An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Bernie Noe, head of school 

This is an excerpt of a speech that Noe delivered at Commencement 2021.

Class of 2021, I commend you on the positive leadership you have brought to the school during your four years in the Upper School, and especially during the pandemic. You have cared about every student in the Upper School, not just your class, and your leadership has mattered to everyone. You are a dynamic, talented, kind, resilient, and considerate class and all of us here today are very proud of you! You embody the mission of this school. …

Your time at Lakeside has gone by so quickly, even the last 15 months while you have been learning remotely or in hybrid mode. I am completing my 22nd year as head of Lakeside, so I started here four years before you were all born! And here you are now all grown up, graduating from high school, and it seems like just yesterday that many of you were in the Middle School and worried about how hard the Upper School would be, or you were just entering Lakeside from another school.

Right now you are surrounded by the people who worked so hard to educate you, who came to your games, performances, chess matches, Science Olympiads, Ethics Bowls, robotic and math competitions and more. Who sang your praises at every turn, who tried to notice and develop every talent you had, who supported you through the ups and downs of the first 18 years of your lives. They love you and care about you and want all that is good for you. Try to take in the power of that much love and that much support! And you are sitting beside your friends who you played on teams with, performed with, studied with, did service with, and grew up with. Many of these people will be your life-long friends. You are privileged to know them and share life with them.

And remember, Class of 2021, you did not get here today on your own. Make it a point to thank each and every one of the people who helped to bring you to this important transition point in your lives. If you carry away only one thought from this graduation ceremony, let it be that none of us accomplish anything totally on our own. Whatever we do that is of any lasting value, whatever we become that is significant, is possible because there are people in our lives who care about us, look out for us, who encourage us, support us, and love us. …

Class of 2021, as you well understand, you graduate into a complex and challenging world.

The past 18 months have been a difficult period for our state, country, and world; for all of us here today; and for the world beyond the borders of this beautiful, pristine campus. Millions (160) of people around the globe have been sickened by the pandemic, and 3.5 million have died. In the past year we have all become even more aware of the systemic racism found in our nation, and in our institutions, including here at Lakeside School. We have watched the pandemic both expose and exacerbate the yawning inequality of wealth and opportunity that has come to characterize our nation and so much of the world. We have watched a violent mob storm the nation’s capital and are living in one of the most politically polarized periods in American history, a time when those on both the political left and right are intolerant of views that differ from their own and attack the very notion that there are objective truths in the world.

But despite these many profound challenges, I am optimistic about our country and the world today, and I believe everyone here is optimistic because we are sending 146 members of the Class of 2021 out into the world to be ethical, thoughtful leaders, good parents, good life partners, good citizens, good people. You will work to create a more just and equitable world for everyone wherever you are and whatever you do. You have done that in your time at Lakeside and you will continue to do so in the larger world.

And before you go, I have three suggestions for you that I believe will help you in doing your good work in the world.

First suggestion: Over the course of your education we have talked to you all a lot, and encouraged you to find and follow your passion. While I still believe that finding your passion is one of the keys to a happy life, in my last speech to all of you I want to amend this advice and ask you to consider a slightly different question: How might I use my unique gifts, in whatever area or field, to benefit others, to benefit others! I have 11 books that I have read over and over again, throughout my life, learning something different each time as the circumstances of my life change — a practice I recommend to all of you. Several of those books have helped me personally to stay centered through the stresses of the COVID-19 period. These books are like wise old friends, always there with good and relevant advice to offer. In one of these books, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl concludes that the real question of all our lives is not what do we want out of life — our personal goals, preferences, needs, comforts, security (and heaven knows we all now live in a world where we are even encouraged to be obsessed with our own comfort) — but rather what does life require of us in each set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. Not what we need or want but what does life require of us! How do we serve the greater good rather than just meeting our own needs.

For the past 22 years, my family has worked with four women in Nicaragua who run an organization called the Casa de Mujeres. It is an organization that works with women in 52 small villages near the Honduran border to prevent violence against women, provide basic education for women on reproductive health, and help small communities build and maintain schools for their children. For the 22 years we have known these women, they have worked without salaries to help the women in the villages around them, using all the money given to them to help others. None of these four women went to college, or even high school; they are poor, and they are wise, smart, and courageous. They have small farms, which they work to feed their families; and in the evenings and on weekends, they volunteer to help their community. They saw the need in surrounding villages and used their unique gifts: the ability to organize others, the ability to prioritize needs, the ability to negotiate with contractors to meet those needs, and their charisma and energy. They are doing what life required of them, not just meeting their own needs, as totally justified as they would be in doing just that. These women did not have opportunity to get an education, but thousands of children are getting one because of their commitment. And their lives are rich in relationships, in human connection, in spontaneity, in love for others. They don’t do Zoom calls; they go talk to their neighbors, they read body language, they share life! Their life is hard, and I am not romanticizing poverty here. Their work in their community is life giving, meaningful, and joyful.

So, Class of 2021, what will life require of you? What needs will you meet in this world? How will you use your unique talents to meet a need that maybe only you can meet? When you see a need, will you set aside some of your own comfort and security to meet that need? I believe that you will. Begin now. There is no reason to wait. And at the end of your freshman year next year, ask yourself the question, “How is this school, or some small part of it, a better place for others because of some work I have done?” I think everyone here this afternoon should be asking ourselves that question at least once a year, if not more often.

My second suggestion to help you in doing your good work in the world: During your time at Lakeside, we have taught you how to be good critical thinkers, to look at all arguments from both sides; but I am not sure we have taught you enough about having an attitude of grace. By grace, I mean your goodwill and openness toward those who think differently from you about any number of issues. Lakeside is a very liberal school and through a combination of intentional, and unintentional, liberal bias, I am not confident we have given you all a balanced view of the issues facing this country and the world. We may have even unintentionally taught some of you to disdain the views of those you disagree with and maybe even the people espousing those views.

Middle School science teacher Nancy Canino is retiring this year after 26 years at Lakeside. For 22 years, Nancy and I have disagreed on many, even most, of the very significant issues pertaining to how this school should operate. At times, often, I have driven Nancy crazy with my views, and yes, Nancy too has driven me crazy! But at all times I have felt respected by Nancy even when very strongly disagreeing with her, and I have respected her in turn. And, I have tried to be open to what she has to say. Once, she told me what not to say in a speech I was about to give, in which I was planning to say everything she recommended I not say, and I rewrote the speech, and it was good that I did. Have Nancy and I changed each other’s minds? Maybe a little, but definitely not a lot. But it is a relationship of grace. I have never felt judged as a person by Nancy. She has definitely judged some of my actions and I have definitely judged hers, but there is no judgment of the person.

Our country, at this point in its history, and even the world, Class of 2021, will require this of you, to approach others, especially those you vehemently disagree with, with grace, with some openness. If you do, you will in many cases find your ostensible opponent more willing to listen, you will learn from them, and very important for you personally, you will be a less judgmental person, which — trust me — even your friends will appreciate!

We live in a period where everyone is talking more and listening less, where media outlets and the algorithms of social media on both sides of the political divide stoke our outrage at those we disagree with and most likely have never met.

There is no future for democracy without grace. In the words of University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbuam, “When we meet in society if we have not learned to see each other, imagining in one another the inner faculties of thought and emotion, Democracy is bound to fail because democracy is built on respect and concern, the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.”

My third and final suggestion for you in doing your good work in the world: We have a habit at Lakeside of telling you all how smart you are. I am pretty sure you have all heard that a number of times in your years at the school. But as you leave Lakeside, I want to suggest to you that being smart, in and of itself, is way overrated. And, in fact, glorifying smart can make you arrogant, elitist, and contemptuous of others who you do not consider to be smart. It can lead you to believe that attending an elite university, or any university for that matter, somehow makes you special and a better person, when of course there is no necessary correlation at all.

My father dropped out of school after the 8th grade and my mother after the 10th grade. It was the Great Depression and their families had no money and they needed to work. And I grew up in an area where almost no one went to college. I did not know a single professional growing up, not one. No doctor, no lawyer, no professor, but I did know many, many, many loving, hardworking, ethical, wise, selfless, thoughtful, kind, joyful, informed, decent people — my parents, especially. People who made every effort to do the right thing in their life, to care about and help others.

So Class of 2021, continue to work throughout your lives to respect and appreciate the many different ways that talent and ability are to be found in this world; to know that everyone you meet is talented and smart in their own unique way. Learn from everyone, regardless of background and level of education. Do not let your talent and education isolate you from others who chose a different path or lacked the opportunities open to you.

If you can do this throughout your lives, you will grow in wisdom, understanding, and grace, and you will serve the greater good appreciating that everyone must be treated with respect.

Thank you all for listening to me one last time.