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"Happy Days, Tinged with a Dash of Fear," by Tim Carey, faculty speaker

Good morning,

I thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

e.e.. cummings kind of says it all for me on this next to last day in May, a day for endings and beginnings, a day for sadness and for rejoicing. I think I speak for this, and I do not think I am exaggerating when I say, spectacular Class of 2014, which has graced this school in so many ways and which has honored me with the opportunity to say a few words on our final day at Noble and Greenough School. 

To use a golf analogy, they are heading out, by my reckoning, onto about the fourth hole with a good stretch ahead of them. For me? I am on the 18th about to make that final putt but more worried about where the hell that 19th, the watering hole, is located when I walk off the course. I just might want or need a small drink. But before I make that trek, I want to say a few words that may, as J.D. Salinger once said, “edify and instruct.”

Two anecdotes:

One: When I was a young kid, 5 or 6 perhaps, my grandmother took a trip that required her to travel by train. My father always transported her to the station.  On one such occasion I went along with him to Trenton, N.J., a city about 10 miles from Princeton, where we lived. We arrived at the station, and my father took her belongings out of the car, opened the door for her, carried her things and led her into the station. I lagged idly behind.  Once he had bought her ticket, we trekked through the concourse and down the long set of stairs to the platform. And we waited.  The anticipation of the train arriving, its large engine chugging, steam hissing from the wheels, was both exhilarating and terrifying.  When it pulled in, I saw my father pick up my grandmother’s bag and head for the nearest door. He looked back at me and said, “Tim, you wait here on the platform. I’m going to get Granny settled.”

He might just as well have told me, suddenly alone on the platform, that he was heading for Hong Kong.  I stood there, mouth agape, frozen. I saw him go up the stairs behind my grandmother and make a left turn. When I looked through the window, I could see him move down the aisle, stop and usher her into a window seat. I watched him lift her bag onto the overhead rack when the conductor, standing on the platform, called out, “All Aboard.” He hopped up onto the bottom step, and the train started to inch forward. When I looked back at the window, I could not see my father anywhere.  All I knew at that moment was that I was alone on a long and deserted platform with a train bound for New York. My father was nowhere to be seen. I could hear the wheels on the tracks gathering momentum like a marble rolling across a hardwood floor. My head was pounding, my heart knocking against my ribs.  And then some 20 yards or so down the platform, my father suddenly appeared on the bottom step. Holding onto the iron handrail, he swung himself down onto the platform and made his way toward me, smiling.  I was weeping in terror and relief.

Two: My earliest memories of attending school still fill me with dread.  The day my father took me, entering the second grade, for my first day at the Chapin School has to have been one of the worst of my life and of his as well.  What I remember is his driving into the small parking lot at the front of the building as I sat distraught in the passenger seat, weeping, again, and determined to find some way of escaping my fate.  I refused to get out of the car, and he, his face red and his jaw tight, had to come around to the passenger side door and drag me out.  He managed to haul me, like a sack of grain, into the building.  I fought, scratched and screamed, certain that I was never going to survive the ordeal that was school. The poor teacher who greeted us and had to deal with me, told my father to leave immediately. Easier said than done. I had my arms wrapped around his legs and would not, for the life of me, let go. Terror consumed me.

My wife has a saying that goes something like this: “Hey, we all carry around our own sack of rocks.” For each of us it is different, always there, at times more evident than at others, but always there. As we move through our lives, it seems to me a good idea to accept that truism and work like hell to make the best of what we face.

For much of my life, I have been pursued by fear, fear of being left on a train platform, fear of going to school, fear of making telephone calls, fear of doing pretty much of anything for the first time, fear of not meeting a challenge, fear that I might not live up to the expectations I thought others had for me; in short, fear that I would fail in most everything that I tried. 

When I was a student, I feared school.  Had it not been for decent athletic ability and some leadership skills, I know that my entire career in school would have been torture.  In the early 1950s, I attended an all-boys’ school in Princeton. The faculty at the day school was entirely male and appeared to me a pretty humorless bunch that seemed, at times, to take a kind of perverse pleasure in going after kids, like my Latin teacher in sixth grade who taunted a friend of mine in class one day by mimicking his lisp. “Louith,” he said, “Why don’t you do the tranthlation today?” When the teacher, Mr. Clarke, turned toward the slate blackboard, Louis, a quiet and shy kid, stood, lifted a piece of chalk from a tray next to him and hurled it at him. The chalk exploded and dropped in shards on the dark rug. Clarke wheeled around, glared at each of us sitting rigid in our hard wooden seats, sat down at his desk and said nothing. 

And those same teachers did not even have the heart or decency or compassion or basic common sense to utter a word of condolence or support to Peter Raymond, a longtime member of the Nobles faculty and a former schoolmate of mine at the day school, whose older brother was killed that academic year in a terrible gun accident.

Fear pursued me as I floundered academically. I got by and moved on to the Pomfret School. There, for the first time in my school life, I felt that people were looking out for me, teachers who took a genuine interest in my wellbeing and the wellbeing of so many more. But the angst never disappeared. It haunted me through much of my time in college and resulted in my making academic decisions that were just plain stupid, like starting out as a sociology major only because people said it was the easiest of all the departments.

The other day in my creative writing class, we were talking about things in our lives that we regretted, and I mentioned that I had always wanted to take an art history course but had never done so because I did not think I would pass. Stupid. I spent much of my life avoiding the difficult, taking the path that would prove easy. In short, fear was an inhibitor. Not a great way to live one’s life.

And then somewhere near the end of my junior year in college, I decided to become a teacher. Why in God’s name would I, who had found school so difficult, so frightening, want to pursue a life’s work that would only prolong the agony I had felt for years?  And the reason is simple. Instead of avoiding it, finding a way out, I knew that I had to accept the fear and find a way to make that fear work for me instead of against me. I worked hard. I went out of my way to assuage that same fear I saw in the students I taught. I realized over time that though the emotion was still present every day (Hell, I felt it just yesterday before going into my final creative writing class), it now was forcing me to be stronger and to be better at what I had chosen to do.

And so what does all of this mean for you, the members of the extraordinary Class of 2014? Simply put, I think it means that whatever it may be that holds you back, prevents you from being the people you wish to be, from attaining the ambitions that you want most in your life, you have to confront the issues that block that route and live out the life you to which you aspire. 

In a variety of ways, I came to appreciate what I had been given, even by those people and events that had terrified me most. I knew that I had inherited one of my father’s best qualities, his ability to connect with other people. Finally understanding that quality in myself, I kind of knew that despite feeling the fear, I had a way of overcoming it—connecting, establishing relationships first, and doing business later. Using that one quality goes a long way because when you get right down to it, the essence of teaching (and many other professions I might add) involves relationships, and if you never lose sight of that single element of the dynamic that exists in a classroom, you will, in the end, succeed. I say to you all: Find, accept and make the most of what makes you great, and you too will learn the meaning of success.

I am at the end of my career. I have much for which to be thankful, and I could go on for some time naming people who have been especially important to me, countless students, myriad colleagues, untold parents, for their support, for what they have taught me, for the opportunity simply to be with them in some capacity. In short, this institution, Noble and Greenough School, has a way of fostering a sense of community like no other I have ever witnessed. I have been part of it for 37 years. It has nourished me (and you), it has challenged me (and you) and it has given and my family (and I hope yours) enough love to last a lifetime. How could I have asked for more than that back in 1976 when I thought I would be here for only one year?    

I want to end with a story I told someone the other day, one recounting an event that touched me particularly because it validated all that has gone into the work I have been doing for 50 years.

A number of years ago, I taught in my senior creative writing class a young man who was and still is a gifted writer.  As a jaded senior, into college and essentially biding his time until June, he took my class, did the work in a somewhat perfunctory manner and occasionally showed moments of brilliance. In class, each day, he sat at the opposite at the end of a long table, whispered to his neighbors, took a somewhat detached approach to many of the things we did in class, and seemed to be tinged with a bit of arrogance in the way he carried himself. I will admit that I found him a bit irritating and even intimidating. But he did perfectly well, we co-existed and then he was gone, graduated and on to college, a mighty good one, I might add.

Fast forward two or three years, I cannot recall exactly. I had just finished my last class of the day. On my way out of the building, I stopped to check my mailbox and found a letter. No return address.  I stepped out into the Schmid Lobby and opened the note.  For the next few minutes, I was transfixed by the words that this same young man had written.  The previous summer he had worked at a local school that ran an Upward Bound or Achieve kind of program, and he had been hired as an assistant teacher.  He described the work as demanding, fun and challenging in all the right ways. But then he indicated that one student in his class, the brightest one, had posed a problem for him. The kid was not particularly cooperative. He was mildly disruptive and seemed to have an attitude that indicated he was not especially interested in what the young man, the college kid, had to say.  In short, the young boy was a bit arrogant.

And then my former student wrote that he was sorry. He apologized.  All summer long, he had been looking at a kind of younger version of himself, and he had felt embarrassed, embarrassed by his own attitude, his cavalier approach to aspects of the creative writing course, and his casual disregard for some of his classmates and for me. I shook my head slightly, smiled and said to myself, “Well, I’ll be damned.” In a round about way, that young man had learned something about himself, about teaching. It took a couple of years after high school for him to understand.

To the Class of 2014, I want to say thank you for being leaders; for not taking the arrogant path; and for showing through your actions, your words and your genuine care for this place and the people who inhabit it, that something unique exists in this school that binds us in a common purpose to do good work, to be humane, to seek your truth. Even as each one of us carries around our own “sack of rocks,” we like to feel that others are looking out, showing the way, ready to step in. That is the legacy I hope you graduating seniors and every other student under this tent will leave behind for those who follow.

In Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Writer,” a father is listening to his daughter writing a story in her room. The sound of the typewriter keys echoes through the hallway.  As he listens, he is reminded of a time two years before when a bird, a starling got trapped in that room, and after he and the rest of the family “stole” in and opened the windows, they watched the frantic bird, “The sleek, wild, dark/And iridescent creature/Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove/To the hard floor.” 

And then suddenly they beheld it, “humped and bloody…lift off from a chair back/ Beat a smooth course for the right window/And clear the sill of the world.”

What a glorious sight to see that creature take flight into the unknown world out there. Time for us to take flight, Class of 2014, and that path across the sill and through the window will bind us forever.

Thank you and Godspeed!

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"Happy Days, Tinged with a Dash of Fear" by Tim Carey, faculty speaker