Northfield Mount Hermon celebrated the 219 members of its Class of 2023 at its 140th Commencement ceremony, celebrated under a tent on Thorndike Field and via livestream for faraway family and friends.
Head of School Brian Hargrove, who first joined NMH in the fall of 2019, alongside this year’s graduating class, welcomed guests by sharing the “mantra” he’s urged seniors and postgraduates to adopt this year: “Embrace love and gratitude.”
“My admonition has been to slow down, to take it all in,” Hargrove said. “Savor the time together in this community and on this remarkable hillside.”
That message was amplified by the ceremony’s two speakers: Hazel Peach Reeder, who was chosen the Class of 2023’s orator, and alumna Bisa Williams ’72, who spent more than 30 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State, including three years as ambassador to Niger, and is now a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs.
Reeder’s speech harkened back to their earliest days at NMH, when they attended Hargrove’s induction ceremony and puzzled over a bit of advice offered by one of the new head’s colleagues, artist Marshall Jones: "Teach them how to say goodbye."
At the time, Reeder recalled, the advice didn’t make sense. “I'm young, five days into my high school career,” they thought. “I don't even know the names of my classmates next to me. I need to say my hellos before I even think of saying my goodbyes!”
Three years later, though, as Reeder prepared to end their time at NMH, they came to recognize the advice as “a plan for action,” they said. “For the kids that look up to my class as much as I looked up to the ones that came before me, the way I act can be influential. ... I can acknowledge the flaws of an institution but not allow my experience to hinge on perfection. I can mess up but be thankful for the opportunities and wonderful moments that I have experienced on this hill. I realized, if I experienced NMH in all its colorful autumnal glory, fluffy snow melted away by dining hall hot chocolate, and budding, ozone-smelling springs, I wouldn't have anything to regret. To say goodbye is to experience a send-off that is good. To teach someone how to say goodbye is to share those experiences with the people around them.”
To their classmates, Reeder said, “In the moments where you led with intention, kindness, and a care for others, you taught this school how to graduate, to say goodbye, admirably. The hard part? I am asking you all to do it again.”
Reeder’s talk was followed by an address by Williams, whom Hargrove noted was part of a generation of change-agents — at NMH, as the first class to graduate from the newly coeducational school, and, more widely, as leaders of significant social and cultural changes around the world. “Bisa, as evidenced in her life’s work, affirms the ability of one person to make a profound difference in the world,” he said. “In being her best self and calling others to do the same, Bisa has offered us a pathway forward. She has summoned the good in herself and others and, in doing so, has worked hand in hand with peoples from around the world to be a collective force for good. Bisa has lived the NMH mission.”
In her talk, Williams urged the graduates to be open to life’s surprises and the revelations they can lead to. “Surprises can be teaching moments,” she said. “When you have one, embrace it. Don’t discount or suppress it. Don’t be afraid to embrace the surprise lesson, to stand up and recognize fully what you’ve learned about yourself in that moment.”
Williams also encouraged the students to find ways to bolster each other. “One good word can lift another person up, can lift a spirit. … Hearing one word or expression of encouragement from another can change a person’s perspective completely. Telling another person that you believe in them can give them the courage to move forward,” she said.
“Be that encouragement to someone else. Feed them the positive,” Williams continued. “And try to do that for yourself, too.”
Finally, she advised the graduates to nourish the precious relationships they will develop through life, starting with the ones made at school. “Take the time to make room in your heart for the relationships that you build,” she said. “The social intensity of these NMH years will fade from your memory over time. And the memory of the innocence of these years, the protected, cultivated opportunity to grow intellectually, the calm affirmation of excellence and encouragement to achieve your best, the intentionally inculcated commitment to service with a moral underpinning, that will last [and] perhaps become a point of pride.
“Leaving NMH, you have the fundamentals of what you need for your life’s journey,” she said.
See photos of Commencement and other end-of-year events on NMH Flickr.