Headmaster’s Thoughts – June 2005

Headmaster’s Graduation Speech – May 25, 2005

This point of the program is listed as the Headmaster’s farewell, and so let me also include with my goodbye, my congratulations to this great class of 2005 on completing high school and graduating. I also want to congratulate your parents… probably the ones who really should be congratulated. A private school education is one of those options in life that you are willing to pay for but not get yourself. We hope you have gained a child who is wiser, knows more, and is well prepared for the stresses of college.

I should confess that I am a graduation junkie. I suppose it is because of what I do, but I am terminally sentimental about these ceremonies which seem to me to represent a step for graduates into life as big and as important as anything apart from birth, death, and marriage. I also should say that I have never yet met a graduate of York Prep who can remember one word that I ever said at their graduation, not one single thing—which is very liberating because I can say anything, and tomorrow you won’t remember a thing.

I do want to say that I have enjoyed teaching you the subject of Ethics, that you are a class of character and morality, and that ethics is important. I believe that an intelligent person without ethics is the most dangerous animal or object on this planet. I hope you achieve all of your goals, and in achieving them, please do not worry if you make a fool of yourself. Most of us do, and making a fool of yourself is often absolutely essential to having a good time, and getting where you want to go.

This year, I decided that I would write something every month for our website. In other words, I was going to make a fool of myself by showing how badly I could write a small essay. It is somewhere there called “Headmaster’s Thoughts for the Month.” In one of them I wrote about the non-impact on me, a Jew, of having to sing Christian songs at school, and how my three Jewish friends—Alan Ereira, Bruce Fireman, Stephen Wilson—and myself (known to everybody at the school as the Kosher Quartet) would sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” virtually every morning at the daily assembly, and how Bruce Fireman never sang the whole song but would repeat the words “onward, onward, onward” in an interesting harmony throughout the whole deal.

Someone, apparently, sent a copy of this essay on Yorkprep.org’s website to all three other members of the quartet. As a result, Bruce Fireman called to say that he would be in New York and could we meet, so Jayme and I met him and his wife about a month ago. I hadn’t seen him in over forty years, since he went to Cambridge and I went to Oxford, and somehow we must have become wrapped up in our ambitious lives. When we met, all evening long we talked about our years in high school. In fact, we met him again a few days later with exactly the same topic of discussion. We talked about our teachers, one of whom was a particularly wonderful teacher who had influenced both of us to a remarkable degree. We actually talked about all the teachers, and, amazingly, I remembered them all, along with the names of boys in my class that I hadn’t thought about for forty years.

In fact, I remembered so much vivid detail about those last two or three years of high school, that I am now convinced that those years of high school, from the age of fifteen to about eighteen, are the most remembered and, in a sense, the slowest years of our lives. Each year—tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade—is remembered as a separate time, a distinct time. This won’t happen again. We can’t remember kindergarten, first and second grade… it’s a blur. We don’t even remember fifth or sixth grade, but we always remember high school, year by year, sometimes painfully day by day. You will remember your friends, your teachers… but not your graduation. There are other things on your mind at the moment: Should I go to the reception in the school gym after graduation? How long should I stay? Should I go to Alex’s party, but then, don’t I have to spend some time with my parents who paid for all this? And what about tomorrow, do I get to sleep in very late? Anyway, I promise that we do look back on high school with an incredible nostalgia for a time when life did go very slowly and lots of very important personal stuff was happening. After high school it goes faster. You won’t remember individual years; you will remember groups of years at a time, large groups of years. Until this point, time has passed for you in an artificial academic measure: September to June and then the summer, September to June and then the summer. It changes. Soon time goes by like the wind.

When I was at high school, I had many misconceptions that I have since learned were really foolish. I thought the future was solid or fixed. I thought the path should be one way. I was going to be a lawyer. That was fixed. It was only after I was a lawyer for a few years that I realized I actually had a choice and that the future was not fixed at all. I could leave the law and open a school with my wife in New York. Jayme’s family was in education in New York so it wasn’t quite as out-of-the-blue as it sounds, but the fact was that I realized that I had a choice, and that my wife and I could make this choice without giving anybody explanations, and that was a very big thing. “Just go and do it” has resulted in this school and, in a small sense, in your graduation today. But there was one tool without which this choice would have been impossible, and that was my education. This graduation for you is your tool. With this rather blunt instrument of a high school diploma, which will hopefully get sharpened at a good college, you have the option of creating a fluid future. You can decide to do whatever you believe is worth doing, including, for a lot of fun, making a fool of yourself.

The best two examples of people who did what they wanted to, regardless of anyone else’s opinion, were told during a York Prep graduation by the late George Plimpton.

The first was about Florence Foster Jenkins, a well-to-do lady from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, whose dream was to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. All her life she took singing lessons and all her life she sang like a bad crow. Eegh! Eegh! Eegh! Finally, when she got into her sixties, this remarkable lady rented Carnegie Hall and obtained the services of an accompanist, Cosmo McMoon, who was so embarrassed when he heard her sing that he insisted that he be hidden from the audience’s view by a screen.

The concert took place in the early forties, and she had people put up posters and give out fliers so the hall was full. Dressed in a coronation gown with a tiara, she entered on stage and started to sing. Disaster! The audience was stunned into silence by how bad she was. As she stretched, and failed, to hit high notes, she would reach into a basket and throw roses to the audience. The audience started to laugh and laughed for the following hour and a half of recital. Her next performance was packed as word got around that this was the biggest laugh in town and she had to give three more concerts to deal with all the people wanting to hear her. So how did she react to all this? She said her audience “reacted wonderfully,” and, of course, part of their reaction was admiration for her gumption.

The other story Plimpton told was about Larry Walters, a former army cook in Vietnam, who wanted to take an aerial photo of his house in Long Beach, California. So on Friday, July 2nd 1982, he settled himself into a Sears aluminum garden chair to which were attached four clusters of helium weather balloons, 42 in all, and his friends cut the tether lines and up he drifted into the sky with his camera, and he quickly took the picture. He also carried with him an air pistol and his goal was to shoot the balloons one by one so that he would slowly descend. Unfortunately, at some height, his chair started to tip and in the recovery lurch, he dropped the air pistol. So up he drifted. He drifted up to a height of 16,500 feet, about three miles up, into the flight path of Los Angeles Airport where pilots spotted him and radioed, with some surprise, that there was, quote, “a man ahead of them drifting in a chair.”

This story has a happy ending. He drifted down as the helium slowly leaked, and fortunately he missed the power lines in his way. He was chased at the end by a Nevada policeman and landed in Nevada next to a man reading a paper by his swimming pool. He had taken his photos and, although cold, was none the worse for his trip. He was subsequently fined $1500 by the Federal Aviation Administration for flying an “unairworthy machine.”

Compared to these two determined people, who can think that starting a school was notable in the least? I am not suggesting you go as far as they did, but I do suggest that you create something for yourself that is you, without apology or explanation, and that you sink your teeth into it and do it well.

Maybe now you understand why I love graduations, why I think this is such an important ceremony. On your behalf, I want to thank your parents, teachers, and friends, and to thank everyone who just stopped by to watch because, like me, they are commencement junkies.

So, congratulations again.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org