Commencement Address to the Graduates

Excerpt from Andrew Davis's Commencement Address to our Eighth Grade Graduates:

Welcome to the Commencement Ceremony for the Mount Tamalpais School Class of 2018. My name is Andrew Davis and as Head of School, I am honored to welcome you to campus to speak about and to our distinguished graduating class.

Last week I struggled to find inspiration for this speech. A year ago I was able to pull off the “Rob, you were so funny last year, now I don’t have to be funny” intro followed by some good old – yes, the language is dead – references to Latin. That was not going to work this year as I realized I should not remind you all how good Rob was two years ago, and you can only take so many speeches grounded in etymology.

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I was at a loss until you all, Class of 2018, started wearing your high school sweatshirts. Seeing the names of the thirteen high schools that the twenty seven of you will attend next year reminded me of my own high school days. I quickly became lost in my family’s photo archive remembering my four years at Middlesex School, a boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts.

I also found this photo of me at my own 8th grade graduation. That is Freddie the Disco Frog – don’t you wish you made a Freddie in Evy and Tyler’s class? – and this is the very same tie, 26 years later.

I discovered that I too wore my soon to be alma mater’s clothing as an 8th grader.

Here I am at summer camp, a newly minted middle school graduate wearing my high school’s t-shirt. Yes, fanny packs were in with suburban mothers back then and yes, I am sure there is a good story about how that t-shirt got ripped. I just don’t remember it.

Scrolling through our family photos I found a few images that are meant to do more than make you chuckle at me. In three photos I found lessons that I learned in high school and hope you can take with you as you head off to your next school.

Kindergarten to seventh graders, these lessons apply just as much to your life, no tuning out!

After two seasons of playing “thirds soccer,” believe it or not there is a team below Junior Varsity, I started to run cross country.

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Our team did the usual track workouts and long runs. We also ran sprints on – no, up – Annursnac Hill Road. My lungs would burn on the way up, and I often questioned the sanity of being on the team on the way down.

The hard work paid off. While this would be a good graduation speech lesson, that is not my point. There is more to the story.

During the league finals I was in contention to win the Junior Varsity Finals. The race was run at Groton School and the first mile was down a hill, and the second mile was flat along a river. At that point in the race I was in third place. The third mile was back up the hill to the finish line.

From my training I had learned to see the hill, an enemy to many runners, as my ally.

I knew I could work with the hill to catch the two runners in front of me. I charged forward, passed those two, and won that race.

Graduates, I encourage you to turn your enemies into your allies. Whether academic, athletic, or artistic, don’t avoid the things that are the hardest. Lean into them. Do the work that allows you to shift your perspective and see an opportunity where others see a threat.

The summer after my Junior year of high school I was too old to return to my summer camp as a camper, and not old enough to be a counselor. Having raced small sailboats and taught sailing to elementary school students, I spent part of June and early July learning how to sail big boats. I spent a week taking a Royal Yachting Association Coastal Skipper Course in southern England.

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Life lessons from that? First, be humble when sharing a forty foot sailboat with a bunch of British adults, and you are a teenager, and it is the 4th of July.

Second life lesson – how to anchor a boat.

You might think that you drop an anchor over the edge and the weight of it keeps you in the same place. That is what I thought. I was wrong. Instead, the weight of the anchor simply brings it to the sea floor. Then, you the skipper of the boat, have to drag the anchor until it catches. As a 17 year old dressed in yellow overalls, I had to drop the anchor and power towards one shore of the harbor. When it did not catch, I had to pull up the anchor and try another part of the harbor. After a few attempts it would inevitably catch.

To ensure our safety at night – we were all going to sleep with this anchor holding us in place – we would drop a second anchor off the stern – what sailors call the back of the boat. With this second anchor in place we were safe and ready for the night.

With this information you are now ready for high school! Every freshman needs to know how to write a paper, solve a linear equation, and anchor a boat. Check!

Okay, the literal anchoring of the boat is not the point of this story. Instead it is a metaphor. When you arrive at high school you will invariably drop anchor with a group of friends, an extracurricular interest, or a sports team.

While that first anchor may catch, it probably won’t. Don’t give up hope and abandon the harbor, thinking about transferring to another school. Instead pull up the anchor, head to another part of the harbor, and try again. You are heading off to high school with a great anchor.  It will, undoubtedly, catch after a few attempts.

And, just as we did in England, drop a second and even a third anchor – explore other interests. The winds and tides of life shift – Lauren would want you to recognize that this is now an extended metaphor – and it is always better to have more points of contact and connection.

My teenage rebellion was to take Latin rather than French in middle school and high school– my mom was a French teacher, my father fluent in the language, and my sister soon to be a French major in college.

The culmination of that wild rebellion was the two years that I took advanced placement. At the end of each of these years Mrs. Banay, my teacher, hosted a celebratory Bacchanal at her home.

My story is less about this event than about four Latin words. While I promised no etymology, I couldn’t resist the pull of Latin.

The first three words are “Fit Via Vi” from book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid, the text that we translated my senior year of high school. Fit Via Vi means “A Way was made with Strength.” I carved these words onto my senior plaque – all seniors must carve a wooden plaque that hangs on the walls of school.

Looking back I realize that this quote was not about the power of muscle – as you can imagine from my stature and size 36R suit jacket, I have made very little way with strength.

Aeneas, Virigil’s main character, is impressive not for what he did, but for HOW he did it. That is what I want to communicate to all of you – graduates, third graders, kindergarteners – How matters.

Yes, the end product – a great essay, a beautiful work of art, or a win for your team, is important.

Far more interesting, though, is the process – How did you support your thesis in that essay? How did you choose those contrasting colors in that piece of art? How did you muster the energy to come from behind to win?

How matters.

Fit Via Vi teaches us how matters, but that is only three latin words and I promised you four.

The fourth is decorum, and it relates to the importance of how.

Decorum most often means with good manners and courtesy. I hope that in your time at MTS you have learned that if you do something with good manners and courtesy, you are far more successful.

I overhear many of your interactions in the front office. I notice the moments when you all say thank you to Kelly when she gives you a cough drop or hands you the lunch that your kind parent brought to you. I notice when you greet a visitor to the school with a handshake and and kind welcome. Your future teachers and employers will notice the same thing. Decorum goes a long way.

Decorum, and its latin root – I am sneaking some etymology in after all – is about more, though. Decorum comes from decor which means beauty and elegance. Think of the expression “It is a thing of beauty.” Seeing an artist create a scene with depth and detail is a thing of beauty.

Listening to a singer belt out a powerful balad is a thing of beauty. Steph Curry’s three pointers are a thing of beauty. It is not the piece of art, the song, or the three points on the scoreboard that we remember. It is the how, the decorum, the beauty.

Fit Via Vi and Decorum – How matters, and strive for beauty.

As you set forth from MTS – and for the rest of the students here, when you return next fall – I encourage you to remember the following.

  1. Work hard to make challenge an ally rather than an enemy.

  2. Drop anchor again and again, until you are secure.

  3. How matters.

Families of the Class of 2018, before I award the diplomas I want to congratulate and thank all of you. You have leaned into the challenge of raising children, especially challenging in the early teen years. You have allowed your child to drop anchor at Mount Tamalpais School, a beautiful harbor. And, most importantly, you parented with decorum. Class of 2018, please join me in thanking and celebrating your families.

And now it is your turn, graduates. Class of 2018, you are ready for what life and school will bring you next. Go forth to learn more and then come back to tell us stories of challenges conquered, anchors dropped, and things of beauty. You will always be welcome in the safe harbor that is Mount Tamalpais School.

Thank you and congratulations.