“Christopher Barnes Addresses Midland’s Graduating Class of 2020”
This class, the class of COVID-19 2020, is actually my first real Midland graduation. Seniors, we have grown up together. I remember each of you from our earliest days here at Midland. We were awkward and uncertain together. While prioritizing needs over wants, completing endless tasks and work, and living in the shadow of Grass Mountain, we prayed that there really was salvation in finding one’s best self.
There is bi-polarity to the intimacy between a Head of School and a class of students. Most of the time, I am a random adult who goes to a lot of meetings, sits too long at the computer, and periodically opines about something in a chapel or at the end of an assembly. We might not interact for days, nothing more than a wave or a nod.
And yet, I have also been with many of you for the hardest moments, or maybe just out of sight, in the wings, coaching others to provide you the support required in that one moment. I have had difficult conversations with many of you, fielded passionate requests (sometimes eminently reasonable and sometimes not), and completed some number of 1.1-mile walks around campus with a few of you.
You all have grown up here at Midland. So have I. Now we are here at graduation, the official end of our journey together. Today, the fourteen of you stand at the threshold of adulthood. So, too, this Head of School stands at the threshold of tremendous change.
I am deeply grateful for the lessons you have taught me. It seems odd, and maybe a bit topsy-turvy, but your roles as teachers have been as significant as your roles as students.
There is a story I keep telling, because it is a good one, about the fourteen of you. On a Thursday evening, in mid-March, I announced the closing of campus and our transition to remote learning. We then shuffled solemnly in to Chapel. The gratitude offered moved and inspired us all e– a testament to a vibrant community. Just afterward, the seniors, you all, were asked how you wanted to spend your final night together on campus.
On the backbenches of Chapel at that moment, you all chose to be with and lead your peers, to have group check-ins, and to bring a little bit of routine to a profoundly abnormal moment for a community in need. No one would have begrudged you the choice to sequester yourselves for the last night, to simply be together, as seniors, for one last time.
I have often said that we don’t get to choose the time, place, or circumstances when we will be called upon to make a true leadership decision, a decision that will make a difference and define who we are. The entire Midland community still believes in the power of WE over I. Values, such as “needs versus wants,” are elegant when applied to the consumption of resources. These values become profoundly personal and challenging when we face a choice between the collective good and our individual desire.
I can’t think of a more fitting final act to define you all – in that moment of selflessness, you showed us who you are as individuals and as a class.
Now you, me, we … are not perfect. Our flaws give a realistic sheen to the composition. Some of us, myself included, wrestle with doing the right thing even when it is the hard thing – sometimes getting it right and sometimes not. We have struggled mightily, and in the very best of ways, to support one another over the last few years. Helping to fill in the gaps, be it an insufficient grasp of the basics, a too-tenuous self-confidence, or someone bearing the burden of a profound loss – You have all thrived because of your classmates, they have done you right. And you have done right by them.
In a few mere moments, you seniors will no longer be high school students, and I will no longer be a “new” Head of School. Finally, I feel familiar enough with our history and traditions to be of this place, and you will always have a special place in my heart as mentors in my journey. Starting now, we all embark on new journeys. Next fall, you all will be first-year students again, and at Midland we will welcome new students, re-form our community, and re-start school. All of us will navigate a radically changed world – a world that probably won’t ever go back to what it once was.
The clock never runs backward, and, for every loss, there are offsetting gains. Don’t fear change – it is inevitable. Instead, strive to find the best within the turmoil. Seek the opportunities. Uncertainty eats at our confidence, rattles our foundation, and demands fortitude from us all. Kind of like being a new student at a remote boarding school where learning to do without and do more than your share is the expectation. Uncertainty presents, without a doubt, a daunting challenge, a challenge I know each and every one of you has overcome many times.
You might not feel ready. But you are ready. Now more than anytime in living history, we see the perils of insincere leadership, the foibles of the false gods of consumption, and a bright light shining on the deep cracks within our society.
I am so proud of you. Why? Because Midland’s gift to the world in this moment of profound need is the fourteen of you.
You are ready to build and sustain real and authentic community because you have already done it. You are ready to learn and inspire others to learn because you have already pursued intellectual growth. You are ready to make difficult choices and do the right thing even when it is the hard thing – I know because I have seen you do it. You are ready to be humble, express gratitude, and to give before taking. We know you can and will because we have seen you do it over and over again.
Think of your classmates, the ones before you and the ones soon to follow: you are not, and will never be, alone in this journey. There are kindred spirits and passionate doers who will join you, and you all will “leave the place better than you found it.” As Jane just elegantly described, you have done it here at Midland. You have the skills and the passion to go out and make the world a better place.
Someplace in the package we sent home recently, is a small token, a reminder. Parents, please dig out that pewter acorn and give it to our graduates now. Seniors: rub that acorn between your fingers and start polishing it. It may take a lifetime to get the sheen just right, but you have the perseverance and the experience to do so.
Forever and ever, your roots will be here in the soil at Midland. You have a kinship with the mighty oak, born of hard work in parched soil. Each of you is firmly rooted and grounded, skyward bound, and on a path to being a mighty oak, each unique and different, yet sharing a deep roots, possessing an innate tenacity to prevail against adversity, sheltering those in need of respite, and possessing a stately and lasting beauty.
On behalf of a grateful community and your proud parents, I leave you with this important wisdom … Have a great day!
Christopher Barnes, Head of School
(Spoken during the Class of 2020’s Graduation Ceremony)