Building Legacies

Head of School Kathy Giles addressed the Class of 2017 during the commencement ceremony on Monday, May 29.  Here are excerpts from her remarks:

So, Class of 2017, here we are. More than any other class in this school’s recent history, you have lived among the beeps and whistles of construction noises. You have seen the Mary Mae Village built; you have watched the Terry Room come back to life; you have been the first students in newly-renovated LB and RW and Clay Houses; you are first-generation Landry House; and last night, you unofficially christened the Rachel Carson Music and Campus Center a week before its official dedication and opening.

You have navigated lots of trucks, remote parking patterns, construction fence, “scrim” – excitement, inconvenience, and change. Thank you for your good humor through it all. My personal aspiration has never been to build buildings, but it has become clear to me, to our team, to our community and extended friends and family that this beautiful, antique campus can’t take care of itself; that where we live and work together hugely influences how we live and work together; and that when the architecture of our lives reflects our purpose with beauty, grace, integrity, and dignity – and the lights work and hot water gets up to that RW fourth floor and outlasts the 45 minute showers that apparently sometimes happen in Clay – we do better as a school, because our attention and energy focus on what we are creating rather than on what isn’t working. What has been great about this building-palooza, over the past four years and extending two into the future, is that the many people who have made this possible, in terms of their financial support, have asked for nothing back – in fact, we have had to wrangle a bit to get names on buildings and dedication plaques. These projects have teams of donors, alums and families, people have wanted to enable and inspire, who have let our faculty design the program and spaces and who have wanted to make better the experience of generations of students they will never know. That’s what commitment and generosity look like, and that is the effect that all of this work will have on students yet to join us and, in fact, yet to be born. So, indeed, going forward, our experience in the Library will be different and probably better without percussion lessons in the basement; sadly, you will miss that change by only a few weeks. You’ll live. But for me, and maybe for some of you as well, architecture and building have taken on a different significance.

There are many blessings throughout one’s life to having been an English major, and I highly recommend it. Metaphors abound and poems stick in one’s head, popping up at convenient and yes, sometimes inconvenient times. As we construct these great places to live and work and create, and even if we know that, like those baby trees newly planted around campus that will have changed as much as you have when you return for your fiftieth reunion, these buildings will outlast us. The idea that “nothing withstands the ravages of history and time” is such an eternal truth that it defies attribution. One of the most famous poems written on this topic is “Ozymandias,” a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic English poet, in 1818 as the British museum acquired stone fragments of an enormous monument of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II removed from the elaborate palace the Pharoah had built to be his tomb. Many of you know this poem from your English classes here, and it goes like this:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The metaphor is easy, particularly for those as well versed in the elements of poetry as you all are. And the irony is clear, as well.

So as we have done all of this work, I have been thinking how about how construction is important but creation is even more so, and focusing not so much about how important the buildings are, but instead how the intent of the builders makes all the difference in outcomes and experiences. Beeps, whistles, fire codes and certificates of occupancy aside, I hope that being a builder is a skill you will carry forward into your lives and work, wherever those paths take you.

What will you build? We’ve been working with you for the past few years here on foundations – knowledge, skills, interests, passions, credentials – your character, your judgment, your ability to lead. Honesty, gratitude, kindness, respect, and courage – our community’s “virtues” only to the extent that they become part of us and guide our actions, the ways we view ourselves in the context of others, and how we choose to see and be in the world – fundamentally, those qualities are builder’s tools, when one gets right down to it. We want and need those tools to become instincts and not just words; we want them to be the tools with which we all build. I have been thinking about integrity, the way these qualities of mind and heart have to come together, hoping that with the foundations you have worked hard to put down, and with the tools that you have, including the rest of the skills you have been developing, you leave here builders of good character, of sufficient strength, determination, and motivation to develop your vision of a world that works better for all of us, to build a future that respects each of us and offers the opportunity for all children to find their promise.

So, what will you choose to build?

A resume, a website, a following? A system, a network, a team, a cast, a production? A career, a business, a fortune, an empire?

A reputation – good, bad, indifferent – and you’ve done a lot of that work here, already, perhaps a version 1.0 or even 2.0, to quote CeCe’s chapel earlier this year – and of course, most of your building is ahead of you as you get to build a future, a family, a life (and we each have just one life). Are you building a skyscraper of a life, tall and narrow and soaring, with a spectacular view from the top? Are you building a cathedral, with multiple spires and complex, elaborate architecture dedicated to a sacred purpose? A farm, teeming with living and growing things that you cultivate and tend? Again, metaphors abound, and I know you get it. None of us want to end up like Ozymandias, memorialized with a frown, a wrinkled lip, a sneer of cold command by “a mocking hand” – as beneficiaries of great opportunity gathered here today, we do not want that legacy to be ours, either as individuals or as citizens of our society. So much better to be a builder than a mere celebrity – a legend in our own minds, as the saying goes.

So what does this builder-thing look like in real life? I had a conversation a few weeks ago with one of our alums than spun off into deep waters. This person was ending a difficult, complicated marriage, and we talked about figuring out how to build new, trustworthy relationships without being cynical or suspicious; how to come out of a very hard experience without being jaded, how to be open and willing to trust again without being afraid. After some time, we agreed that looking for evidence of being a builder would be one way to go, examining people and new relationships for evidence of builder qualities. Is there a plan, and with the amount of work, energy, and support available, could it work? What are the goals, and are they generous and altruistic, or are they self-centered and selfish? And perhaps most importantly, would doing the work with this person bring out the best in us, even if the ends are not entirely clear – would it be an opportunity to grow and give in a respectful, honest way, with courage and gratitude and the rest of the builder’s toolkit involved in the work? Sometimes when we talk about finding the promise, we let each other know that it’s the finding, not the promise, that is the most important thing; and with honesty, gratitude, kindness, respect, and courage, it’s good to know that all of these virtues or tools find their fulfillment in love – the love of friends and family and the most significant kinds of love that turn out to be the most important parts of our lives and legacies.

And as you figure it out how to be a builder, there will always be questions that people ask you, questions that you ask yourself, and questions that wake you up in the middle of the night —

Why do I want to build it (whatever it is)? Is there a purpose beyond gain for me? Is it responsible and right?

How will I build my team? How will I find the people to whom I will entrust my vision and my success? And how can I get them to believe in me and my vision and do this work with me?

What will we build? Will it be solid? Will it be built on the right ground? Have I laid the right infrastructure – is there enough concrete in the foundation to hold up my dreams and my responsibilities?

Will it be sturdy – will it collapse (and will people get hurt?) How will my engineering support my architecture? What kind of experts can give me the advice that I will need, and how can I connect with them?

Will it be beautiful? Will others find beauty in it, as well? Will it represent me well, and will I be able to be proud of it?

Answering those questions again and again is part and parcel of being a builder. Sometimes the answers are easier than you think and obvious if you choose to see them.

To quote Hadley Goodman, “You are kind, you are smart, you are important, and you are loved.” – You can figure it out.

Ever since Hadley gave her talk in chapel, in my mind I have been thinking of her closing line to us – “You are kind, you are smart, you are important, and you are loved” as the “4 Reasons Why.” CHOOSE to believe them and check off those boxes; end the self-speculation, the insecurity that undermines energy and hopefulness, and concentrate on building not just for yourself but for others. Those “4 Reasons Why” are what you need to believe to be able to give to others, and you won’t be able to believe them if you let yourself depend on the identity that “likes” and “followers” offers. Choose to believe and build because of everyone here today for you, people you know and love for real, not for likes. Choose to believe those “4 Reasons Why” so that with your builders’ tools and with integrity, you can keep on with the work you have begun, the work of building good, great value in a life that is important to you, to those you love, and to your world.

Class of 2017, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to have you grow up here with us. Time and again, you have reminded the faculty and staff why we love this work. We appreciate your leadership – you’ve set a great standard, and you leave your School stronger and better. Thank you. And it is now, as Jake said in chapel last week, time for us to hand you the reins to your life. Let’s do those diplomas.