by Bernie Noe, head of school
Following is an excerpt from Head of School Bernie Noe’s speech at Commencement 2018.
As we saw last night at baccalaureate and heard from Felicia this afternoon, the Class of 2018 is an accomplished group, with many different talents (dancers, comedians, singers, musicians, spoken word poets) they will contribute to the world. You have worked hard, Class of 2018, and learned a lot. We are proud of each and every one of you.
I believe we have done a pretty good job of educating you all; not a perfect job, but certainly a respectable one. We have taught you a lot and, of course, there is still so much more to learn; if only we had more time. So in my final remarks, I want to address three areas of our unfinished work with the Class of 2018…You will have to listen closely because after this afternoon it is up to you – with the help of your parents, guardians, relatives, and friends – to continue to grow…I mention this unfinished work, Class of 2018, because I believe it will really matter in your lives, and to the lives of those around you, that you continue to develop in these areas.
First area of unfinished work. During the Class of 2018’s senior year we had a committee made up of teachers, students, and administrators called the technology and school culture committee. They studied smartphone use by both students and adults and made recommendations about how we might limit technology use so that all Lakeside students would spend more time talking to one another and be more focused on the moment. One of our brilliant ideas was to produce signs that read “technology free zone” so that any student could place one on a table or in a room and instantly four or five years of semi-addictive smartphone use would end and a new, more enlightened period would begin, at least at that table. Students would put down their phones and notice all that was going on around them. It would be beautiful. They would smell the flowers, love one another, find themselves deep in conversation on a host of transformational topics. I brought one of those signs to show you this afternoon – such a nice sign and reasonably inexpensive. Such a brilliant idea. How could it have failed?!
Which leads me to my first piece of advice to the Class of 2018: It is that the constant interruption and distraction of smartphones, along with the many other demands made on your time by academics, sports, and other commitments, does not leave you the time you need to be fully present to your life as it is happening. To be in the moment, you have to be distraction free, focused on what is happening now, attentive to others; not constantly thinking about all you have to do, not constantly planning for the future, not constantly reacting to the next Snap, or text, or Instagram notification coming in, not constantly recording your own life.
Why does this matter?
It matters because it is in the present that you come to love another person. It is only in the present that you discern the truths that you will live by. It is only in the present that you have those rare times of experiencing a feeling of profound peace and understanding about the world. Love is experienced in the present; truth is discovered in the present; joy is encountered in the present; beauty is appreciated in the present. If we are always worried about what did not go well, or planning for the future, or on our phones we will literally miss the essence of life. We will not love all the people that we might have loved; we will not discover the truths that are right in front of us; we will not experience the joy that is there when recognized.
In my last job, I worked for a man named Earl Harrison who was Head of School at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. Earl was an unconventional school head in that he never sent anyone a memo, did not give many speeches, and was not very directive. Whenever I asked Earl what I should do about a situation he typically replied: “What do you think you should do?” Once I answered, he would look at me calmly and say “Yes, that sounds about right,” and the meeting was over. He would also interrupt an intense point I was making to reflect on what a nice day it was outside, or something his grandchild had recently done. At first, I found his leadership style disconcerting, and even worried for a time about whether I should have taken the job, but his leadership was undeniably effective as the school got better year by year. What Earl had mastered, I later realized, was being fully present to people. In even a brief meeting he conveyed to everyone that their views mattered, that he respected and cared about them, and trusted that they would do a good job. His connection with everyone inspired people to do their best. He was present to everyone, expected our best, and he got it.
When you are fully present, Class of 2018, you will be a better friend, a better family member, later in your life a better parent, and when you get there, a better leader. You will take the time to recognize the unique gifts of everyone as well as the struggles others face. You will be more fully human in your interactions with others. You will make the world a better place for others much more through your presence in life than through your perpetual doing. Oh, and I did not want to entirely give up on the sign idea, and we had a lot of leftover holders, so I had a personalized sign made up for each of you. On the back (you guessed it!) is written “Technology Free Zone” and the front is personalized and says “Be Present!” You can put it on your desk next year!
…Second area of unfinished work. In 1939, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, age 24 and newly married, found himself caught up in the events of the Holocaust. For the crime of being a Jew he, along with his wife and family members, was arrested and sent to a number of different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Unlike his wife, parents, and relatives, Frankl survived the camps and in 1947 wrote his classic book “Man’s Search for Meaning” reflecting on his experiences among his fellow inmates.
Prisoners entering the camps lost everything they knew from their previous lives: all material possessions, contact with most or all family members and friends, professional respectability or any recognition that one ever had a profession, and their place in their community. By design, the guards in charge of the camps removed any vestige of a prisoner’s previous life: one was reduced to the number tattooed on one’s arm and that number, during the time one was in the camps, is all that mattered. This stripping away of all previous personal identity, Frankl observed, meant everyone had to confront who they were at their most essential, at their core: who they were when all external validation was removed.
Hopefully none of us will ever face the same extreme circumstances as Frankl. But it is still critical, at every age, to answer the question: Who am I at my core, my essence? What do I really value? What do I hold as truth? Who am I when not referring to my accomplishments, my family, my school? It will be critically important in your lives, Class of 2018, that you continue to develop your moral center; continue to identify the truths that you will live by; continue to be people of high moral character. This development will continue throughout your lives; it is never finished because you encounter new morally complex situations and must respond to them. You graduate into the era of “fake news” where the very notion that there are facts and truth is under assault. How will you respond?
You may not be tested at the level of Viktor Frankl but you will be tested: next year, and in life beyond, for that is the nature of life. It is only with continuous attention to developing your moral center that you will ready for the inevitable tests that life will present to you. The world is going to need your moral leadership.
Third and final area of unfinished work (which is related to the second area). At Lakeside, in all of your classes, and in many other areas of the school you were taught to discuss moral issues, to understand the complexity of those issues, and to note how they played out in many different historical situations. All of that is good of course. We all need that knowledge. But we live too much in our heads at Lakeside, where all points are interesting, where we are skilled at analyzing and arguing everything. We do not live enough in our hearts, where we are deeply, personally, daily troubled by the impact of moral failure in our society and world, and understand that it is up to us now, right now, to do something about it. We are witnessing a time of profound moral failure in American society, where good people did not stand up for what they knew was right. We are now fully aware of the long term (extending in many cases over decades) exploitation of women in the workplace by powerful men. Did no one, for years on end, in so many different settings, not know this was happening? They didn’t see it or notice it? Or did they choose to remain silent, choose to not notice, choose to look the other way, to not get involved, to attend to their own careers and interests.
I have long admired Washington state resident who some of you may know. A man named Carl Wilkens. Carl was living in Rwanda with his family in 1994 when the genocide in that country began. His parents were visiting at the time and all foreign nationals were advised to leave the country. His parents and all of his friends told him he had no choice but to leave, that it was the only responsible thing to do. He did ask his family to leave but Carl stayed; he was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the genocide. He told my class, when he was visiting several years ago, that everyone has a choice even when others, often with the best of intentions say we do not. We do have the choice to follow our conscience, our moral center.
Carl was at an orphanage when a Hutu militia surrounded it, planning to slaughter the 240 Tutsi children living there. He knew a senior military official who was orchestrating the genocide was nearby and against all hope he got to that official and convinced him not to kill the children. Carl saved the life of 240 children that day.
He is a humble man, who lives a simple life with his family. When he came to speak to my class he stayed in his small camper van on the campus. He asked for no honorarium for speaking, he signed no autographs, and he is a light in this world. He acts on his beliefs without fanfare or expectation of praise and is still working to help Rwanda heal the wounds of the genocide.
So, in conclusion, Class of 2018: Continue to work on being present to your lives. Continue to develop your moral center. And continue to stand up for what you believe in, understanding that for all of us it is only in living out our convictions that we give them reality. In doing so, you will live a meaningful and joyful life and you will make the world a better place for others.
You leave here today with our love and our respect. We at school will be present to all of you for the rest of lives! Thank you for listening to me one last time.