The Exeter Bulletin — Summer 2010
View scenes from graduation.
Commencement address by Principal Tom Hassan
Good morning, Exeter, and welcome to this very special occasion marking the Commencement of the class of 2010, some 310 members strong. Today we celebrate and focus on the seniors seated here next to me.
But it is also a time to celebrate parents, grandparents and other family and friends who join us today. Over the years, all of you have enthusiastically cheered on our soon-to-be graduates. There is never time in ceremonies like these to recognize all the personal stories of achievement, encouragement and especially sacrifice which bring families to this day, but as I look over this impressive group assembled, I know this moment represents many triumphs not only for the students about to graduate, but for their families and friends as well. It is important for us here at the school to acknowledge those family sacrifices and accomplishments as we enjoy this ceremony. Therefore, I ask the seniors to stand and join me now in thanking their supporters in this audience with a round of grateful and affectionate applause.
The last time I was in front of a crowd to deliver a Commencement address, I was an eighth-grader standing on a tiny stage in the gym that doubled as a cafeteria at Orange Avenue Elementary School in Milford, CT. Orange Avenue was a K–8 school, and I had attended classes there since kindergarten. While I don’t remember much of what I said that June evening, I recall wanting to evoke a celebration of the past and an anticipation for the future. I am not sure just how well I did that day. . . . My parents said I was magnificent, but parents are not always neutral observers. The only vestige of my talk is a plaque in the school’s lobby . . . with my name misspelled.
Some of those feelings from the spring of 1970 came rushing back decades later, last month on Principal’s Day, when I sat down to work on this speech. I could see you and your friends chasing Frisbees, lounging on quads, playing tennis or just relaxing as I crafted these departing words for you. As I began putting my thoughts to computer screen, I once again wanted to celebrate and anticipate; I wanted to evoke a celebration of your time here and speak of my hopes for your future.
Days earlier, I had been signing your diplomas. People may not know that each and every Exeter diploma is hand-signed by Mr. Tom Hutton ’73, the president of the Trustees, and by me. This was my first year with pen in hand, and I was tempted to add a postscript to your diplomas. I would have loved to have written to those of you who have won awards in math competitions something witty like, “Great work! You have multiplied our pride in you,” or to the actors and actresses who have entertained us over the years, “Take another bow.” I could have said to our champion football players, cyclists and women swimmers, “Thanks for unprecedented seasons,” and to the hundreds of ESSO (Exeter Social Service Organization) volunteers, “You made a genuine difference in the lives of others.” I would have written “outstanding job” in the 11 languages Exeter teaches and which you’ve studied. There are dozens of other students and groups to whom I wanted to give one last personal acknowledgement, but there wasn’t enough space or time to make those individual annotations.
In the past, individual accolades were easier to give at Academy graduations. During Principal Lewis Perry’s tenure (1914–46), the Academy’s graduating class was much smaller, closer to 200 boys. In those days, the graduates would gather in a circle outside the old gym following the Commencement remarks. Principal Perry ’20; ’46 (Hon.); P’32 stood in the center of the ring and conferred the diplomas, making a few personal comments about each graduate. It must have felt like a large Harkness discussion, where the principal instructor knew each of his pupils and his story, and connected with each boy one last time.
There are a few other Commencement traditions, some of them more ancient, which have fallen by the wayside—one of them probably to your relief. In the early years of our school, the one final exercise actually came in August, and according to our archival records, consisted of an “exhibition” at which recitations and dialogues in Greek, Latin and English were given by the students in front of the Trustees. Also, I’m not sure how any of us would have felt about the tradition, discontinued in the 1920s, of graduates playing a celebratory game of leapfrog after receiving their diplomas. Are you ready, class of 2010, right after this ceremony?
What has endured over time, however, is the simplicity of Exeter’s Commencement ceremonies. Rarely have outside speakers delivered an Exeter Commencement address. Instead, we believe in nurturing the connections among members of our own community at special occasions like this one. And close connections are what I believe distinguish this school and the class of 2010.
Members of the class of 2010, you have found scores of ways to bond with each other throughout your time here. In the classroom you have challenged one another and your teachers around our Harkness tables. In the dormitories you have rejoiced in triumphs and consoled one another in times of difficulty. Team members have remained staunch, whether winning or losing. Working together on service projects, you have made an enormous difference in the lives of countless groups and individuals locally and around the world. The efforts of the Carbon Committee and E-proctors have awakened in all of us the need to preserve our fragile resources. The Exonian shares news of the school with the community, and the PEAN ensures that you will not forget your days here.
Your class also forged connections with each other around recent events outside your control. In December of 2008, an unprecedented ice storm knocked out power to our campus and much of New Hampshire and neighboring Massachusetts. You were forced to study for finals that night by candlelight. And in those 36 hours, you may have felt like Exonians generations earlier, without electricity and technology to help you in your studies. But, also in common with Exonians throughout the ages, you found ways to overcome adversity. In one typical example, the girls in Dunbar Hall discovered the fail-safe outlet and calmly organized a list of times when the residents could plug in individual cell phones for charging so that all would be well-equipped for their vacation departures the next day.
More recently, the H1N1 virus changed the pace of life here and helped us find new ways to connect. When we needed to cancel assemblies at the beginning of this year, with H1N1 cases at their peak, you seized the chance to socialize outdoors in the Academic Quad with juice and granola bars in hand. Even those confined to beds in the Lamont Health and Wellness Center at that time made new and lasting friendships as you endured what affectionately you dubbed “Swine ’09.”
Through the sharing of your own personal stories, both in what you’ve written and shared in your English classes as well as in late-night conversations with peers, you have made the strongest connections as a group. Your meditations this spring dealt particularly with compelling and complicated issues: anorexia, the loss of a family member and sexual identity. Thus, you gave us stories of challenge, inspiration, sorrow and solace.
And these last few days, in all the activities that preceded this morning, your bonds have only strengthened. Your prom was described as the “most positive and enthusiastic in the history of PEA.” The songs and readings by members of your class made your baccalaureate ceremony unique to the class of 2010. In his talk at the Senior Dinner, Dean [Russell D.] Weatherspoon ’01, ’ 03, ’08 (Hon.); P’92, P’95, P’97, P’01 reminded all of us to “celebrate how glorious it was to have had this time together” and left us singing, “one more chorus, one more song, one more tune, then we will be gone.” And a spectacular Senior Night in the gym brought one more distinction for the class of 2010. One of your classmates set a school record when she rode the mechanical bull for 66 seconds . . . the usual ride is about 20 seconds.
You are the first class of Exonians to whom I will hand an Exeter diploma, and thus, I take great pride in all that you have accomplished, and I feel a very special connection to your class. The theme of connections is an important one to me. It is what I wish to celebrate, and it has permeated this talk and my first year as principal.
In his book entitled Connect [Pocket, 2001], Dr. [Edward M.] “Ned” Hallowell, an Exeter graduate from the class of 1968, writes, “. . . [C]onnections . . . are what pull us through the hard times and give meaning to the good.”
The breadth and depth of the connections forged by members of your class were clear during a student panel that took place during one of our alumni/ae weekends just a few weeks ago. In response to a statement from a member of the 50th Reunion class concerning the atmosphere at the Academy today, senior Henry Coats gave his impressions of his Exeter in contrast to the school of the past. He told of what his Exeter relationships meant to him. I believe he spoke for many recent graduates and current students, and I would like to share with you a few of Henry’s thoughts. He responded to the alum in this way:
“I spoke with a trustee the other day about changes that have occurred since he was a student at the school. He recounted how when he was a student at Exeter, there was only one phone in the dormitory, which students were allowed to use on certain nights at certain times to speak with family. He said that his parents only made it onto campus twice—the first time to move him into the dorm [as a] prep [in the] fall—and the second time for graduation four years later. He spoke of the harsh Exeter he encountered years ago, and contrasted it with his son’s (a recent graduate’s) experience.
“I understand the Exeter of the past, and I know I never experienced it firsthand, but I am confident that the current system is the better one. The ‘warm nest’ is invaluable to this school—especially for an international student like me, who lives an ocean away from my parents and siblings. Dorm and school bonding activities such as Academy Life Day are invaluable in helping to bring the dorm and the school together. My parents visit every year on Parents’ Weekend—and my brother has spent a night in the dorm with me. The Exeter of today is one at which kids learn—as they should at a school. We do not need to just ‘prove ourselves’; we do not have to ‘sink or swim’ in order to graduate, but instead we can learn.
“I know that I wouldn’t be here if I were forced away from my parents for four years. . . . I wouldn’t be here if we were not offered the support to learn without the fear of failure.
“I believe that the Exeter of today is better for the 'warm nest': the community that it fosters, the opportunities it grants and the support it provides all students to help us succeed.”
The “warm nest” is a term well-known at Exeter. It refers to the parting words of [former] Assistant Principal and Dean of Faculty [William] Ernest Gillespie ’29; P’60, P’66 when he told the class of 1967, “This is no time to concern ourselves with nostalgia. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe anybody has ever claimed that Exeter is a warm nest.”
Exeter has changed. I hope that at the Exeter of the 21st century, all members of the class of 2010 have, through their Exeter connections, found their own “warm nests.”
And I do believe a little nostalgia is in order on a day like today. In past years, I have been inspired by Principal Tingley’s charge to the graduates, with which he ended his Commencement talks. Today in closing, I carry on that tradition, and with the aid of some words of others, I have fashioned my own charge to offer you, the members of the class of 2010.
First, you have been given the gift of a Harkness education. Use the voices you have developed around our oval tables to speak up, to speak your own mind and to draw out others around you. But more importantly, help those who cannot speak up for themselves. In the words of Proverbs 31:8, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
Second, you have learned well the lesson of uniting knowledge and goodness. Go forth and give of yourself to your communities and to this world, and in the process, do so for others and not for oneself alone. Remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” And I add the words of someone with whom you are most familiar, Dr. Seuss [from The Lorax]: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
And, finally, remain connected with each other and to our school. Take the connections and special friendships you have formed at Exeter with you, and nurture them in years to come. To reinforce that thought, I leave you with the words of the Greek philosopher, mathematician and religious scholar Pythagoras: “Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other in persevering on the road to a happier life.”
Goodbye, class of 2010. Godspeed, class of 2010. God bless you, the class of 2010.