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“What Don’t You Know?” by Kate Ramsdell, faculty speaker

Some of you know my older son, Whit. He is four-and-a-half. Whit loves Legos, arctic sea creatures and fire trucks. He also loves going to the Franklin Park Zoo – so we go… a lot. I would say that he has been to that zoo forty times. I’m serious. When Whit was about three, we embarked on one of our Saturday morning visits, this time with Ms. Hamilton and her family in tow.

As Whit and his brother, Morgan, and Henry and Gus Hamilton careened around a corner toward the final exhibit in the tropical rain forest, Meg hurried behind them, announcing, “Hey, look guys – monkeys!” About a nanosecond later, Whit admonished, “Meg, those aren’t monkeys, they’re Mandrills.” I cringed. What could I say? Whit knows his primates, but no one likes a know-it-all. To make things worse, lately, his favorite adverb is actually, as in:

“Actually, Mom, a narwhal’s tusk is really just a tooth.” Or, “Morgan! Actually, there’s no biting. You need to take a time out on the steps.” The older I get, the more people I meet, the more time I spend with my kids, the more I begin to believe that when we are born, we are who we are. And sometimes that worries me for Whit. If he doesn’t get his humility in check, he’s going to get shoved in a locker.

I have said more than once this week that graduation at Nobles is one of the best days of the year. This tent is breathtaking. The weather is glorious. (I left that in to make sure you knew I didn’t write my speech this morning). The castle is gleaming. The flower crowns are on point this year. We are all so fortunate to share in this celebration. What’s more is that this is the 150th graduation. The sesquicentennial. That is remarkable. And perhaps you didn’t know this, but the Nobles archives revealed that I am the fourth female faculty speaker at graduation. A colleague just warned me that if I am not funny, a woman will never be selected again. With that, I thought I would read the first seven chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Aloud. Buckle up. Here we go….

Before I dig into this idea of not knowing, I want to thank you. Getting to hear your stories, to laugh with, learn from and teach you have been a total joy. I have loved every Wednesday night spent among my neighbors in Wiggins, the hundreds of hours tucked up in Shattuck 215 managing the college process alongside my counselees and Tuesday mornings with my squad of advisees. And who could ever forget my two spectacular sections of Class III PD that met in what is now Ms. Maldonado’s office? I want to thank the hundreds of families who have come from near and far to be here in support of the Class of 2016, congratulate all of my esteemed colleagues on the Nobles faculty and staff for another year well done, and extend gratitude to the members of the board who have taken time to join us today. Thank you. It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you all.

In September, at the Class I retreat, you described yourselves as massively talented yet somewhat dysfunctional, and you are not wrong. You are a group that does things your way, and by so many measures, it works. It works for you individually, and increasingly, it works for you as a class. Now, let me explain. My sense is that you have muscled your way towards that slippery goal that every class seems to have: glorious unity. Perhaps that makes it sound too forced, and that is not at all fair. As Mr. Denning has shared, Nobles and schools like it are trying to do what no institution in history has been able to do successfully: we admit students from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, and we invite them to make a home here at 10 Campus Drive. Then, we ask you to grow up together, learn together, eat and dream together – civilly, honestly, respectfully – all towards the humble goal of becoming “leaders for the public good.” This is really hard work, unprecedentedly so. Yet, this is a group that tends to work pretty hard at everything it does. It is also a talented bunch. You just seem to get stuff done, and recently you seem to be figuring out how to bridge the gaps that help you do it all better together. It sounds like I am hammering on you. I’m not. That being said, I have heard that when you’re in college counseling meetings with me, you come to expect that I’ll pretty much tell it like it is.

What I have loved about you is that you are utterly unapologetic so much of the time. Whether you’re wearing leggings – again – to school, molding provocative works of art with your hands, winning another ISL title, developing better systems for navigating the schedule or selling back books, or writing letters and articles that disclose your outrage at injustice or inequity, you do it with a sense of intemperate boldness that is admirable and endearing.

At my high school, we did not begin the day with assembly. We had homerooms, where we took attendance, listened to a few squawky announcements over the PA, and then made our way out into the locker-lined hallways. I loved high school. Kicking around in my converse sneakers, argyle socks, and pegged khaki pants, I swam and ran competitively, played trombone in the jazz and marching bands, took lots of drawing classes, and earned a 1 on my BC Calculus AP exam.

I went to a public high school in a wealthy and homogeneous suburb of New York City. When I tell people where I am from, I still tend to get one of two reactions: A lock-jawed “Oh, Duuhhrien.” Or “Really? You’re way too nice to be from Darien.” As a result I spent a lot of time in college not telling people where I was from. I defaulted to, “just outside New York City,” which is a little like people from Wellesley telling you they’re from just outside Worcester. Almost all of my classmates were white. I can count on two hands the number of students of color who were in my class of 160. I never attended a bar or bat mitzvah, and I was the only person I knew, besides my siblings, who was raised for most of my life by a single mother.

A little less than twenty-three years ago, I took the stage at Darien High School on a thunderstorm-blitzed, late June evening – one that drove my class’ graduation ceremony off of the football field and into a dim and unfamiliar auditorium – and began the last speech I gave at a high school graduation. Now, if I had been required to submit that speech to you as a part of the selection process, you would have moved my file into the deny pile. I talked about hiking for a month in the Wind River Range. I urged my classmates to not take anything for granted. In a slightly opaque way, I wrestled with my own privilege.

I will spare you the rest of the details other than to share that I actually urged my classmates to “take time to stop and smell the roses.” Now, lest you think there wasn’t a hint of teenage rebellion in the use of that cliché, I left it in precisely because my principal told me to take it out. Seriously. My closing act of rebellion in high school was to use a cliché in my graduation speech. It’s no wonder I love enforcing the dress code. 

What I really wanted to tell people (at least this is how I interpret it two decades later) is that I grew up alongside a lot of people who looked like me, but I didn’t always feel as though I was a lot like them. As one of my advisees once put it, I am the most normal looking weird person she had ever met. I count that among the best compliments I have ever been paid. 

My dad died thirty years ago last week – when I was in fifth grade. I celebrated my eleventh birthday in the hospital, sitting on his bed. Until my dad got sick, he worked for Time magazine. One of the childhood routines I remember most vividly is climbing into our orange VW bug to pick him up at the train station every evening. He would hop in the car and hand us a piece of Dentyne gum, a Lifesaver, or a small piece of black licorice. He would also bring home stacks and stacks of magazines.

I devoured Time, People and Sports Illustrated every week at the kitchen table. In the 80s, I read about Reagan’s presidency, the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, Charles and Diana, the cocaine epidemic, and Mikhail Gorbachev. As far as I can tell, it was my childhood romance with print magazines and the ensuing, unquenchable thirst to understand other people’s experiences that led to my obsession with reading non-fiction and storytelling.

After my dad died, my mom held two jobs. She worked as an elementary school aide, and she kept the books for a swim and tennis club in town. One job allowed her to meet the bus in the afternoon and the other she could do late at night after we’d gone to bed. On summer nights, my brother, sister and I would all sleep in her room, on the floor, so that we could enjoy the one air-conditioner we had in the house. I think we all gained some sense of security there, together, in our pile of comforters.

When our mom died in 2003, I left my work at Nobles for a month to go home to care for her, and my now grown-up siblings and I spent our last night with her curled up on the floor, together, by her bedside. Some of you had the chance to hear about my mom at the celebration of the new crew shell that was named in her honor: Our #1 Lady. That I work at a school, with my sister, Lizzy Antonik, is one of the best parts of my life. I know what many of you are thinking right now… I had no idea they were sisters. Now you know.

Last week, I was deep into The New Yorker before bed one night. Right now, it is the only piece of reading I can routinely digest other than whatever it is I’m teaching. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. You can include Ranger Rick, Dig, Dig, Digging and Busy Town as additional reading consumption. In any case, the May 23rd issue included a portfolio of Diane Arbus’ work. The statement that preceded her photographs read:

“Arbus… needed to get closer, physically and emotionally. So she asked permission, got to know people, listened to their stories; some relationships went on for years. The distinctive power of her classic photographs is in this deep engagement, in her subjects’ frank exposure and our implied complicity. If you want to look, they seem to say—and who doesn’t want to look?—then have the courage to look me in the eye.”

When you let someone look you in the eye, you become vulnerable… if even only for that moment. I have watched you all, in your own ways, allow us all to look you in the eye during the past few weeks. In these moments, I was reminded that Nobles is an astonishing community. We begin our days in the familiar confines of Lawrence Auditorium and end them in Vinik, or in commercial kitchens in Jamaica Plain, or at the Orhenberger, or on the Charles River and the turf field. As teachers, we wield chalk, paintbrushes or dry-erase markers during the day and hockey sticks, whistles, and van keys in the afternoons. We have multifaceted stories that require careful, meaningful, deliberate engagement.

About a year ago, I gave a talk at another Nobles event where I shared my worry that all I am helping to nurture are what William Deresiewicz describes as “excellent sheep.” Referencing the years he spent teaching at Yale, Deresiewicz asks us to contemplate what happens when students test well and choose the best activities for a résumé. They can show what they know, but they sacrifice opportunities to build relationships or to develop a sense of what really matters to them at the altar of high achievement.

It’s really hard to figure out what you don’t know. Sometimes I worry that the pressures you feel in high school and at Nobles make you beeline towards the known. We’re more comfortable hanging out with the kids who look like us and who do the things we do. When it’s 10:30 at night and you still have a four-page English essay to write for second period, you choose the safest prompt and go with it, even if you disagree with an idea that the teacher has espoused as “truth.” I want you to know that I believe you are all far more than excellent sheep. And yet, to be truly excellent people, you need to – you must – figure out what it is that you don’t know.

I worry that when we begin to believe that we simply are who we are, we avoid what American actor and playwright, Anna Deveare Smith, talks about when she examines her life’s work. Selected as a Guggenheim Fellow this spring, she wrote that her journey has been to make the “broad jump towards the other, seeking to close the gap between the strange and the familiar.” She shared, “I do not believe that we are all the same. My search has shown me that the solution is not to search for sameness or even that which we have in common. I do not look for sameness. I embrace difference as part of our condition. The exciting work is to walk the distance between self and other.”

In closing, for just a moment, fulfill my English teacher’s fantasy and allow me to believe that every single one of you did the required community summer reading. In Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, there is a scene in the second chapter – you know it – where Bryson gets a call from his childhood friend, Stephen Katz. It begins,

“…this Appalachian Trail deal – do you think maybe I could come with you?”
I couldn’t believe it, “You want to come with me?”… I really could not believe it. I wasn’t going to have to walk alone. I did a little jig. I wasn’t going to have to walk alone.”

So, you have exciting, hard work ahead of you. But I know you have the capacity to take it on, because I have watched so many of you begin to take the broad jump, to start the walk. And the best part is, you never, ever have to do it alone. In fact, I hope you’ll invite me to go with you, and along the way, I’d love it if you’d tell me your story. Congratulations, friends. Thank you.

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“What Don’t You Know?” by Kate Ramsdell, faculty speaker