Headmaster's Thoughts: June 2021, Graduation Speech

Congratulations to the Class of 2021 in this appropriately spaced graduation.
Can you all see each other? Good! No one can pretend this has been an easy year to be a high school student, but particularly for seniors as you were, this last year has been one of disrupted relationships, new learning methods, the fear that someone close to you will suffer from COVID, and appropriate spacing. To all of you, I want to congratulate you on your grit, how you have functioned in sub-optimal conditions, and the way you have succeeded through it. I admire you as an exceptional class; we at York will remember you well.
Somehow, every graduating class has a distinctive group personality, and yours is one of resilience, intelligence, and curiosity. I speak for your teachers, but particularly as one who taught you all throughout the year, that we very much enjoyed working with you as we explored learning together.

I suppose what I am saying essentially is that all of us, your teachers and immediate family here, and your family and friends on Zoom, have great faith in you. But be prepared to make mistakes, because if you don’t, then I am not sure that you are achieving that much. Mistakes are part of growth. Life is messy…the trolley is going down the hill. What do you do? You may have to wing it. When Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, I was 25 and Jayme was much younger. But she had taught English for one year at a school, and so she was, therefore, Head of the English Department. I was just the Head and knew nothing about American education. But, in 1969, New York needed private schools, and so off we started, before there was a school and while the building we had just leased, was being renovated. So no students, no faculty, no building that you could walk around, and a Head who was completely ignorant. It was the summer of 1969, we said we would open, and we did in September, and we had open houses. Jayme talked to the prospective students, and I talked to the parents, as a group. And I remember one of the parents asked me how we handled SATs?  And I thought, Saturdays? We’re not going to be open on weekends so it can’t be Saturdays? So I replied: “We take them very seriously!” No idea what I was talking about. I think, in the subsequent 52 years, I have learned what they are. And we made mistakes. I took my Ethics class (yes I taught it then too), for a walk up Fifth Avenue to go to the Guggenheim Museum on a Monday, only to arrive and find out they were not open on Mondays. They never were. So, we walked back. Nothing lost.
It is how one learns…making mistakes. As we go through life, we are doomed to continue to make them, hopefully with no more damage than stronger legs. And hopefully, like that walk, remembered with a smile. How you get to the point when you make mistakes is up to you. You have all the choices in the world. Sartre was right; we are overloaded with choices. My only suggestion is that you do something that you enjoy, because if you do, then you will be able to do it for a very long, long time. Maybe even 52 years, way after everyone else wants you to leave.
So today you are about to graduate from a school that has cherished your presence, enjoyed your humor, and encouraged your curiosity. We are thankful to your parents that they trusted us with your education. We wish you success, and success means, for me at any rate, that you feel successful. It is very difficult to find another definition. It is not about someone else’s view of your success, not other people’s standards, but yours-your own unique view. I hope that you will always be able to look back on your mistakes with a smile, and that you will have enough confidence in yourself to know that you can handle the mistakes you will make in the future.
And now we have to give your diplomas and get you carefully out of your appropriately spaced seats. Normally Jayme and Janet Rooney help me, but, due to this appropriate spacing business, it will just be Miss Rooney, while Jayme looks on and smiles. She and I, and everyone here and those watching on Zoom, wish you joy. Congratulations again!

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep