by Bernie Noe, head of school
This is an excerpt of a speech that Noe delivered at Commencement 2020.
… As we heard from Felicia, the Class of 2020 is an accomplished group, with many different talents they will contribute to the world. They have provided positive leadership to the school during their entire time at Lakeside. They are kind, considerate of everyone, and supportive of their peers and everyone else in the school. You have worked hard, Class of 2020, and learned a lot. We are proud of each and every one of you…
Class of 2020, as you well understand, you graduate into a complex and challenging world. And the questions for all of you – for all of us, really – are what will you need to thrive in the world you will find when you graduate from Lakeside and college; and, how will you contribute your many gifts to a world that so desperately needs your talents and energy.
In my final remarks to all of you, I want to share three areas to continue working on that I believe will allow you thrive personally and professionally and contribute to others throughout your lives, regardless of what the future holds.
Area number one, and the most important thought I have this afternoon: You will need to continue to develop your life philosophy, to know what you believe in and why, what you value, and what you stand for in this world. You graduate from high school in the middle of a pandemic and a period of significant civic unrest. And you will live your lives in one of the most significant periods of change in human history – change greater than any experienced by your parents and guardians. It will continue to be critically important to you, Class of 2020, to know what you believe are the timeless truths, truths that will govern your actions in a rapidly changing world, when the correct course of action will not always be clear, when much will be uncertain.
One of the books that I have read multiple times over the course of my life is Boethius’s “The Consolation of Philosophy.” Boethius was born into the Roman aristocratic class in 475 CE, just five years before barbarian tribes sacked Rome, bringing the Roman Empire, and Roman civilization, to an end. You will experience great change, Class of 2020, but I am just going to say that Boethius experienced even greater change. Boethius agreed to work for the first barbarian emperor, Theodoric; was eventually caught on the wrong side of palace intrigue, arrested, and sent to prison; and, after a time, executed. But it was in prison that he wrote his masterpiece, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” one of the great books of the Western tradition and a book for our times in 2020.
Like many of you in the past three months, Boethius suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. He decided to use it to sort out for himself what he believed really matters in life. He concluded, for example, that we should all try to need very little in a material sense and then we will be free. He concluded that true honor comes from virtue practiced over the course of a lifetime. He concluded that fortune is fickle (that things can seem to be fine, and then along comes COVID-19!). Timeless truths – true 1,500 years ago and true today.
A number of you shared with me that during the COVID-19 period you have had more time to reflect on what is important you and why. It is a worthy goal to work on your philosophy of life during this period. That work just might make this one of the most important periods of your life! You will need to continue to develop your interior life throughout your lifetime; it will require continual attention and will continually evolve.
Class of 2020, in the period of great change you will live through, you will have to make decisions when there is no clear right answer. It will be on those occasions that you will rely on the truths and convictions that you have developed and practiced over time.
One of my political heroes is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945 and led this nation through both the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt attributed the New Deal significantly to his education at Groton School in Massachusetts, where he learned that life was not all about him but instead about the good he did for others. He contracted polio at age 39, lost the use of his legs, and learned firsthand what it felt like to be out of control of your own life. Those experiences shaped his philosophy of life and prepared him to lead this country successfully through a period of great uncertainty, a period where many people felt their lives were out of control. He was a great leader at a critical moment in the nation’s history, a man who knew what he believed to be truth, and what he valued. In his own great period of challenge, he offered: “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice … the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”
My second thought, related to the first, is that to thrive in times of uncertainty and rapid change, you will need to know what is essential to you; and you will need to have the courage to act to do what is essential for you.
As I think you all know, I value the idea of slowing down and even just doing nothing. But I seldom to never actually slow down or do nothing. I always think, right after I finish this next task I will stop – but I don’t. I value simplicity and have read several books on the topic. I admire the stories of people who live simple lives and I think someday that will be me – it is just a matter of time. But my day-to-day life is still anything but simple and I never seem to simplify. I also admire folks who choose to live without many material possessions, and I think, yes, I need to be more like them. Right after I buy a new fountain pen or some piece of exercise equipment that I am convinced will make me fit, then I will live simply.
So, at age 68, I have to conclude what is really essential to me is activity, doing things, finding complexity, even creating it, and being moderately materialistic. I am running out of time to view it any differently.
So, what is essential to you, Class of 2020? What do you prioritize on a day-to-day basis? What would your family and friends say is essential to you? … If you say you value family, is that where you are spending your time? If you value reflection, do you make sure to do it every day? If you value your friends, do you make time to be with them? What is essential to you, Class of 2020? You will live in a world of continual change. Some long-established professions will cease to exist and new ones will take their place; artificial intelligence, big data, and deep learning will alter the landscape of the world and yet you will thrive because, if you work on it, you will know what is essential to you.
Class of 2020, I want to end my remarks by sharing that I view it as your responsibility to continue to find ways, large and small, to make life better for others. In your time at Lakeside you have tutored students, started a STEM camp, visited with the elderly, made face masks, worked in foodbanks, and so much more. It will be important to the world that you continue to serve others. As Boethius advises all of us, “do not let your life be corrupted by pleasant fortune.” We all have a responsibility to care for the welfare of others; that is what makes us all fully human. I think it goes without saying that there is a lot of need in this country and around the world. We all need to view it as our responsibility to help meet that need. If you are not helping someone right now, get started on that. Do not wait. You have the time. You have the resources. Get started. Follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s advice to the nation when he said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
The true measure of your lives will not be how much did you accumulate but how much did you give back!
In conclusion, Class of 2020, continue to spend time deciding what you believe in and value, and determining what is essential to you. Then live out your beliefs and values, and spend your time doing what is essential to you! And make it a lifelong practice to give your time, your money, and your love to others. In doing so, you will grow in wisdom and you will live joyful and meaningful lives.
It has been my great privilege to work with you during your time at this school. I have great respect for all of you and am hopeful about the future because of you. You go forward from this school with the love and respect of your teachers, staff members, and administrators. We will support you your entire lives!
And personally, I love you all and I wish you every good fortune! Thank you, everyone!