, reflective time in my life when I am about to begin over again....
Here are two thoughts about beginning again, as we are all about to do, and about this pause before the next stage: the moment is full of a most invigorating curiosity and anticipation, but also full of a kind of profound grief.
"We are not really, fully beginning again, though, because we are different people than we were when we walked through these doors one September one or two or three or 40 years ago." —Linda Saarnijoki, Faculty
Here's the grief. A couple of weeks ago, to the great discomfort of my English class, I started crying as we were talking about a story we had been reading. It's not that unusual for me to cry over something like a book or a movie...but I try hard to control that emotion in class....That day we had been talking about a man, Ryder, who suffers overpowering grief over the loss of his wife, a terrible grief borne of and equal to the passion of his love for her. It struck that deep chord of both passion and grief I feel as I think of Taft and of leaving, especially this spring. And so I got choked up and the students looked down at their books and sat very quietly...I was as surprised as they were by the suddenness and depth of my sorrow. But of course it wasn't sorrow for [the book's character]. It was for myself.
We are decidedly not talking about death here today, I know, but still a loss of a daily presence, a parting, a change, a graduation.
And I suspect you feel those emotions too. And get surprised by them at odd and very inconvenient times. You must love a great deal of what you have encountered in this place—maybe it's the place itself, maybe it is your friends, maybe it's a teacher or two, maybe it's playing the piano or soccer or sitting around in the dorm....My love is contained in those "photos" I showed you a few minutes ago. Sadly, though, you are about to lose all of the tangibleness, all of the constant presence and life of this place, all the realness of being at Taft. And so am I. Yes, I hope, we will come back to visit, or we will meet Taft friends wherever we can, but we will never again be here with the right and privilege to walk its halls and into its classrooms and dorms and onto its fields as if we owned the place.
Right now, you do own it, and with a stronger hold than anyone else here today. You are the oldest. The seniors. The Class of 2016. And this is your graduation day. But when you leave this afternoon, you give up that special ownership that your age and daily presence here bestows; you give it up to those who will stay behind or who will come next September or the many Septembers after that.
The statement "I'm sad to leave" cannot begin to describe the emotions you feel in your heart or that I feel after 40 years....We will always be connected to "our school," but it will never again be daily in our consciousness as it is now, at this moment.
Okay, so that was the sad part.
Now for the excitement of beginning again. But not really again.
I am starting a new life as "not a teacher." But as what? New place, new activities, new calendar. After almost 60 years on an academic calendar, September will have a whole new meaning!...new, new, new. And you will be beginning a new school life....What will we be doing? What will our new lives be like?... Aren't you eager, almost unbearably curious to know? Excited by possibility and opportunity? And probably wondering how long it will take before the new and strange will again become the familiar and the owned.
"It is the evening of the senior dance at the headmaster's house near campus....At a high point in the football field...you gaze at the distant light of the school windows at night and you breathe in and then sigh. It is both the beginning and the end of the world, you think as you breathe in another breath and then sigh another sigh. It is dark, it is wonderful, it is spring." —Tawanda Mulalu '16, Class Speaker
We are not really, fully beginning again, though, because we are different people than we were when we walked through these doors one September one or two or three or 40 years ago. I am not beginning completely over because I have learned so much between then and now: I am no longer that young woman. I know now that I had much to
learn then—about every aspect of life, from working with adolescents to working among professional colleagues to learning to be a mother and a wife and a friend. I grew because I had nurturing and support and someone to tell me occasionally that I had made a mistake or that I was—gasp—wrong. And I grew because I had the help of this community at Taft and because I have a wonderful friend and mentor who is also my husband. I feel confident and talented and accomplished and resourceful.
And you should, too.
Now it took me 40 years to graduate, but I know you are much quicker to learn. You got into Taft, after all. And now you are graduating. You have learned how much you don't know, but more important, you have learned to be resourceful in finding what you need. You have figured out how to do six hours of homework in a two-hour study hall... You have figured out how to speak your ideas with respect and to listen to others. You have figured out how to have friends and how to be a friend. You have figured out how to talk to your teachers and peers and get their help. You have learned how to be a leader either behind the scenes or in front of the crowd. More important, you have learned the value of and how to create and support a community.
And more important than all of that, of most importance, you have learned about honor and integrity and caring for others and who you are as your own best self.
We are not really beginning again, you and I. We know how this goes. We know how to do this, and we can do it...whatever it is that's next. But also know that you must take the initiative to make the most of whatever it is that good luck or bad luck will hand you next. Be assured that you are powerful and smart and creative and talented and honorable and that you can make and even remake your world. Please take the initiative to add, to change, to grow something that you know will make a difference. Don't wait for someone to tell you what to do. Don't wait for permission. Certainly don't wait for someone else to do it. Don't wait for someone to come up with a better idea. There are no better ideas than yours. You are the best person for it. You. So do it—for yourself and for the others who will benefit. On the windows of the Belcher Reading Room behind me are Mr. Taft's words etched on the glass:
"The elevating aspect of work at Taft," he said, "is to do it well and to do it for others." My little bit of advice: take what you are given and make it better, always.
I started this speech a long time ago—about 13 minutes and 45 years ago. I have the most beautiful Kodachrome photos to take with me when I leave in a few weeks, and I know you have photos too. You will carry them through all that comes next and next and next, through all that you will do for yourself and for others. They will sit in your heart forever.
Be well. Make your own happiness. Do it well and do it for others.
To read the complete remarks from Commencement, see a list of award recipients, or find a link to photos visit http://bit.ly/1TXJpsq.
William R. MacMullen '78, Headmaster
In a letter just about this time of year in 1905, Horace Taft wrote to his dear friend and headmaster Sherman Thacher describing the senior class. Given what he said, I am glad none of the graduates are alive today. He wrote, "Our Senior Class was a very weak, [a] milk and water set, with no influence, and I am glad to get them started on their college course." I don't know exactly what "milk and water set" means, but I'm pretty sure it isn't good, and he does not sound sorry to see them go.
His comment about this "milk and water" class, of course, got me thinking of the Class of 2016, as did a question from an alumnus I spoke with last weekend, a man who had graduated decades ago, and who, after talking in bleak and sad tones about the challenges our nation and globe face, asked me a simple question: "Given the problems we see, do the students here make you a pessimist or an optimist?"
We might ask if it is right for us to even ask our children to be responsible for how we view the world: it seems a reversal of some kind, some unfair burdening, a shameless abdication. But perhaps it has always been thus, where one generation asks the next to provide its foundations of faith.
And you can guess my answer: I am profoundly, irreversibly, and fervently optimistic.
I'll always remember [the Class of 2016] in this way: resilient after setback, eager to follow passions, caring for others, drawn to ethical dilemmas, and able to bridge divides.
When we look out on a world that is at once intensely interconnected and frighteningly balkanized, it's clear we need a generation like this class. As a school, we have tried very hard, and with planning and purpose, with trial and triumph, in every venue and at all hours, to help shape graduates with these qualities. This class is not perfect and they are still growing, but we need them in our universities, and I hope they will head to their many campuses and shape a discourse there that sounds like ours here. And in four years, I hope they will become global citizens and leaders and bring the civility, intelligence, and generosity they showed here, and which I see in public so rarely.
We need them. They did not create the problems they have inherited, but they will surely wrestle with them.
We can argue whether it is fair that you seniors should provide the answer to the question the alumnus asked me about whether I was optimistic or not. Certainly you did not ask to be burdened by our dreams of a better future, to be freighted with our fears, to drag the luggage of our regrets. But perhaps we have only left with you what we knew you could carry.
So seniors: thank you for what you have done for the school, the faculty, your parents, and me. Thank you for deepening our wells of optimism and for gifting us some measure of faith.