Northfield Mount Hermon 2022 Commencement Student Oration, by Charlie Brandt
I spent most of my sluggish middle school years imagining the beginning of high school. I pictured my majestic entrance over and over. I could see myself sweeping back the massive doors of a Hogwartian fortress of higher learning, my cape blowing in the wind.
Oddly enough, this is not really how it went for me. Instead of arriving with the confident stride I had dreamed up in English classes past, I tripped. Across the threshold of my dorm head’s kitchen, rather than the actual dorm. And his dog, who is extremely large and a little too enthusiastic, startled me by barking loudly and nearly knocking me over. Befuddled and red-faced, covered in dog saliva, standing in the wrong place without a cape in sight.
That was the screenplay of my NMH beginning.
I think everyone here is a little worried that whatever their plans for next year may be, they could begin similarly.
I’m here to tell you they could!
And while none of us will approach our next years with Hogwarts in mind, it will be difficult to leave without knowing what we really know. What’s really in our proverbial toolboxes other than the pythagorean theorem and the words to “Jerusalem.”
Commencement is my opportunity to add a few stories and some advice to those toolboxes so that none of you feel like you’re leaving empty-handed.
For most of us, the next year will bring unsettling change. Whether you’re about to go from senior to first-year, from student to pseudo-adult, from full-time parent to worried observer.
Throughout the year…month…week leading up to commencement, I have watched my classmates, teachers, and many underclassmen trying to cope with our impending graduation.
Some of us hid in an effort to emotionally and physically detach from the pain of losing support systems like friends or faculty, parents or children, and all of our familiar routines. Some of us are unsure how we will present ourselves in new communities. Who am I if not a high school student? Who am I if not a resident leader? Who am I if not a RAC rat?
Some of us might even consider “reinventing” ourselves to manufacture favorable first impressions. Trying to become someone else instead of taking the time to figure out who we are outside of the last four years.
The thing is that we’ve asked ourselves questions like those before because we’ve all commenced more than once.
Who will I be when I leave home for boarding school? Will I make a good impression with my new classmates?
About a month before the end of our time here, at around six in the evening, I sat in the grass near the farm, face to face with an ox. Notebook in hand, desperate for an idea of what to say to you today, something told me that this ox had the answer. He didn’t.
I reached to pet the beast, but the sight of his sharp, curved horns deterred me, and I contented myself by sitting down and writing instead.
As the oxen continued grazing, our farmer Jake’s young son appeared in the pen, and one of the oxen began to watch him. His play seemed to disturb the animal, and as it charged I stood in alarm, worried that the little boy was in danger, only to watch him startle slightly, and then calmly meander away. He could have run or frozen or cowered, but he seemed almost tranquil.
The ox stopped tossing his horns, and the boy stopped walking away, and I started breathing again. How was it that this boy could calmly react to the charging of an ox when I was afraid to even touch it?
Reactivity comes from the unconscious mind. The farmer’s son jumped because his brain sent a signal to his nervous system to “run!” But his response was a decision to rebel against his primordial instincts, choosing instead to act on the experience and understanding that comes with growing up on a farm: Run became walk, scream became hum quietly.
The last few weeks of school have barreled at us like that ox, bringing anger, fear, sadness, excitement, intense joy.
We have all assumed those familiar poses of reactivity, folding in on ourselves, lashing out, hunching over, crossing our arms, digging in our heels — reducing ourselves to our baselines.
The traits we have built up, cultivated during our evolution as young adults, naturally fall away in these moments, like a lizard drops its tail. There is always going to be that moment of instinct, but after our years of practicing grace, listening instead of speaking, staying instead of running, we have more options than base instinct.
All of us make the same kinds of momentary decisions as that little boy, over and over and over again.
One of the things that makes independent school, especially boarding school, so rare and important is that we are up close and personal with people of all ages and all stages of life. From the fun and carefree faculty kids climbing trees and building very creative snowmen on your lawn, to the sage wisdom of the nearly-retired, they all become our teachers.
In the months leading up to this ceremony, there have been some powerful moments of response. Extraordinary instances of vulnerability in which people have decided to connect with one another, fearful to be sure, but open.
Several months ago one of our remarkable faculty members opened up to a group of students and teachers about the hopes and fears and struggles he faces as a queer educator. It was the day of silence, a day to celebrate and reflect on identity, and he planned to do that by sharing his story with his students. He revealed that doubt followed him to class that morning, tugging at his sleeve as if to warn him that what he had to say would be of no use to his students. Selfish even.
I imagine that for teachers the pressure to remain calm and put together is ever-present. I imagine that to achieve that end, the self-protective walls they must build are twice as thick. If this is true, then it must have taken twice as much strength for him to break through. He flinched briefly at the charging ox of authoritative instinct, but then meandered away. Not only did he overcome his instinct to run, but he responded by revealing his history. A sheltered part of himself.
The ox sheds his power and the little boy sheds his fear, and we all gain the strength of another person’s story.
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. We have been taught by a group of educators who fight for their students to grow into bright and honest people. And as such, we are just about to receive our diplomas with heads held high and hearts open. The nature of commencement prompts us to assume these poses of openness to take on our futures.
Let us calmly wander away from formidable oxen, and override the instinct to hide. Let us learn to love the frightened young person backing away from the over-enthusiastic dog and begin to imagine them walking confidently, caped and armed with open-heartedness.