On May 26, The Gunnery graduated 84 students in the great Class of 2019. The ceremony was memorable in many ways – from our grand school traditions and the glorious weather to the graduates themselves and our inspiring Commencement speaker, Wanji Walcott P’19, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees. Watch Walcott’s speech here.
Looking back on our 169th Commencement Exercises, what I found memorable, too, were the words of Madeleine Aitken ’19, who delivered the Head Prefect Address. In her speech, Maddie captured in a very real and authentic way, what it is like to be a student at boarding school and, more specifically, what it is like to be a student at The Gunnery. Her reflections were inspired in part by a book recommended by her English teacher, Melissa Schomers. Titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” it was written by Marina Keegan and resonated with Maddie because of her experiences here. As she said: “There’s a certain kind of magic that exists within our stone walls, and that magic is what makes us who we are, what helps us become who we will be, what gives a sense of the opposite of loneliness.”
What Maddie described is an intangible combination of joy, camaraderie and connectedness that permeated her experiences in the classroom, on the playing field, in the dining hall and the dorm, through organized activities such as the All-School Walk and formal dinners, and quiet moments spent with friends “where everyone feels truly happy and comfortable and safe and content.” Her speech is both a tribute and a testimonial to what we hope all of our students experience, whether they are part of our community for one year or four, and what we hope they will carry with them when they leave our campus and venture out into the world. Here are her remarks:
Thank you —- for that great introduction. I’d like to welcome you all again, and thank you for being here. I think I speak for the entire senior class when I say we have a lot to thank you all for. To our parents and families, to our teachers, to our friends, especially the ones we’re leaving behind, and above all, to each other.
This past summer, I read a book Ms. Schomers recommended to me called “The Opposite of Loneliness.” It’s a collection of essays and stories written by Marina Keegan, a 2012 Yale graduate who tragically died in a car crash at 22 years old, just five days after she had graduated. The book is made up of nine essays and nine stories, some published and some unpublished. Her writing is interesting and powerful and impactful and I wholeheartedly recommend the entire book, but what I’d like to talk about today is her title essay, which was originally published in the Yale Daily News, called “The Opposite of Loneliness.”
In the essay, Keegan introduces the idea of the opposite of loneliness. We don’t have a word for it, she says, but it’s what she wants in life. To quote her, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Keegan wrote this essay as a reflection on her time at Yale, and in it, she talks about how she’s found the opposite of loneliness at Yale, and how she hopes she can continue to feel this way for the rest of her life. When I read Keegan’s essay over the summer, I was struck with a feeling of intense understanding, because I also found the opposite of loneliness somewhere. I found it here.
While trying to figure out what to write this speech about, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the three years I’ve spent here at The Gunnery. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the laughs and the cries. The people that have come and gone, the teachers that have impacted me, the friends I’ve made. The memories I’ll remember for years to come.
But I kept going back to Keegan’s book, and especially the title essay and her words on the opposite of loneliness. I feel impossibly lucky to have spent three years in a place that has made me feel the opposite of loneliness every single day, in ways big and small. I’ve felt it in in traditions, in classes, in co-curriculars, in experiences, in singular moments, in what have and what will become memories.
All-school walks. Orientations. Spring carnivals. Community weekends. Dorm dinners. Holiday concerts. Class trips. Staying up too late in the dorm, talking and laughing. Making guacamole out of dining hall salad ingredients. Going down the slip and slide on senior skip day. Having a two-hour snowball fight on a freezing winter night and sledding down the Marich’s hill on a plastic blow up chair. Trapping a bat in a lacrosse stick on multiple occasions in Bourne. Singing and dancing at Fire Pit Fridays. Taking college shirt photos on senior rock. These are all distinct memories, but even more than the memories, I appreciate the simple moments. Every moment I’ve spent with my best friends, with whom I’ve had my best adventures and made my favorite memories; from whom I’ve learned lessons that have helped me grow as a friend and as a person; and without whom I wouldn’t have had the same Gunnery experience or be the person I am today.
Endless hours in the dorm, the dining hall, the library. Every new friend, every laugh, every unexpected conversation. Being outside on warm nights, playing on the turf or talking on the quad. These small moments are the ones in which I feel the opposite of loneliness most. The ones where nothing seems important except each other, where no one’s rushing off to do anything, where everyone feels truly happy and comfortable and safe and content.
Here at The Gunnery, our schedules are packed. We go from classes to co-curriculars to dinner to study hall. And our schedules are packed with different things. Different classes, different co-curriculars, different clubs. We’re all in these different circles and everyone is in a unique combination of circles. But despite those differences, and despite our other differences, our commonality is that we are Gunnery students.
There’s something about that “in it together” sense of camaraderie alone that makes me feel the opposite of loneliness. Some of that comes with boarding school itself, I think – the whole living together thing kind of just does that to you. But if I had gone to a different boarding school, would I be able to make this same speech at that graduation and mean it? Without a doubt, I know the answer is no.
And the reason I say no is because I think this opposite of loneliness feeling isn’t something you find everywhere. Actually, I know it’s not. We’ve all been a part of numerous communities throughout our lives, from our hometowns to other schools to teams and camps and groups, and that’s how I can say with confidence that there’s no place like The Gunnery.
I originally wasn’t going to come here, and to think that I almost didn’t get to experience this school and its people makes me want to go back in time and thank freshman year Maddie a million times over for making what was, in more ways than I could’ve imagined, the right decision. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made, actually. There’s a certain kind of magic that exists within our stone walls, and that magic is what makes us who we are, what helps us become who we will be, what gives a sense of the opposite of loneliness.
We all have different opinions of The Gunnery, especially the seniors on the question of graduating. Some of you are probably silently begging me to finish this speech so we can leave this tent and this day and this school, while others could happily stick around for another year. It’s fine to differ in our opinions, and it’s natural to dislike aspects of our school, as it is with any school. But that being said, one of our undeniable strengths as a community is the way we create and spread the opposite of loneliness.
This feeling comes from within all of us, and it’s up to us to share it with others. We all have dreams and passions and aspirations and plans, but I think, at the end of the day, what we all really have is a desire to feel the opposite of lonely. To feel loved. Supported. Accepted. Lifted up. Valued. Appreciated. I could go on with the adjectives, but what it boils down to is we want to know, as Keegan wrote, “that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.”
This school makes me feel that way, and I hope the students here, and maybe even the faculty, can identify with what I’m saying in the way I identified with what Keegan wrote. For the underclassmen, I hope you’ve experienced the opposite of loneliness here, and I hope you continue to do so. If you sense someone isn’t feeling this way, I hope you help them get there. And for my senior class, I hope we can all look back on our years spent at The Gunnery and say we felt the opposite of lonely. Not only that we felt it, but that we recognized it, that we appreciated it, that we helped others feel it. And even after we leave this place, I hope we continue to want it, continue to strive for it, continue to spread it.
My greatest hope for us is that when we walk out of this tent today with our diplomas in hand, as we scatter across the globe to attend different colleges and then scatter again to live in different cities and work at different jobs with different people, we stay rooted in what we learned at The Gunnery. Not just what we learned in the classrooms, but what we learned about life – what it is and what it should be –and what we learned about ourselves – who we are and who we want to be.
And especially, I hope we remember learning what it means to feel the opposite of lonely. It’s how I feel right now, it’s how I’ve felt throughout my three years here, and it’s how I hope to feel for the rest of my life. When I read Keegan’s essay over the summer, I understood her words about finding the opposite of loneliness somewhere. Now that I’m graduating, I also understand her desire to feel this way forever. We’re leaving this school behind, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave this feeling behind, too. I owe both my appreciation of and desire for this feeling to The Gunnery, and to all of you. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.