Wordsmiths in June

Wordsmiths in June

One of the things that I love to do during the month of June is read commencement speeches and think about the words of wisdom offered by prominent leaders, celebrities, and graduating students.  I enjoy the poignant and humorous stories that are shared, and I am always drawn to the unexpected or audacious pieces of advice.  Of course, I am especially deliberate about writing my own speech for Hamlin’s graduating class, and I think carefully about the specific message that makes sense for the group of girls on stage.  I look forward to saluting the Class of 2014 and their families next Friday morning.  In addition to three student speakers, the keynote speech will be given by consultant and innovation catalyst Courtney Ferrell.  (Check out her TED Talk to get a sense of her vivacity!)

I also know that June is a popular month for class reunions and returning to the institutions where we spent significant time as young people.  I have just returned home from my 25th reunion at Columbia University, and I was blessed with the opportunity to address my classmates during our class dinner on Saturday night.  I thought I would share with you the text of my speech, with the hope that some part might inspire you.  — WMHG

Saturday, May 31, 2014
The Rotunda of Low Library

Sing:  “Sans Souci”

What if tomorrow bring
Sorrow or anything
Other than joy?
What if’t be wintry chill
Rain, storm or summer’s thrill?

It is May 1989, and I am standing in my silvery blue cap and gown, singing the Columbia College song, “Sans Souci” with vigor.  You are there too, standing with me in the gymnasium on Class Day.  You and I– young and proud idealists with a grand sense of our own efficacy—after all, did we not force our university to divest its funds from South Africa?  Yes, we did.  Did you camp out on the steps of this extraordinarily beautiful library until justice came?  Oh yes, we were full-grown adults on Class Day, singing together in tune, yet dare I say we had little idea what the song meant.

The first stanza of “Sans Souci” poses a fundamental question: “What if tomorrow bring sorrow or anything other than joy? Did we truly grasp the fact that the days after our 1989 graduation could be filled with anything other than success and contentment?  I’ll answer that for myself.  No, I did not have a firm or full grasp of life’s complexities.  I did not pay close attention to the questions and answers in the music.  I was, and perhaps you were too, a bit naïve and sans souci– without worry.

Here’s what I thought the song meant.  If tomorrow brings you anything other than joy, so what.  Don’t worry about it.  Buy a 99-cent Whopper on Tuesday night, get yourself some Bazooka bubble gum from Furnald grocery, watch the oreos and almonds get mixed into your coffee ice-cream at Steve’s, or get your groove on at the Plex.  Be carefree. Choose your get-happy-quick scheme and move on.  You’ll be fine.  In fact, I thought it was awesome that a modern-day version of “Sans Souci” was popular during our senior year.  Bobby McFerrin sang, “Here’s a little song I wrote/Might want to sing it note for note/Don’t worry, be happy.”  Give limited thought to tomorrow.  Live today, and live without worry. That is what I understood.

Then life handed me “a box of darkness,” as poet Mary Oliver wrote.  My beloved father had a massive heart attack and died instantly in 1998; he was only 55 when I lost him, and the shock and sorrow are always with me.  I began to understand then that burgers, ice cream, and sweaty dancing with fine men did not have the power to heal or even close a wound in the soul.  What saved me then, you ask?  What saves me now?  The answer is simple: schools and the people of all ages whom I encounter there.

When my father died, my work as a Middle School division head at The Park School in Brookline, MA was like an oxygen mask.  When my mother died on Christmas morning in 2010, I carried my sorrow and anything other than joy with the community at The Hamlin School in San Francisco, where I have been Head of School for the past six years.  When everything seemed to be falling apart in my life, the daily enterprise of returning to a school—a place of vision, purpose, and learning– gave me a reason to be present and live fully.  Perhaps that is the reason we reunite our class every five years—to be reminded not only of the richness of the past but also the fullness of the present.  There is something incredibly uplifting about returning to a school you love.  I love Columbia College, I am proud of the work I accomplished here, and I am inspired by the people I met here.  The human connections you find in a school community can glue your brokenness, rebuild your strength, compel action, and inspire generosity.  The very best schools reveal your strengths and invest in your potential.  The very best schools hold themselves accountable for equity and excellence and are relentlessly focused on effecting change through critical thinking and innovation, collaboration, and ethical decision-making.  We are blessed to have attended one of the very best schools; it was a time when it was actually possible to be admitted.

Speaking of the 80’s, perhaps I was not as naïve in 1989 as I suggested earlier.  I graduated from Columbia with a bachelors degree in English and a provisional NY state teaching license, so I was wise enough to know then that schools were an ideal platform for the transformation of our world.  I realized that our country is filled with children from all walks of life who need and deserve an excellent education, and I knew that it was my calling in life to contribute to the field with energy and distinction.

With that realization in mind, I return now to the fundamental question posed in “Sans Souci”: What if tomorrow bring sorrow or anything other than joy? And because I am an educator, I’ll add another question:  What if you find yourself at a crossroads, wondering where you can use your resources to make a lasting difference? The answer to both questions is simple: Connect with a school you love, reconnect with Columbia, and I promise that it will feel like oxygen filling your lungs.  And as that air supports the breaths you take, you will be reminded of your strength and potential.  Your soul will sing.

The truth that I have come to know in the 25 years since our college graduation, the message I wish to leave with you, is that life is not sans souci—without care– it is actually filled with care, not the least of which is that our K-12 educational system is in desperate need of repair.  I’m doing my part every day by leveling the playing field for a group of 400 magnificent girls; I want them to camp out on steps for the causes they believe in.  I want them to thrive and lead—to take a seat at the table.  As one of my colleagues said to me recently, “If a woman is not at the table, she will surely be on the menu.” I implore you to use the tools you have at your disposal to repair K-12 education, thereby strengthening the caliber and diversity of Columbia’s future students.  Please don’t delay.  As poet Julia de Bourgos said, we are “made of nows.”  Yes, we pause to reminisce on a momentous occasion such as this one, but we cannot walk backward to yesterday, and tomorrow is the future still.

Sing:  “Sans Souci”

Tomorrow’s the future still,
This is today!
Tomorrow’s the future still,
This is today!

Thank you.

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