"When Would We Use This In 'Real Life'" by Maura Sullivan, faculty speaker

Good morning. I’d like to welcome all the parents, relatives and friends of the graduating class of 2017. It’s great to have you all here this morning as we celebrate this wonderful group of seniors. This truly is a special class. Not that all the classes aren’t special to the people who love them, but this class holds a dear place in the hearts of many of us. And not only is it their graduation, but they get to share this day with Bob Henderson, who, in a special way, is graduating in his own right this year.

My connection with this class began nearly five years ago, when this class was in the eighth grade. I taught two sections of Honors Algebra I that year. They were, to say the least, a lively bunch. The fact that I haven’t been asked to teach a middle school class again may give you some insight into the success of that experience. For the benefit of those who were not at Nobles that year, believe me when I tell you that Camilo was even quieter then than he is now and that Gussie was even more talkative. And Thomas, don’t worry…. I won’t tell them how you used to wish that something bad would happen to me just so you wouldn’t have class! 

I have wonderful memories of teaching those classes. It is not an exaggeration to say that I laughed with (and sometimes at) those kids every single day. Their affection for their classmates was obvious and it was contagious. They poked fun at each other in good natured ways. More importantly, they looked out for and cared about each other. Their goal to do well in class did not outweigh their desire to enjoy the company of their peers. They were a bright, talented, united class and it did not take me long to realize that we had made a connection that would last long after that year. 

When this class moved to the upper school, they doubled in numbers. I taught a handful of them in Geometry, many more of them in Honors Precalculus, and coached a small, but powerful group in field hockey. And so many of those that I haven’t taught or coached have impressed me as I watched them compete in athletics, enjoyed their performances from the stage, and admired their artwork in the gallery or the studios. In all that they have done, their true character has come through.

So when I heard from Mr. Henderson that I had been chosen as the graduation speaker, I was truly honored. But shortly after I got the news, the heartwarming moment subsided and the panic set in. I realized that this meant that I actually had to write a speech. A speech?! I hadn’t written anything longer than an advisor comment in years! So I asked Mr. Henderson a few follow up questions: “So what should I write about?” “Anything you want” he said. “How long should it be?” “Long enough to get your point across” he responded.

I started sweating. I was beginning to remember why I had chosen to be a math major in college.   I had a flashback to my own high school experience, sitting in an English class, receiving the assignment to (quote) “write about something that interests you.”  Ugh!  What does that mean?? No direction? No suggested length? No title? It was not a happy memory. At that moment, I felt great empathy for all English students everywhere. Writing papers had certainly never been my strong suit.

When I got to college and had a choice, I decided that I would rather work on problem sets than papers.  I liked the precision, direction, and logic of math.  I wanted formulas to follow, a set of rules to live by.  To me, English papers have very little of any of that.  Sure there are some general guidelines, but people who don’t follow those guidelines are often seen as geniuses.  You’ve got writers like e e cummings (or Mr. Nickerson, for that matter) who use no capital letters and only limited punctuation.  What is that about?  In math, you can’t just decide that you don’t want to use parentheses or odd numbers. Utter chaos would ensue.  Another difference: unlike a problem set, papers are never truly finished. You can always revise, reword, or add just a little more. How do you know when you’re done?  The open-ended nature of this just never sat well with me.  Like many of my math colleagues, I like my world a little more predictable than that.

But while I really enjoy teaching math, there are several challenges that go along with it.  You have to fight the stereotypes of people thinking that you’re a nerd—which I am—and you have to deal with “that question” you inevitably get from students: “Ms. Sullivan, when would we actually use this in real life?”  It’s a question that every math teacher in America has been asked a million times and it gets very tiring to come up with answers that students will accept.  Frankly, I think that it is completely unfair that math teachers have to justify their subject in a way that other teachers do not.  Because, let’s be real, there is just about as much of a chance that you will be asked to find the height of this tent using trigonometry as you will be asked to know the atomic mass of chlorine, or analyze a poem, or discuss the causes of the French Revolution.  No one is actually ever going to stop you on the street and ask you the derivative of a trig function or to conjugate a verb in Latin.  But, if that is your measure of your education, then you are selling this place—and yourself—short. 

You, the class of 2017, have learned many things during your time at Nobles, the most important lessons of which never appeared on any test. There are so many intangibles that your teachers have tried to impart and I hope that you have begun to recognize some of them: The skill of communicating in different ways with different people that your language classes taught you.  The ability to learn from the past that you gained in your history classes, in order to help you explain why things are the way they are.  A love of creativity and the tools you need to express yourself in nonverbal ways that comes from taking art courses. The ability to question and speculate that your science courses emphasize and an appreciation of the wonder of the world around us that comes with that.  The awareness that most things can be interpreted in a variety of ways that you learned in English and the acceptance that sometimes there just are no absolutes.  And certainly the ability to logically work your way through a problem that math taught you, and to realize that even in chaos you can find order.  These are what I hope you will take with you. While I would rather that things always be tied up with a nice, neat bow, I learned at a relatively young age that we don’t always get a say in the matter. What Nobles has given all of you are tools that will help you navigate through life, even if those aren’t necessarily obvious to you in the moment.

This past fall, while we were out at the turf field before a game, the Varsity Field Hockey team was treated to a truly unique sight.  A bald eagle was sitting in one of the pine trees next to the field.  A bald eagle!  I’ve been coaching field hockey at Nobles for 28 seasons and I have lived in Massachusetts all of my life.  I’ve seen my fair share of wildlife on this campus and in this area, but never a bald eagle.  On the one hand, it amazed me.  On the other hand, it didn’t surprise me at all.  My team has had some very interesting interactions with birds of all kinds … especially this past season.  There was the hawk that sat on the fence at the turf and watched what we were doing for a couple of days. There was the bat that swooped at us on several occasions late in the season.  And we’ve all seen the large extended family of turkeys.  They live in the woods adjacent to the turf field and made regular appearances.  Then, of course, there were ducks....lots of ducks.  But a bald eagle was something entirely different. 

Deb Harrison, our resident bird expert, did a little presentation in assembly shortly after the eagle sighting and told the community that, in Native American folklore, eagles are considered sacred and a sign of wisdom, strength, and courage.  At the end-of-season field hockey dinner, I told my team that I did not think it was a coincidence that my first bald eagle sighting at Nobles came with this particular group of seniors.  The seven seniors from this class whom I coached represented those precise qualities to me.  And as I thought about the class of 2017, I realized my team was just a small microcosm of what is embodied by the class as a whole.  So even more than just the intangibles from your classes, I hope you all will take away little pieces of each other as you head out into the world.  Your classmates have offered you so much. 

May you carry with you the:

Bravery of Jonathan Herring

Conviction of Medhanit Felleke

Dependability of Oliver Halperin

Gratitude of Colin Mahoney

Loyalty of Olivia Gomez

Creativity of Reilly McDonald

Sense of wonder of Holly Lyne

Kindness of Max Sheerin

Humility of Amaya Finklea

Discipline of Ryan Duffy

And the Sheer Joy of Casey Dunne


I hope you have learned a lot from the people around you, and that you will come to see those pieces of them as real touchstones in your life.

During my freshman year in college, my coach taught the team something about touchstones as a way to focus ourselves that I have carried with me.  She had us choose an object on the field that was significant—something that would be there all season (sign on the wall, a piece of equipment).  Each of us had our own.  She encouraged us to take a minute or two before practice started to look at the object, take some deep breaths and to center ourselves.  She used this activity as a way to transition us into practice mode or game mode.  It helped us to think about what we needed to do or how we wanted to play.  It was a sports psychologist version of mindfulness.

Throughout my life, I’ve used a variety of these types of touchstones.  They’ve been objects, songs, routines, even people.  I’m sure that many of you have things like that.  I’m sure some of you have those things or people right here today.  These days for me, my touchstone is a little rubber duck that sits on my dashboard.  It has a red, white, and blue hat and it is carrying a flag.  Each day when I get into my car I see it….I look at it…  and sometimes, frankly, I talk to it.  And some days it falls off the dashboard right into my lap and I take that as a sign that it is time to pay attention—to listen.  That duck has meant different things to me over the past year and a half.  Today it is a symbol to keep my mind on what is important in life.  It helps me to stay balanced, to slow down, and take a deep breath.  I hope that all of you who have your own version of a duck in your car, or on your desk, or just in your heart, will allow it to serve as a similar reminder.

So to answer that perennial question: “when would we use this is real life”? Here’s the secret: this IS real life. You’re there. You’ve been there.  And you’ve already started to revise your paper.  The lessons you’ve learned from class, from each other, and from the events of everyday life are all meaningful, all significant, and all worth storing away.  I promise that you will continue to use them throughout your life. You may find a need for logic one day and creativity the next.  Years from now, you may find yourself reflecting on something that happened in the alcoves or on a lesson you learned from Mr. Henderson from the assembly stage.

Take it all with you.  Don’t get so intent on precision that you aren’t able to bend and adapt when life throws you the inevitable curve balls.  But don’t let yourself be so malleable that you miss the guiding patterns within the chaos.  Force yourself to speculate, to communicate your point to others, to let your creative side show.  Look to the past and dream about the future.  But don’t forget to keep editing and revising every step of the way, because the reality is that we are NEVER DUNNE. 

I think the wise words of one of the greatest philosophers of all time says it all. From Dr. Seuss:

"Life's too short to wake up with regrets.  So love the people who treat you right, forgive the ones who don't and believe that everything happens for a reason.  If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it.  Nobody said it'd be easy, they just promised it would be worth it."

Class of 2017, you have been worth it.  I am grateful for having shared in a small part of your journey.  You make us all so very proud.  Thank you.


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"When Would We Use This In 'Real Life'" by Maura Sullivan, faculty speaker