May 22, 2022 — As a middle-schooler, Charlie Brandt fantasized about their long-anticipated first day of high school: “I pictured my majestic entrance over and over,” they recently wrote. “I could see myself sweeping back the massive doors of a Hogwartian fortress of higher learning, my cape blowing in the wind.”
Brandt’s arrival at Northfield Mount Hermon, in the fall of 2018, was slightly less regal, involving a mistaken stumble into the dorm head’s apartment, rather than the main dorm entrance, and a run-in with the faculty member’s excited dog. The moment, Brandt recalled, left them “befuddled and red-faced, covered in dog saliva, standing in the wrong place without a cape in sight.”
Four years later, Brandt reflected on their earliest days at NMH and on the ways they’ve grown in a speech at the school’s 139th Commencement ceremony, on May 22. Brandt, who hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was selected by a group of peers and teachers as the Class of 2022 orator. Earlier this spring, students interested in serving as orator submitted speeches to a faculty committee; from there, five finalists were selected to present their talks before a group of students and faculty, who voted to choose the winner.
In their speech, Brandt acknowledged the inevitability of vulnerable moments in all our lives — from an embarrassing stumble through the wrong door, to the courageous decision to share a part of your identity with others — and urged us not to shy away from those moments but to embrace them as opportunities for connection.
“As we leave Northfield Mount Hermon to commence the next stage of our lives, I hope all of us will find ways to express our vulnerability,” they wrote in their oration. “We have been taught by a group of educators who fight for their students to grow into bright and honest people. ... The nature of commencement prompts us to assume these poses of openness to take on our futures.”
A few days before Commencement, Brandt explained that the topic of vulnerability — and healthy ways to express it — was a fitting oration topic, as they and their fellow seniors have grappled with the complex emotions stirred up by their impending graduation. “Expressing your vulnerability to yourself and others is a really good way to get out of that cycle of hiding from the world or hiding from yourself,” Brandt said. That’s one of the ways they’ve grown during their time at NMH, they noted. “I have gotten less impulsive when dealing with these kinds of emotions, and more intentional. It's definitely been an opening up.”
English teacher Meg Eisenhauer, who worked with Brandt to finetune their speech, described their message as an important reminder to approach moments of transition “from a reflective, intentional place, rather than reacting from a place of fear.
“At these moments, we can feel like we’re leaping into the void,” Eisenhauer said. “But that’s not the case. Our work is really to reflect on ourselves, on what we’ve learned and where we’ve been, and to take that forward with our whole selves.”
The topic felt like a natural choice for Brandt, added Eisenhauer, who praised her former student’s collaborative approach to learning and their willingness to engage and grapple with big ideas — what Eisenhauer likes to refer to as “genuine perplexity.”
“I’m pleased that [Charlie] is working with material that’s such a part of who they really are,” Eisenhauer said.
Not surprisingly, for Brandt, relationships — with both teachers and peers — have been a key part of their NMH experience. “I've been really lucky with the faculty members I’ve had in my time here,” they said. “This place attracts really thoughtful and kind and wise adults who have made a huge difference in my life.” So, too, have their fellow students, often through the small sub-communities that they’ve enjoyed at NMH — as a resident leader in their dorm, in organizations like the Gender Sexuality Alliance, and through activities such as lighting and sound design for arts performances.
In the fall, Brandt will head off to Kenyon College, carrying with them the spirit of openness that they’ve developed at NMH. While they’ve considered pursuing a career in teaching, they said, “I’m interested in a lot of things: psychology and graphic design and backstage theater stuff and sociology and writing — absolutely writing — and I sing. … I’m trying not to put limits on myself right now.”
Read Brandt’s speech.