Headmaster’s Thoughts — June 2016

2016 Graduation Speech

This afternoon is one of celebration.  We celebrate the class of 2016 whom I, and many of the teachers here, have had the privilege of teaching.  This is a thoughtful class whom I have enjoyed leading in discussion in our Ethics class and, listening to Danny and Kayla, obviously debating with Ellery.  It is a class that one cannot forecast on any given day what direction the discussion is going to take.   Leaders as they are at York, we all look forward to watching their careers as front runners of their chosen fields. An interesting and talented class indeed, and a really nice group of young people, and we shall miss them!

I want to wish you, the class, every possible success, and yet remind you that sometimes the greatest learning experience is failure.  On the wall in my office, you might notice a picture of my college rugby team. It was from the winter of 1964 and spring of 1965. It is the only team picture I have ever kept, and I look at it every day as it sits facing me on the side of the door opposite my desk. It reminds me of the team that was notable for never winning a game. Our record was immaculate; 18 games played, of which we lost 18. Not even a draw. Zero, eighteen, and zero.  Yet in the team picture, taken towards the end of the season, we are smiling and seem a happy and tight group. We were. That happens after you lose every game of the season. I know that today you are going to be addressed by an extraordinary athlete, John Flaherty, who won many games and notably scored the winning hit for the Yankees in the 13th inning of the final playoff game in the World Series with Boston.  I think he would agree that losing, in so many ways, is more of an educational experience than winning.  Mr. Flaherty got the hit of the season, but I imagine he more carefully analyzed what he was doing when he was not scoring, than this climactic moment. It was that analysis that certainly led to his great hit.

For us, on that college team, as mediocre athletes playing a fairly brutal sport, we came to realize how much we relied on each other for protection not to get badly hurt (we all got banged up a bit but no one got seriously injured), how much fun there was to play the game, regardless of the score, and finally, when we recognized that we were probably not going to win a single game, to take pride in the way we lost. To congratulate our opponents, kiss our girlfriends, and look forward to the next game. My point is that you cannot always win everything you try, and losing has its virtues too. Perhaps it is our failures that make us strive to achieve more and be better.

That really was all I originally intended to say in my farewell speech to you. But something happened two weeks ago today that made me think that I should add one more thing.  On Wednesday, May 11th at 10.30 at night, Jayme and I received a call that one of our daughters was in a traffic accident and had been hit from behind (we now understand by a vehicle on the sidewalk) while walking home to her apartment in Brooklyn. The person calling was the doctor in the Intensive Care Unit of a Brooklyn Hospital we had never heard of. She was in a coma, on a breathing machine, had had a seizure in the ambulance, and was bleeding into her cranium from a fracture to her skull. Every parent’s nightmare call!  The end of the story is better. The bleeding stopped, the fracture will heal by itself, the seizure activity went to normal, and she walked out after three days in the ICU.  So now she is understandably in pain, but healing.  My point is not to tell you of a sad accident which made Jayme and me, regretfully, miss your prom, but to say something about independence and the future.  All of us thought that when we went to college (where you will soon find yourselves) that we were now independent of our parents. Freedom from our families, we thought!  And certainly the relationship between you and your family changes. Your parents will no longer be checking on Edline to see if your homework is up to date, and no more checking on where you are from moment to moment. But independence is certainly the wrong word. It is just that the form of your dependence will change. You could be sitting in the ICU if they have an accident, and they could be sitting there if you have one. That closest of connections is never going away. So my point is that your family, who got you here, is not leaving you when you go to college, and you are not leaving them. You are still interdependent and always will be. At the end of our lives we may rely on our children, and certainly during our lives we all, as parents, will always be there for you, our children, as best we know how. If you are sick, we will break the speed limit to get to you, if you are upset, we will hold your hand, if you triumph, like today, we will celebrate with you. We will proudly share your special moments with you, always!  So treasure and appreciate your family who are here with you today. You can never hug them enough!

Anyway, now I really am drawing to the finish.  And I really want to end on a happy note on this joyful occasion. Today you are all successful. You have effectively negotiated your years at high school. Before this ceremony started, we took a photograph of each of you with your diploma case, resplendent in your cap and gown. Hang that photograph up, alongside photos of your family, and enjoy your success. And, perhaps, you might also consider hanging up a picture of some occasion when things did not work out, some failing team or group, and that may be the picture you look at every day in your office.

So, in this afternoon of celebration, let me congratulate you again and give you your diplomas. And to help me do this I am joined by my wife, Jayme and her co director of college guidance, Ms Janet Rooney.


Ronald P. Stewart


York Prep School