The title of my Chapel talk today is “To the Class of 2019.” At first blush, it sounds like a premature sendoff to our seniors, an early farewell address, even with nearly three months of school remaining for our seniors and a bit more than that for grades 9-11.
I am mindful of that risk and intend to speak primarily to our seniors, though hopefully to everyone in this room, about the preciousness of these remaining days of school. Seniors, you only have about 50 of those school days left; underclassmen, you have just a handful more than that.
Approximately 50 school days—a mere blink, when placed in the context of a full school year, even less when placed in the context of an entire St. Christopher’s career. Still, 50 school days is significant, filled with near-infinite possibilities and with opportunities for both triumph and failure and for everything in between those two extremes.
About ten years ago I taught Upper School history in Washington, DC, and I began every term with a discussion of the concept of “Human Agency.” You probably are familiar with the term, which essentially speaks to humankind’s ability to exert influence, in both individual and group form, on the outcome of events. It suggests the supremacy of our ability, as autonomous individuals, to shape the future.
It pushes back against concepts of pre-determination or the subordination of mankind relative to some grander, esoteric force that ultimately shapes outcomes and writes history.
In both an academic and a moral sense, I believe in human agency. I believe that we, as humans, shape events and make history, not vice versa.
At the summer camp I attended for 10 summers, Camp Virginia, we ended each night with a reading from a devotional book called “A Paratrooper’s Faith.” This is my copy from when I was a boy.
It is a collection of quotations, poems, biblical verses, and other readings compiled by the Staunton, Va., family of an Army paratrooper named George Tullidge. It was meant to provide comfort to him as he was part of the invasion of German-occupied France just following the D-Day assault of June 1944. Sergeant Tullidge lost his life on June 8, 1944, and his legacy lives on through his family and through this little publication, which was read for decades at Camp Virginia and is now read at Camp Riversbend, which some of you attend.
One of my favorite passages, which I first read when I was even younger than you, is the following, “Most of us can, if we choose, make this world either a palace or a prison.” “Most of us can, if we choose, make this world either a palace or a prison.”
As someone who tries to embody a can-do spirit, I’ve always liked this simple passage. It supports the notion of human agency, that we have power to shape both our environment and how each of us experiences the very environment that we have the power to shape. Stated a bit differently, while we may not be able to control every aspect of our lives, we do have the power to control how we respond to the events of our lives.
I believe this concept holds true in life, broadly, but also more narrowly in our relationships with family and friends, with our experiences at school, at home, in sports, in the arts, in just about any setting of our lives.
To the seniors, I offer to you that this passage, of making your world either a palace or a prison, applies especially to you and especially right now, with just 50 days ahead of you. You have more power and more influence over the state and feel of the St. Christopher’s community than you likely know.
Just over a month ago, in this very space, I held an impromptu meeting with the senior class. There were some things that had been going well at that point in the school year, but also some things that were not as smooth or successful as they should have been, and I wanted to hear the perspective of you, our senior leaders, on how the year was unfolding.
I can’t speak for your recollection of the meeting, but from my view, I appreciated your honesty, your passion, and your candor in talking about your class and the ups and downs of your senior year and the years that had come before.
We spoke for over half an hour, and of all the comments that were offered, one, in particular, has stayed with me over the past month. One of you said, and several of you echoed the same, that you thought that your particular class had a reputation as being “One of the worst classes in St. Christopher’s history” and that you were, as a group, a “difficult” or a “troubled” class.
Let me say clearly to you, seniors, and to everyone in this room, that such a statement is both patently false by virtue of its merits, or the lack thereof, but is also guilty of just the kind of group stereotyping—assigning a broad claim or set of characteristics to a large group of individuals—that we intentionally teach you to avoid here at St. Christopher’s.
Said in a more direct way, that statement—of you all being a “bad” or “troubled” class—is bogus. It’s false. You should ignore it, and to the extent that such a statement has been articulated or perpetuated by members of this community—whether that be faculty, administrators, parents, or alumni—I apologize for such simplistic and destructive thinking. It should have no place in any school setting, and I know that every teacher in this Chapel, the men and women literally surrounding you with care and support, feel the same.
Students, hopefully you agree with my belief that such a claim is false by virtue of its simplistic and generalized thinking. However, if you require evidence to specifically refute the claim that the Class of 2019 is anything other than spectacularly impressive, then I offer you the following—
- This class, your class, boasts five National Merit Scholars, either finalists or Commended Scholars, over 6% of your class, which is double the national average for that form of academic recognition
- This class, your class, boasts four of the six male Lexus Pursuit of Perfection Weekly Winners recognized thus far in the school year—the award is widely considered to be a top honor in the Richmond metro area for the combined virtues of scholarship, leadership, and athletic achievement
- This class, your class, has finalists in the Jefferson Scholarship at UVA, the 1693 Scholarship at William & Mary, and the Johnson Scholarship at Washington & Lee; you have a named Echols Scholar at UVA and a Monroe Scholar at William & Mary; you have Congressional nominations to West Point and the Naval Academy, acceptance to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, a U.S. Presidential Scholar nominee, and a National Hispanic Scholar nominee
- Though still early in the college-application process, members of this class have earned over 130 acceptances to more than 50 different colleges and universities, including highly-competitive institutions such as W&L, W&M, UVA, UNC, Princeton, NYU, UCLA, Wake Forest, Richmond, and many, many others, with more to come later this spring; every senior has earned a college acceptance already, and we are proud of each one of those acceptances, as each represents our shared effort to find the right fit for your next four years
- Approximately 10% of this class intends to major in either visual or performance art of some kind in college, and a potentially record-breaking 25% of you intend to compete athletically in college next year
- Speaking of athletics, this class, your class, has the opportunity to do something that only one other St. Christopher’s class, the Class of 1990, has ever done—to win the Director’s Cup for overall athletic excellence in the Prep League in each of your four years of high school. What a culminating achievement and legacy that could be for the Class of 2019.
This class, your class, is filled with outstanding servants, leaders, scholars, writers, actors, singers, poets, musicians, artists, athletes and plenty of all-around great guys. Despite some criticisms to the contrary, you all rally and support one another when it really matters. I see it every day in this Chapel, I remember it fondly this fall when most of the varsity soccer team showed up at the “Into the Woods” musical to support your classmates, and I saw it on display at basketball games and other events this winter when you rallied for your classmates and other members of the Upper School.
There is both greatness, through achievement, and goodness, through your integrity and kindness, in this class. I have seen both of those traits in this very space through uplifting Chapel talks by members of this class, including a wonderful talk by Cameron earlier this week and several outstanding talks by other seniors this fall and winter.
So, seniors, what do you want from these final 50 days of your St. Christopher’s career, and how do you wish to be remembered? With intentionality and purpose, I believe your legacy can be just as I described it—and even more—but you have a role to play in securing that legacy.
To do it, you must abide by the following:
Number 1—Show up. Just show up. As Woody Allen said, “80% of life is just showing up.” There’s great truth to that. Just be here, on campus, for Chapel, for class, for performances, for matches, and for each other. The truth is you won’t be here just three months from now, and after May 24 your presence on our campus—while always welcomed—will be different. You will be an alumnus, which is special in its own way, but very different from your status as a current student.
I know that for many of you, May 24 can’t come soon enough and that you are ready to put high school in the rear view mirror. I get that and recall that same feeling myself some 25 years ago. However, trust me when I say that these final months of your senior year are special, and there’s no getting them back. You don’t want to have regrets for what you missed because you were too busy disengaging from the experience of being a high school student. Just be here, gentlemen, if only for the next few months.
Number 2. Once you’re here, stay engaged. Stay involved. Exert your leadership and positive influence. It’s tempting in today’s world, particularly at your age and stage of life, to disconnect emotionally, to be overly critical, even cynical, with people and events around you. Avoid that temptation. It’s OK to be earnest. It’s OK to be spirited. It’s OK to be positive and to have genuine relationships with your peers, your faculty, and your parents. There’s plenty of sarcasm and bitterness in the world today—we don’t need more of it here at St. Christopher’s.
That’s really it, gentlemen, for all of you, really—my request of each you for now through May. Stay present and stay engaged. Stay positive and support one another. Be Saints. And to the Class of 2019, know that you’ve been that all along.
Will you please join me in reading A Boy’s Prayer, found on page 33 of your Prayer Book? Please stand.
A Boy’s Prayer, by William DeWitt Hyde
Give me clean hands, clean words, and clean thoughts. Help me stand for the hard right against the easy wrong; Save me from habits that harm; Teach me to work as hard and play as fair in thy sight alone as if all the world saw; Forgive me when I am unkind, and help me to forgive those who are unkind to me; Keep me ready to help others at some cost to myself; send me chances to do a little good every day and so grow more like Christ. Amen.