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Commencement 2021 Comments and Addresses

Click Read More to read the three addresses given at Commencement 2021. First, long-time and retiring faculty member, Jon Davie, an address from outgoing chair of the Board of Trustees, Jim Jalbert, and the Cogswell Address delivered by Sarah Lummus '21. 
There are Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground - Jon Davie, Commencement Address

You are all anxious to grab your diploma and be on your way. I understand that. I am just as anxious to throw off this gown for the last time and wander off knowing that my first Social Security payment will be arriving soon. However, it is important to respect the traditions of this venerable institution. We will make you squirm in your seats just a bit longer. I feel deeply honored to have been asked to take up a few minutes of your time.  

Some of you may have heard of Otzi. 5,000 years ago, this 45 year old traveler was shot with an arrow and died high up in the Alps. In 1991, two hikers discovered his frozen mummified body. He has provided a rare snapshot of a life from the Neolithic period. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, this stone age iceman had tattoos. He actually had 61 - simple, small groupings of lines and geometric patterns. The meaning of Otzi’s tattoos is unknown. This evidence, and plenty more, suggests that “skin art” has deep roots for members of our species.

Carl Zimmer is a well-known science journalist and author. Among his many books, one of my favorites is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. It shouldn’t be surprising that after committing years of intensive time and effort in research and study on one particular piece of the science puzzle, some scientist choose to display their obsession with a permanently inked rendering–lanets, insects, fossils, constellations, equations, organic molecules, bacteria, plants, famous scientists. 

Nothing you learn in four years of high school is tattoo worthy. (Definitely hold off on that special someone’s name nested in a heart. Actually, I could have gotten away with it.) But, what about 48 years of high school (four years of my own and 44 years of teaching)? That is my tally, and it certainly qualifies for some ink.

F=ma. Physics is the most fundamental and foundational of the sciences. It lays out the laws of the physical universe. F=ma, such an elegantly simple but meaningful statement, upon which so much of what we know as science is built. Also, it is a cheap tattoo.  

The periodic table is another no-brainer for my tattoo collection, but it needs too much epidermal real estate. (Obviously not a criteria Mendelev worried about).  I can easily find room for at least one of the boxes of the periodic table. Of course it will have to be carbon. This is a remarkably sociable element, and its properties (largely dictated by the laws of physics) make it the kingpin of the chemistry of life. 

My next tattoo is of a structure which any high schooler would immediately recognize. The work of Franklin, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins led to the unveiling of the iconic “double helix.” It was presented in a brief, understated article in the journal, Nature, that was published only a year before I was born. Ever since, this beautiful masterpiece of Mother Nature’s biochemical engineering has been revealing its secrets and is now the key player, with all of its promise and peril, of biotechnology. 

Evolution by natural selection has been at it for billions of years. I would be tempted to tattoo the famous quote from the Russian-born biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This is the caption that appears in my mind whenever I pause to consider what I witness in the natural world. Quoting Darwin, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”  I chose Darwin himself to supply this tattoo. From one of his notebooks in 1837 he speculated with a simple sketch of a tree depicting the branching relationship between different species. Written above this very simple “tree of life” Darwin has written, “I think.”

What about our home? There are any number of awe inspiring, planet earth portraits taken during the Apollo missions. From this vantage, it is quite normal to experience a sense of awe and reverence. In fact, this has been called the “overview effect.” Michael Collins, of the Apollo 11 mission, has said, 
“it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”

But to save space on the canvas, I think I’ll opt for an image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft when it looked back toward earth, on Valentine's Day in 1990, from beyond the orbit of Neptune. Look closely, the earth fills less than a single pixel. The well-known astronomer, Carl Sagan, who was very involved with the Voyager missions, responded to this “Pale Blue Dot”: 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves… It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

A colleague of Carl Sagan and well known SETI researches, Jill Tarter, admonishes us all with the simple plea: “You are an earthling; start acting like that.”

I would love to stop with that painless, blue dot of a tattoo, but I have to acknowledge something else that has had a profound impact on my life as a teacher and my concern for the future. Charles David Keeling lived a life of science, and with a PhD in chemistry, built a career. He was working on the dynamics of the interactions of groundwater, limestone, and the atmosphere. This involved, among other things, measuring CO2 in the air. He discovered that the CO2 varied considerably from place to place and from time to time. He needed a reliable background control for the CO2 content of the atmosphere. One thing led to another, and in 1958 Keeling began daily CO2 measurements at a weather station on the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The first measurement was 313 parts per million (ppm). Sadly, Charles Keeling died in 2005, but his son, Ralph (at the Scripps Institute) has ensured that this accumulation of data continues to this day. The most recent measure is 419 ppm. Tens of thousands of data points. 

What is the first thing that scientists do to make sense of their data? They graph it.  We now have my final tattoo–the “Keeling Curve.” It is clear, it is unambiguous, and it is alarming. With barely any deviation, the CO2 of the atmosphere is steadily increasing. In this 63 year span the atmospheric content has grown by 33% (we are now at a level that has not been matched for over 10 million years).

This is not going to be a lecture on climate change and our environmental crises–warming, extinctions, desertification, ocean acidification, megadroughts, air pollution, deforestation, sea level rise, fires, extreme weather, environmental racism, plastic pollution, zoonotic disease, etc, etc, etc. At this point you should be rolling your eyes, ready to yell out, “yes, we know all of this.” The days of denial are over.  In a recent interview the journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert points out:

 “I don't think we've really fully come to appreciate that we live in an unprecedented moment… truly unprecedented in earth history, where one species is changing the world at a remarkable rate, a rate… equaled only by the great catastrophes in earth history, like asteroid impacts.”

I am a baby boomer, and my parents were part of what, deservedly so, has been called the “Greatest Generation.” They survived the Great Depression, lived through and prevailed in the Second World War, and then built a thriving economy and the beacon of democracy. 

It is important to note that they did not choose to find themselves in the position that ultimately led to the title they earned. But it happened, and they rose to the challenge. 

You did not choose to spend your last year and a half of high school confronting a deadly pandemic. Zooming, wearing masks, social distancing, and the myriad other consequences of COVID-19 have been a defining element for a significant part of your high school experience. You didn’t ask for this, but it happened, and you rose to the challenge. Character is revealed in times of adversity. You have been tremendous.

Okay, but don’t get too puffed up. I already alluded to an abbreviated list of global challenges. I need to stress that the clock is ticking on these. I’ll let you do the research, but the future is very much in doubt. Unfortunately, the Greatest Generation was followed by decades of idiots. Our species is faced with an existential threat. I am confident that at least one result of your years at Berwick is a clear understanding that science matters. Look at the science, read the reports, and dig deep. The facts are incontrovertible; our current trajectory is leading towards a very dark future. 

This is the legacy you are inheriting from the decades of ignorance, denial, greed, deceit, and, again, idiocy. I will not point fingers at who is responsible. I will, however, point fingers at who will fix it. You will be walking away from the hilltop today with a diploma. You have earned it, but with the skills, the knowledge, and the wisdom that that piece of paper represents comes a tremendous responsibility. You need to save the earth.

This spring I read a wonderful and powerful book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a professor of Environmental and Forest Biology in upstate NY, and she is a member of the Potowatomi Nation. I experienced “a moment” while reading. It was an amazing and overwhelming sense of clarity. Prepared, perhaps, by my career immersed in ‘a warm little pond’ enriched with the nutrients of physics, chemistry, biology, evolution, and astronomy. Add a lifetime of adventures in the outdoors. In that moment I realized that our earth, our home in the cosmos, is sacred. 

Kimmerer states it so clearly, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate.” She goes on to say, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”

Will you return the gift?  Will you be the next “Greatest Generation”? I think you will. You better be!

Now for a few parting words of advice:
First – Do not be an idiot.
That is short, simple, and to the point and will serve you well. I wish this had been passed along to me at my high school graduation. 

Instead of what you should not be, here is what you should be:
Be Good

And my final words come from a poem by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi that I stumbled across while on the Berwick Academy White Mountain hiking trip a couple of Junes ago. 

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

To the class of 2021, congratulations.
By the way, when you have gotten your diploma, take a moment to check the spelling… it happens.
Also, read the fine print. It says,
Be healthy Love life and Live in Love

Notes from Chair of the Board of Trustees, Jim Jalbert
Good morning, what a beautiful morning.

I'm the "behind the scenes guy." I work with Mr. Hamilton to help keep things moving here at Berwick, and I've been engaged as a parent, a Trustee, and Chairman of the Board for sixteen years.
Why have I done this? Because I saw firsthand how this school transformed my son and many others. He, like you, was so happy to leave in 2015. And he was so happy when he came back to realize that the connections and friendships he had made were lifelong. I wish that for all of you.
This is my last graduation as Chair of the Board, and I have one humble request. You're probably thinking,"When is this grumpy old man going to be done?” I get it. Believe it or not, I can remember my own high school graduation. I was so ready to be done, over, move on.But before I go, I have one favor, a request, of all of you.- and that is to teach old guys like me a new way of problem-solving.
It’s not going to be easy, but you have what it takes. You may not know it yet, but you do. Believe it or not, your time here on the Hilltop has prepared you to be a leader in ways you can't even imagine today.
Berwick has taught you not just to make a better life for yourself and those around you but to preserve the best of what we all have in common, to cultivate a more sustainable world, and to give back when that world is kind to you. This is the mindset required for all of us to imagine and adopt new ways of problem solving-the kind that grumpy old guys like me could use a few lessons in.
So I ask you, as you leave here and go on to the rest of your journey, can you work with me and my generation to turn the tide? Can you teach us how to:
  • Lift people up, rather than walk by
  • Unite rather than divide
  • Look for what we share in common rather than dwell on points we disagree on
  • Bring everyone forward to the places we need to be
Most of all, can you teach us how we can be kinder to each other? Kindness, respect, and civility are the cornerstones of collaboration. And when we collaborate (sincerely, and with mutual goals in mind) we can do anything. Today I challenge you all to set new standards for humanity, and to fulfill your potential to become part of the greatest generation this country has ever seen.

I believe we live in an incredible world. When you look back at history, we've accomplished a great deal, but as a country and a world:
  • We've been blind to the diversity of gender
  • We've created an unequal playing field for our citizens-color, ethnicity, gender, and creed all impact a person's ability to succeed
  • We've abused our natural resources
  • We're changing the climate, quickly, and not for the better
  • We've accepted extremism and polarization as the rule, rather than the exception
With everything we face, I wonder how historians will look back at this time and your generation. Have you heard of the greatest generation? That's a phrase the author Tom Brokaw coined for the people who fought WW2. But if greatness is measured by the size of the challenge, I think you will be the greatest generation.

We have big but not insurmountable problems. They can be repaired, but to do that we need you to help us find a better way.
We can't wait for you to come back to the Hilltop and share what you learn, and what you do,  with all of us. Because no matter how far you travel, or how long you're gone, you will always be part of the Berwick family.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished here and the great work that lies ahead in your future.

Reflections, Sarah Lummus '21, Cogswell Address
The fight for an education is both unique and universal to everyone who has attempted it. I stand before the Class of 2021 to offer my congratulations. You won. It wasn’t easy—the past two years in particular, have not been the high school experience we expected. But we’re not the only people who have felt this way before. Today, as new graduates, we join the countless number of students before us who have also struggled to learn in spite of hardship and who have retold these stories, which shaped their futures in ways of which they could only dream. 

We join musicians and writers like Da Chen, a young man who lived in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. As a member of the persecuted landlord class, Chen was placed in classrooms with the worst funding and most exhausted teachers. When initially denied the opportunity to attend junior high and later missing several years of schooling, Chen chose to teach himself by the light of an old kerosene lamp, rationing his oil as he poured over dense textbooks alone. He was studying for a high score on his university placement test. If he failed, he would become a farmer with the rest of his family, where he would live in poverty for the rest of his life. Knowing (like all wise humans) that education was both a privilege and his brightest hope, he earned a score high enough to send him to Beijing for university; he later moved across the globe to America, where he published these very stories of his coming of age in a beautiful book called Colors of the Mountain. 

We join historiographers like Tara Westover, a young Mormon from Idaho who had never set foot in a classroom until she took the ACT when she was 16 years old. Westover’s parents didn't believe in schooling, instead sending her to work in the family junkyard with her five brothers. She studied what she could on her own and applied to college in Utah without a diploma. In her first ever years of formal education, she was offered a place to study at Cambridge University, where a professor declared her first essay for him the best he had ever read. Shiny, conventional classrooms did not bring her success as a student, but rather the toughness and adaptability she learned from an unconventional upbringing. 

Lastly, we join poets and dreamers like Alice Walker, who was told that she could never be the next Keats; she was just a young, naive black girl from a primary school in a segregated south. But she studied on from one university to the next and grew into one of the greatest poets who ever lived. She wrote about her schooling and experience as a young black woman in the south; she wrote later of her experiences teaching older black women who couldn’t learn to read or write until they had borne children and raised their families. Her tellings of these “naive” stories are what make her name as lofty as that of Keats himself. 

As you can see, this vast family of graduates have studied across the earth in every circumstance imaginable. They have read textbooks beneath thatched roofs, upon dirt floors, and in spite of wars, sickness, and unspeakable poverty. Now we join them behind face coverings and through video cameras in our own snapshot of history. We too, have had our youth tested. We understand the weight of loneliness, sitting locked in our houses for many months. We have faced our utmost fears, as mere teenagers who have gone about our days wondering, idly, if our families will make it through the year, and as students who’ve sat in classrooms with teachers risking their lives to be with us—a debt we could never repay. But if the stories of these people, and of us, have taught me anything, it’s that school continues on. With the little hope we have, young people keep learning, keep writing, keep growing, and we continue on. One day, as the teachers, politicians, and parents of the future, we will help our own children in their battle to learn, however, that might be. As Chen, Westover, and Walker once did, we will tell our own stories of what happened in these years; our yearbook with its gridded team photos will stow away into the faculty lounge here, and maybe pictures of our masked casino night will find its way into Berwick’s Archives. Stories of the COVID-19 pandemic will be told in the pages of new textbooks, and future generations will have to memorize facts about the days I speak of now. But history books won’t capture what I’ve truly noticed about these years; they will not capture the same lessons our hearts have learned. I know what I have learned: to love abundantly even at the risk of saying goodbye, to dream endlessly whether or not those dreams come true, and to carry on with the confidence of people who can find peace within ourselves despite the turmoil around us. These past four years have not just aged us; they have wisened us and trained us to carry forward as we always do, steadily and gracefully finding our places in the great order of things. It has been an honor to grow alongside all of you. I have watched you grow better at what you do; I have noticed handwriting once clumsy or flourishing grow smaller and more purposeful, I have heard singing voices grow stronger, richer, and refined, but I have also watched the way you carry yourselves today. We were all once children - ninth graders with drooping shoulders, lanky limbs, and timid, downcast gazes. Now we stand as kind, proud, and beautiful as we have ever been. You all bear the weight of the future like a gift, not a burden, as people who have seen the world fall to pieces and know that we can put it back together if we are only willing to learn. I cannot wait to see what each of your minds will do one day. Once again, you have all taught me to love one another in spite of goodbyes, so know that I love each one of you from the bottom of my heart. I am so proud of you.

Berwick Academy

Berwick Academy, situated on an 80-acre campus just over one hour north of Boston, serves 600 students, Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Deeply committed to its mission of promoting virtue and useful knowledge, Berwick Academy empowers students to be creative and bold. Berwick strives to graduate alumni who shape their own learning, take risks, ask thoughtful questions, and come to understand and celebrate their authentic selves.