Commencement 2021 Address: Randy Northrup

Posted on July 8th, 2021 by acsrochester

By Randy Northrup, AC faculty member

Thank you Mrs. Baudo. 

We thank you for the tremendous job you have done for all of us during this past year. You took on what seemed an insurmountable task and steadied the ship as we charted a course of full, in-person instruction like no other school could. Thank you too, to Connie, Henry, and Chris for sharing you with us. We are very grateful to you.

And now, Mrs. Baudo, members of the board of trustees, families and friends of the graduates, my beloved friends, members of the faculty and staff, and most importantly on this wonderful day – Allendale Columbia School’s Class of 2021.

Well here we are.
Look around you.
Take it all in. 

All this will be over in the blink of an eye. Your parents sitting there are saying, “Where did the time go?” You may even be looking back to your days in Kindergarten and thinking that it seemed like only yesterday…

I can relate. 

I have been teaching at this school for 40 of its 130 years. I’ve been around a while. And yet it has gone by so quickly. Yes, I’ve been here long enough to have many memories. Some of you lifers, and others with almost as many AC years, have amassed Allendale Columbia memories as well, but some of you are more recent recruits. I should share with you that I relate to you as well. There are times I feel like a newbie, a bit like a fish out of water myself. You see, there are plenty of people, alums, former faculty, and families whose Allendale Columbia experiences reach back much farther than mine. I am always aware of the people who came before me, the people who set the stage and set the tone, the people who built both the brick and mortar facilities, and the foundations of learning and traditions that we, that you, each one of you, have had a part in.

In preparing this address, one theme that I considered led me to another. I hope that I can connect these two thoughts today. First, I hope you aren’t expecting me to go on about how resilient you have been during “these challenging times.” I hope you have already heard enough of that for now. I’d prefer to speak not of resilience but of fragility. The pandemic has made us aware of fragility, the fragility of life and of health. Our confidence in the ability of medical science to keep us safe has been shaken. Health care workers, despite herculean efforts, could not save the lives of many tens of thousands of people. Life is fragile. But that is not the only example of fragility we have encountered.

Harder this year than ever before in my career has been the difficulty of helping my students understand what is going on in the world. Starting each day with a discussion of current events as I have for many years, I not only had to help my students navigate a global pandemic, but from the very first day of school, I had to help them navigate the issues of racial reckoning as protests and the subsequent responses were right at their doorsteps here in Rochester. Peace, justice, equity— things that should be solid bedrocks of this world we share, all seemed so fragile.

Politics of a presidential election? The truth seemed fragile. And then came the current events discussion of January seventh. 

I had to face a room of fifth graders who were full of questions that I could not answer. Had I been naive to have thought that democracy was not fragile?

I’m afraid I even have to say that I have been confronted by concerns that our humanity is more fragile than I ever would have thought. By our humanity I mean my belief in the basic goodness of people. Humanity- humaneness, kindness, consideration, understanding, sympathy, empathy, tolerance… I must really sound like that old fogey now. That gotcha moment we can’t resist – the “Watch them get triggered by this” tweet – slamming each other, scorching each other – canceling – counter canceling. 

We are better than this.
We should do better. 

Can these things happen here at our school? OUR school? But then, how can AC possibly be an island when all of this surrounds us and encroaches?

We hear often about the importance of traditions at Allendale Columbia. You must know how important those traditions are to me. Strawberry Breakfast, Blue White Day, family-style lunches. Those are all great, but they are hollow rituals compared to what I have always considered the greatest tradition and value of Allendale Columbia: civility and civil discourse. 

Words matter.
Yes, actions matter more, but words do matter. 

As you go off from here, please remember the lessons I hope you have learned about civility. You will find that you disagree with others. Speak up, dissent, protest as you should— as you must— but don’t do it to trigger someone or roast them. Don’t repay pettiness with pettiness, evil intent with evil intent.

I suppose you didn’t expect such sermonizing. Well now, how am I ever going to tie this all together? 

Let me move on to my final example of fragility that leads to the other thought I’d like to share with you today. Here is the example. It is something that hit me hard…

Last year’s parking lot commencement ceremony was unique for sure, but I’ll look back two years to a more traditional AC commencement celebration. In 2019 we gathered in the Gannett Gym on a warm Sunday afternoon, but a dark cloud hung over the event for most of us. At that point, there was to be just one more class graduating from Allendale Columbia School.

Several weeks earlier it had been announced that we would merge with another institution. As it turned out, the manner of communication led many of us to see this as more of an absorption that would extinguish. It seemed doubtful that most faculty and staff members would be retained, and even the fate of this beautiful campus was in doubt. I sat in the gym and, except when I was listening in rapt attention to the commencement address being delivered by my friend, Mr. Hunt, I looked around wondering what would happen to my friends and to this place. The school I had spent so many years serving, an institution so valuable with such strong roots and fruitful branches – was it all really so fragile?

I would be retiring soon, but how could I come back to visit my friends, and was I never going to see this place again? Yes, a school is more than the four walls, more than the books in the library, more than my old classroom, but there is something deep-rooted in many of us, a desire to visit and to re-experience once familiar places. Places help us to reminisce.

I looked around the gym where we were saying goodbye to the Class of 2019, and I turned to look at the crowd. I don’t know if you ever noticed it. On the wall just to the right of the bleachers, there is a portion of unpainted brown bricks. Hidden in the wall behind those bricks is a time capsule. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in time capsules during the pandemic. Many teachers assigned time capsules during lockdown. But my thoughts went back 28 years from that day, 30 years ago from now. It was Allendale Columbia’s centennial year, a year of many festive and reflective celebrations. Each class from nursery school through grade twelve was charged with contributing something to this capsule. I only recall one specific item that was placed in that capsule, the photos from my fourth grade class. When they were in fourth grade, the Class of 1999 was interested in this pressing concern. They wanted to let people of the future know what they thought about the Lower School uniform. They contributed two photos. In one, they are wearing Campbel plaid jumpers and navy blue slacks with plain white polo shirts. In the second one, they are modeling what they wished they could wear to school. 1991— you can imagine the neon, the jelly shoes, the oversized basketball jerseys, and hawaiian print visor caps.

However, sitting there that day, one of many unsettling thoughts regarding the pending merger, not as important as teachers and traditions – what would happen to that time capsule? Would anyone care?

Actually, we all know the answer to that last question. People DID care. Behind the scenes, the wheels were turning. A month or so after that commencement day, there was a collective sigh of relief. The merger was off. AC would stay AC. Relief, yes – but trepidation. We were aware of the fragility of our precarious situation. The rally has been remarkable. I for one will be eternally grateful to all of those who didn’t lose faith, who worked and gave, who offered so much. Many of us under this tent kept the faith and hung on. And Graduates, I am grateful to you and your families for sticking with us. We are helping Allendale Columbia to thrive, building on what is good from the past with the best of new ideas.

And what about that time capsule? It should stay there for at least 100 years, I think. That is the purpose of time capsules, to share with people far removed from current times a glimpse of contemporary values, interests, and concerns.

And why did I carry on about fragility and time capsules on this day when we are sending you off into the world from the safety of this nest in the birches? I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure, but first of all, when things are fragile, we take care with them. We do things to fortify them and keep them sound, just as we have done together for Allendale Columbia. I can commit to do the same myself with the other things that I identified as examples of fragility – justice, equity, truth, and civility. I am retiring, but my work is not done and neither is yours. 

Strengthen the things that are fragile.

Don’t take for granted that everything around you can easily continue as you’d like it to stay. If it really is important to you, be prepared to show it by your actions.

Second of all, although this may sound like something I would say to my fifth graders, this is my favorite part: you don’t need a time capsule sealed up in a wall. You have that time capsule right inside you. Remember when I said that the contents of a time capsule represent contemporary values, interests, and concerns? What are your values, interests, and concerns on this day? 

Some time ago I asked you to look around, to take it all in. That moment is gone, but perhaps you’ll find you have stowed something away that you can recall when you’re as old as I am. While it may be as simple as the scent of your roses, or how warm it is under this big top, or most likely the feeling of impatience and wishing Mr. Northrup would stop talking— but I hope that one of the values or qualities you identify today is one of gratitude

You know what you should be grateful for and to whom you should be grateful as you consider your Allendale Columbia career – that special joke shared with friends, grilled cheese and blond brownies made by a kitchen staff who care, that encouraging compliment when you really needed it, kindergarten naptime. And yes, I know, not all memories are happy, sappy ones. There were tough times too. Ones that are especially tough are when people disappoint you, or when you disappoint yourself. These are important things to keep in your time capsule too because they are often the things that we can learn the most from if we try to move beyond resentment. Can those hard memories fade or give way to forgiveness of others or forgiveness of yourself? Maybe yes, maybe no.

So, now I ask for your indulgence as I look into my own time capsule. You see I am moving on today just like you. There is beauty in this place. How fortunate I have been to teach in spacious classrooms with windows that look out onto the everchanging seasons. Many people who have worked here share my favorite tree – the tall sugar maple outside the music and art building, the first to blaze with color soon after we repeat the annual cycle of returning to school. Shrieks of joy as little sledders hit the jump they made just right on the snowy hill. The referee’s whistle and cheers across the soccer field. The students who made teaching a joy, and perhaps more importantly, the students who challenged me. Some of you are sitting right there. You made me think, and learn, and care. Teachers can’t reach students if they don’t care about them. Most of all, my time capsule holds gratitude— gratitude to the leaders now and those from the past who encouraged teachers like me to be creative, to try new things, and to realize that many old things are valuable as well. I am grateful that this was a wonderful place for my own four children to spend their years as lifers. I am grateful for my colleagues whose example inspired me through the years.

Allendale Columbia School Class of 2021, congratulations. Godspeed. I am proud to be graduating with you, even though it’s taken me a few more years. Enjoy the rest of this wonderful day. Store it in your time capsule. Years from now when you recall this, the memories can tell you what was important to you, what you valued. Are those things fragile? Are they sustainable? 

Today in my heart is a feeling of immense and sustained gratitude.

 

 

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Commencement 2021

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