Mr. Becker delivered this address to The Gunnery community at the 2015 Commencement….
I want to welcome everyone to this great day of celebration for the class of 2015. 1
Before we continue, I want to recognize that today is Memorial Day, the day that Americans set aside to remember those men and women who have lost their lives in military service for the country. Though I know we are not all Americans here, I do ask that we join in a moment of silence to recognize this important day and the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
Last night we had the opportunity to recognize Mrs. Baker, Mr. Hollinger, and Mrs. Lincoln, who have served the school for 87 years collectively. We celebrated them at the board meeting and will at the end of the year faculty meeting and at alumni weekend.
I also want to recognize three alumni in our midst who have a child graduating today: Bob M. ’79, whose daughter, Gabby, graduates today; Melanie K-R ’81 whose son, Ben, graduates today; David K. ’81, whose son, Rafe, graduates today and whose daughter, Jesse graduate in 2013; Frank M. ’77 whose son, Stephen, graduates today and whose other children also graduated from The Gunnery (Francis ‘03, Peter ‘05, Sarah ‘07). 2
And I know of at least two parents who cannot be here today to celebrate their child’s graduation because they are serving in the armed forces to defend our freedom. Nick’s mother, Monika, is serving in the Canadian Navy and Joe’s father, Lt. Col. John, is leading U.S. Marines in Afghanistan.
It reminds us that we are only here because of the generations who have come before us and those who serve abroad to protect and defend us at home. We should never think too highly of ourselves and the degree to which we make the present possible and we can almost never think highly enough about the people who have preceded us and who have made this present moment possible.
To that end, I would like to ask the class of 2015 to recognize two groups of people who made this moment possible. First, seniors, I would like to ask you to stand and recognize the faculty sitting behind me who have lived to serve and to teach, 24/7, over your time here. Now, remain standing, because it’s not just biologically that this moment would have been impossible without your parents and family. They have sacrificed so that we can all be here. So please thank your family members with a round of applause and locate them if you’re able.
I know that some of you started to ask last week who your graduation speaker was going to be. We had a tradition when I arrived of having alumni speak at graduation. Mr. Baum, who you heard from last Tuesday at the senior dinner, spoke when you were freshmen. Mr. Vreeland, to my right, spoke in 2008. I’m certain they were riveting and respect the tradition. But we are a community, a lot like a big family–warts and all–and so I make it my business to give some parting words…well, because, like these faculty behind me, I care about you and want the chance to send you off. In exchange for not having someone famous speak, I promise to keep it brief and, I hope, relevant–I’m acutely aware of the fact that I am the main thing standing between you and getting your Gunnery diploma. You likely won’t remember much of what I say so if there’s any lasting impression I want to make it’s that I didn’t make you suffer for too long.
I will ask you to consider two or three questions this morning: “When is a bee sting a bee sting?” “How will you measure your life” or, considered from another angle, “What is your point on the horizon?”
How many of you got stung by a yellow jacket at least once during the School Walk last fall? Keep your hand up if you got stung twice? Three times?
Do you remember what those moments felt like?
I remember sitting at the check point on the bridge and watching about forty of you come running back down the trail. I had just made a joke about watching out for the bears and so all of a sudden I thought to myself, “Okay, here we go. The headline will read ‘Head of School loses life trying to defend students from bear attack.’
Thankfully it was yellow jackets and not a black bear.
But you came down with them in your hair and stuck to your clothes. A few lingered in the air. It was a scary moment. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. All of the adults were wondering if the preparations we had in place were going to work and if anyone was allergic and needed to go to the hospital. One student ran up to me and said, “Mr. Becker, this is not safe! I will not continue the walk and if you make me you will be putting me in harms way!” In a world increasingly run by lawyers I knew there was only one right response to that. But most of the school continued and finished the walk. One person went to the hospital as a precaution.
Which is all to say that looking back on it, even that day, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. In the moment, it felt like a big deal. We had to handle it correctly and we needed to have had a plan, but we survived. Even some of you with double digit bee stings are, I think, just fine today.
So if I want you to take anything from this talk it’s this: over time, develop a perspective–the discernment and the wisdom–such that you can identify accurately the things that truly are a big deal from the things like bee stings that, unless you’re hyperallergic, are just bee stings. Because we live at a time where everything is immediate and everything is a big deal, whether a quiz that we just failed or getting into a specific college (or not), and, in the process, we lose sight of the things that matter most.
In contrast to those bee stings, we’ve had some truly important things happen in our community. Most obviously, the loss of a school mate, Matt Semple, who sat here with us a year ago. In addition to that, at least two of your school mates lost a parent this year. One parent was recently hospitalized and it didn’t look good–and now she’s here with us. Another school mate lost her house to a fire. Many of you lost a grandparent this year. These are, in fact, major events in life and, I will suggest, that it is these that point to a framework that we should carry around with us every day, whether we are fourteen, twenty four, forty, or eighty.
I think about these things a lot and most recently because I celebrated my 20th reunion at boarding school. You can’t believe that you’ll ever be 20 years older than you are now–that’s more than 100% more of life–while your parents and Mr. Small can’t believe that the board of trustees trusts the school to me, a kid. But on my way back from the reunion I listened to a singer named Josh Garrels whose song “Farther Along” summarizes this point about perspective well. I was tempted to play it for you or even try to sing but will just read a few lines:
Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand this, all by and by
We’re all cast-aways in need of ropes
Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope/
So much more to life than we’ve been told
It’s full of beauty that will unfold/
We are all navigating this world–individually and together. Each of us faces the next day, the next momentous decision, for the first time, scary as that may be. But are we developing wisdom along the way? Your parents can still remember the day they brought you home from the hospital and the feeling of fear and shock that the hospital was sending them home and a nurse wasn’t going home with them. They–none of us–had any idea what we were doing. And now they can’t believe that you’ve grown up so fast and are headed to college. You should feel about as nervous heading to college as they did heading home from the hospital, but one of the great beauties of life is that in this moment, as an 18 or 19 year old, you feel confident that you know exactly what to do or, at the least, you are going to pretend you do in order to convey a sense of confidence to everyone around you. Confidence and wisdom are not the same thing, though there may be wisdom in the notion of “fake it til you make it.” But we are all just figuring this out one step at a time, one day at a time–the question is whether we are learning and gaining wisdom as we go.
My deepest hope for you, and I think I speak for the faculty and for your families, is that, perhaps as a result of your time at The Gunnery, you have begun to think in ways that help you navigate that process. We hope that you have begun to ask questions about, and evaluate your life according to ideas like meaning and purpose–rather than simply through short term measures like an SAT score, the college you’ll attend, or your first job. These more pressing concerns will always jocky for your attention and threaten to crowd out questions of meaning and purpose. They will make a bee sting feel like the end of the world when, in fact, it’s just a bee sting and it’s time to keep hiking up to the pinnacle.
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, gets at this idea in his new book, The Road to Character. He distinguishes “eulogy virtues” from “resume virtues”. Eulogy virtues, Brooks argues “exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” Resume virtues, by contrast, are “the skills that bring you to the job market and that contribute to external success.” And, Brooks adds, “The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions.” I can tell you that all the adults assembled here will be proud beyond measure if, twenty years from now, you are kind, brave, honest, and faithful–whether or not you’ve achieved success in terms of status. We want for you: to live a life worthy of this place, your school, and its founder such that we can point to you in later years and say to the students sitting in these seats five, ten, and fifty years from now, be like them–in the same way we can say that about Mr. Gunn. Be like them not because you’ve earned millions of dollars, though that would be great, but because if you did that you did it the right way. More importantly, that whatever you do, whether go into banking, medicine, military service, engineering, law, teaching, firefighting, parenting, the priesthood or nursing, you do it in the right way, for the right reasons, for the sake of others rather than just for yourself.
So how do you do this–how do you keep the bee stings of life in perspective–because there will be a lot of bee stings as well as a lot of true crises–how do you move towards the eulogy virtues even as you strive towards other, good goals?
I will borrow an idea that Mr. Miller uses often in meetings as we discuss the future of the school–an idea that he, in turn, borrowed from the world of rowing. Evidently, one responsibility of the cosxwain in a boat is to identify the “point on the horizon” by which they will guide the rowers. You get the image–in a 1500 meter race if you steer by what’s directly in front of you you will zig and zag and life in the boat will be pretty frenzied. Finding the point on the horizon, the long term goal toward which you are striving, will enable you to navigate through the chop of life–it will give you the poise by which you evaluate the highs and the lows, the curveballs of life. The goal of life is not to avoid highs and lows, it’s not to avoid curveballs. That’s boring and it’s unrealistic. Any of us in this room can tell you that life is full of unexpected–and is richer for it–particularly if you learn to navigate by trustworthy principles.
The trick, of course, is to figure out what that point on the horizon is, what those principles are. That, seniors, is not for me to tell you, though I have my own answers and know that some answers are better than others, but it is why our school motto is “ a good person is always learning” and our founder embodied a life well lived because he had his eyes fixed on a few overarching questions or ideas that informed everything that he did.
In 1847, while in exile from his home town for his abolitionist views, Gunn asked this question in a letter to his future wife, Abigail: “In joy or in sorrow, it matters not which, am I fulfilling the great end of my existence, am I becoming that for which I was born?” “Am I becoming that for which I was born?” Have you asked that question? I know that today you just want to get your diploma–and that’s only a few minutes and a song away–but I want Mr. Gunn’s question to linger, to stay with you, to haunt you. Am I becoming that for which I was born?
One of the ways Mr. Gunn began to answer this question–began to discover why he was born, occurred during a trip he took to Goldsboro, NC in 1843. He wrote this in a letter to a family member back in Washington:
When I was within four miles of home I overtook an aged negro trudging along with a staff in each hand. I bid him good evening…He took me for a preacher. I corrected his mistake and remarked, “You find it hot working on the plantation today?” “Yes, Massa, but hell will be hotter,” was his reply. I rode by his side for half an hour talking about religion and slavery…He said men did not think as much of Hell as of hot weather. Said I, “Mr. Everitt appears to be a fine mine; I suppose he is a kind master.” “Yes, he is a tolerable good massa” with the strongest emphasis on the “tolerable.” …Said I, “Why don’t they let you learn to read?” “O! That wouldn’t do, we should write our own free papers and get away but there are a great many know how to read and their masters don’t know how they learned either but they don’t know how to write.” Said I, “Your masters say you are contented and would not run away if you could.” “Well, we can’t get away; they catch up again.” “Would you run away, Jack, if you could get clear away?” “I should be mighty certain to do that” and he spoke with such emphasis on the “certain” that it was a powerful word indeed. Then I went and told him about the abolitionists and what they are doing and what they advise the slaves. But, said I, “Jack, I am afraid you will never see it!”
“No, massa, the best part of my life lies behind me. I am an old man and have almost got through my work here…I care not much about being a free man for I expect to be free pretty soon.”
And so we talked along the dark road until we came near a house when I bid him good-bye and galloped on for if I had been overheard, the nearest tree might have been my halting place. I thought of the danger then but did not care. My heart was all full to overflowing with the gathered eloquence of a week and I could sympathize with poor Jack than the polite and hospitable masters with whom I had been living. Here was a slave wending his way heavenward…his mind all bedazzled with only a dim flickering of celestial radiance to break the gloom yet he is journeying onward with a constant faith, hoping ever that the misty twilight will soon become a glorious day…
…His talk…came right up from the heart. Such hearts don’t get crusted over like ours. Society weaves a wrappage around ours labeled respectability or politeness or perhaps religion and we respect it as divine and dare not break through it. So we bury the natural to substitute the artificial, the formal, live in fair outsides till we really lose the power of nature…
Can you hear the resonance between Mr. Gunn’s comment that “Society weaves a wrappage around our [hearts] labeled respectability or politeness” and David Brooks’ comment that, “The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions.” Frederick Gunn understood in every way that our everday decisions involve moral stakes, both big and small.
That trip and what Mr. Gunn saw as a young man helped confirm his calling to the abolitionist cause. You very well have little to no clue right now what meaning or purpose to pursue. The point is not that you have to figure it out right now. The point is to keep your eyes open, be searching for it. I thought my purpose was to be an investment banker and steered most of my college career towards that. Life interrupted, in so many good ways, and I developed eyes to see and ears to hear about a different purpose, one that led, eventually to this great school. Mr. Gunn saw what life was like for Americans of African descent–humans enslaved for purposes of production–and realized that their freedom was worth sacrifice in his life.
It is worth pointing out that the questions of race and justice in this country are still very much at play. We have not paid as much attention this year as we should have to Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island and Baltimore–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and the other instances of African Americans dying at the hands of police. There was an important moment in school meeting recently where the school newspaper group gave an update on the events in Baltimore and worked hard to find the right word to describe what had happened–when a black man, Freddie Grey, died while in police custody. Gabby had the guts to name it–”kind of tragic?”. My point in bringing this up is primarily to say this–the great cause of Mr. Gunn’s life–freedom and justice for oppressed people–is still a pressing issue today and I don’t think it will be resolved for many years to come.
And my only word of caution to those of us who think that we are over-reacting as a country to the plight of black males or people anywhere born into systemic poverty or the problem of police violence is to ask ourselves if we’ve walked in their shoes. When Mr. Gunn went to see southern slave culture himself he returned with redoubled conviction, clear on his purpose and meaning. I have often wondered recently what he would do in light of these tragic events in the United States over these last two years (especially in light of the fact that the number of events haven’t increased it’s just that social media and technology have made us all more aware of what was happening). Regardless of what purpose or meaning you seek–what you make your point on the horizon–my point is that you are more likely to find it when you’re looking, at the risk of stating the obvious, and when you’re willing to leave or question the status quo and explore life beyond the one into which you’ve been born.
By way of closing, I shared with the four year seniors an excerpt from the economist John Maynard Keynes. He wrote this in 1931 in the midst of a world-wide economic depression. He was asked what he thought were the future prospects for the world. He entitled his essay “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren.” I want to point out that right there you see in Keynes that he was thinking in terms of points on the horizon–he is thinking of his grandchildren. Can we learn to think that way? How much more manageable would life become if we did? And listen to his evaluation:
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
That is our collective fate–how will we use our freedom as the first group of humans in history who don’t really have to wonder whether we will have food to eat or shelter–how will we use this relative leisure and luxury–and admit that we live in leisure and luxury and be grateful for it–but how will we live wisely, agreeably, and well? It was in service to questions like these that Mr. and Mrs. Gunn created this school and that the faculty, your parents, and I hope you will pursue as you proceed from here, diplomas in hand, as proud graduates of Mr. Gunn’s school–with your eyes looking for and eventually resting on the point on the horizon that enables you to call a bee sting a bee sting and to press on towards things that are lasting and true.
Congratulations, Seniors. We are proud of you, we love you, and commend you for a job well done!
1 These remarks were first delivered at The Gunnery’s Commencement ceremony on Monday, May 25, 2015. This version of Mr. Becker’s remarks have been amended to remove the last names of students and parents mentioned in the speech itself.
2 My sincere apologies to Melanie and Ben for neglecting to include them in the remarks I delivered at Commencement.