by Ted Hunt
I was very pleased when Mr. Gee asked me to give the commencement speech this year. I have said good-bye to a lot of senior classes, but I have felt an unusual sense of affinity between me and this particular senior class throughout their time in the Upper School. I’m really going to miss these guys.
There are a few themes, three to be exact, that I want to focus on today. When I was trying to figure out how to convey these themes, I remembered a comment that one of the seniors made at the end of her junior year. She told me that what she liked best about my U.S. History class were the stories that I told. In fact, she said, her impression of American History was that it was just one long story. Well, I’ll take that, and my talk today will center on a few more stories.
Seniors, you might not believe this, but I can remember pretty well the feelings that I had on my high school graduation day. I was so excited to get on to the next stage of my life, but yet apprehensive, because the unknown and untried is always scary. You guys are probably feeling the same ambivalence, but don’t let the apprehension overwhelm the excitement. You are about to enter the part of your life where you will have the most, by far the most, opportunity to explore, to test yourself, to try things out. There are so many doors in front of you, waiting to be opened. Open them.
Some will give you access to a room that you will do nothing more than look into. Some of those rooms you will enter and spend a little time in. A small number of those rooms will be the places where you will spend the rest of your life. But which rooms are which? That is what you need to find out in the next few years. Essentially, what you will be doing is searching for your passion. And even if you know what it is, it needs to be tested. So, take some courses that have nothing to do with your major; join some clubs, join the student newspaper or radio station. Take advantage of these opportunities; get out of your comfort zone; take some risks.
At my graduation I was awarded the school’s math prize. But math was not my passion. Towards the end of my sophomore year in college, I began to ask myself, as Mr. Tepedino asked you, what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, I used my logical math brain and thought about what I liked to do most in life. And the answers were: play soccer and read history books. Now I couldn’t think of any jobs where they would pay me to play soccer and read history books, but I came up with an alternative that would allow me to pursue these passions: history teacher and soccer coach. And here I am all these years later, and it appears that I am still pursuing my passions. But something interesting happened in the last 40 or so years. Soccer and history are still very important to me, but somewhere along the way I found that my true passion was actually working with young people. You see, seniors, pursuing your passion right now might not put you on your final road, but I think that there’s a good chance that it will lead you to it.
But what if your passion is not something that will allow you to make a decent living? Ideally, your interests will lead you to a walk of life where you can both pursue what you love and pay the bills. And if you do find that “sweet spot,” where you are pursuing your passion every working day, well, at that point you don’t have a job, you have what is referred to as a “calling.” A few years ago, Van Morrison released an album entitled Born to Sing- No Plan B. That’s a calling. It’s when you can’t even conceive of doing anything else. But not everyone is that lucky. After all, if your passion is making origami, but you’re living in your parents’ basement making origami in ten years, that might not have been a wise choice to the exclusion of all others. However, I would advise you to still find time in college to identify and pursue your passion, even if it does not lead to your future job. Just look for creative ways to work that passion into your life. And here is where my first story comes in.
My fifth grade teacher at Bradford Elementary School in Montclair, New Jersey, was Mrs. Blomstrom. And she was right out of central casting. She was probably about fifty when I was in her class, although to 10-11 year old me, she could have been 150. She wore dresses that looked like the dresses the farm women are wearing in the old photos of 1880’s North Dakota Homesteaders, her hair was in a bun on top of her head, and she wore cat’s eye glasses. And, according to the older kids at my school, she was mean. Needless to say, I entered her class with a bit of trepidation. But you know what? She wasn’t mean—demanding and exacting to be sure—but not mean. And I learned so many things in her class: math skills, vocabulary, rules of grammar; American folk music, geography, and the National parks. And every week, she took us to the school library to check out a new book. (Of course, while the other kids were fighting over A Wrinkle in Time, I was picking out a new history book.) But Mrs. Blomstrom’s passion was art. Maybe her dream job would have been art critic for the New York Times, but she was a fifth grade teacher. However, very often on Fridays, towards the end of the school day, after she had fulfilled her obligations to the State of New Jersey and the Montclair school board, she gave us an art lesson. She had a storage box containing hundreds of art prints, and I learned about the Impressionists and the Realists, about still life and abstract art, about Monet and Andrew Wyeth.
Heck, I learned more about art from Mrs. Blomstrom than I could have learned from a hundred New York Times art critics.
One day Mrs. Bloomstrom asked me if I would be her assistant at an art presentation that she was making at the Montclair Public Library on the weekend. Wow, what a thrill. My mom made me dress up like I was going to church, and Mrs. Blomstrom came to my house to pick me up! Mrs. Blomstrom had a car! Mrs. Blomstrom knew how to drive! And she let me sit in the front seat like a grown-up. At the end of the year, I moved on to sixth grade, and two years later my family moved to Pennsylvania and I never saw Mrs. Blomstrom again. But she remained, and remains, right up here (point to head).
Fifty plus years after being in her class, and I would say that the majority of what I know about art came from her. My favorite painters, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, were my favorite artists in 1966. I still love to read. And the exactitude with which I approach my own students’ writing came to a great extent from her. But I think that the most important lesson that I learned from Mrs. Blomstrom is this: no matter what your job is, you can always bring your passion into your life, and share it with others.
And the world is made richer for it.
My second story is from American history. Do any of you recognize the names Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond? I must admit that I talk about what these guys did every year in my history classes, and I had to double check their names. Sixty years ago, these four young men were college freshmen in Greensboro, North Carolina. Living at the point in history when the modern civil rights movement was making notable progress—Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock school integration—they wanted to contribute to the movement themselves.
But what could four freshmen do that would help to bring down the enormous monstrosity of legal segregation known as the Jim Crow system? It would be like a handful of teenagers kicking Mount Olympus to try to knock it over. But they devised a plan, and on February 1st, 1960, they went into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro. Woolworth’s back then was what was called a “five and dime”—a small, inexpensive department store that existed in virtually every town and city in America. Most Woolworth’s stores had lunch counters where customers could get something to eat, but in the South, African-Americans were not allowed to use the lunch counter. On that day in 1960, these four students went into Woolworth’s and bought some toiletries, making them customers of the store. Then they sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. As expected, they were refused service, so they sat there on the seats until the store closed hours later.
The next day the four freshmen returned with a group of 20 students; on the third day the number grew to sixty, but the white thugs arrived as well. The students staging the sit-in had to endure racial epithets, physical attacks, and harassment that included cigarettes being snuffed out on their necks.
Nevertheless, they persisted. On the fourth day, there were 300 protesters, and then the protest spread to Woolworth’s in other southern cities. In the end, the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, and then the national chain, abandoned their segregation policies. More importantly, the victory engineered by those four college freshmen helped inspire other events, including the 1961 Freedom Rides, and countless challenges across the south: sit-ins at segregated restaurants, pray-ins at segregated churches, swim-ins at segregated beaches. The sit-in movement helped inspire the events in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, whose horrific scenes of police dogs and fire hoses being used against children pushed President Kennedy to send a new civil rights bill to Congress. This bill, now called the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and which was guided to passage by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, finally ended the legality of the Jim Crow system. Olympus had fallen!
To be sure, there would be, and still are, other mountains to come down. But what these four college freshmen did has always reminded me of my favorite piece of inspiration, a passage from a speech given by Robert Kennedy, the president’s younger brother. He said: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Courage — the courage to stand up for what is right. It’s an easy thing to talk about, but also easy to avoid, especially if it leads to discomfort and/or disapproval or if one believes that an individual action will not make any difference. But seniors, don’t avoid it. We live in challenging times, and you will have plenty of opportunities to stand up for what is right. Fighting for justice is not something that is confined to history books. There are examples in front of you right now. One day a high school graduation speaker may talk about the movement initiated by the students of Parkland, Florida. One day a speaker might refer to the courage of AC’s own Matt Zeller. Who knows, seniors, maybe one day a speaker somewhere will talk about one of you. Courage.
The final thing that I would like to talk about today is gratitude, and for that I am going to refer to a movie that I bet a lot of you have seen, maybe as recently as this past week: Steven Spielberg’s World War II classic Saving Private Ryan. You might be thinking that this movie is primarily about courage, those horrific scenes of Omaha Beach certainly come to mind, but I have always believed that the real message of the movie comes right at the very end. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men have been searching for Private Ryan (Matt Damon) so that they can get him home to his parents, who have already lost their other three sons in the war. A number of Miller’s men have died on this mission, and at the end of the movie, as Miller himself lies dying on the bridge in the Normandy village, he speaks just two words to Private Ryan: “earn this.” Those words immediately transport Ryan back to the present day, where he breaks down in the middle of the Normandy cemetery, asking his family, “Have I been a good person, have I led a good life?” In essence, he is asking if he has shown the proper gratitude for the sacrifice that his brothers-in-arms made for him in 1944. Well, seniors, as Mikayla reminded you, you have family out in this audience who have sacrificed to get you to this day. I’m not just talking about the tuition dollars. I’m talking about the music lessons; the fees for sports teams and summer camps; the car rides to practices, games and recitals; the trips to school to watch you perform and to talk to your teachers. I’m talking about the hugs when you needed a hug, the kicks in the rear when you needed that. A lot of sacrifices have been made to get you into those seats today, so seniors, in the words of Captain Miller, “earn this,” earn these sacrifices. How do you do this? I refer you back to the movie, and, like Private Ryan, keep asking yourselves as you move through life: “Am I a good person?” “Am I living a good life?” I think that a good place to start is by pursuing your passions and displaying courage in standing up for what is right. Ultimately, I believe that these things will make you happy, and that, in the end, is all your family has ever wanted for you.
I have one more story about gratitude and for that I am going to circle back to Mrs. Blomstrom.
Early in our marriage my wife asked me if I realized how often I referred to Mrs. Blomstrom as the source of so many things that I knew about. She suggested that I write her a letter. I did not act on that suggestion for a long time, years actually, making up some lame excuses, but my wife can be pretty insistent, so one day I called the Montclair school district central office, explained who I was, and who I was looking for. The woman I spoke to remembered Mrs. Blomstrom, but said that they did not have her current address. All she knew was that she had retired to Arizona. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A few years later, we were visiting my sister and her family in Amherst, outside of Buffalo, and they had just purchased their first desktop computer, which was connected to something called the internet. My brother-in-law said that he could look up people’s addresses using just bits of information, so I asked him to type in “Helen Blomstrom, Arizona.” Boom—there it was! She was living in a retirement community outside of Phoenix. So, I wrote that letter- two typewritten pages. I told her who I was and why I had written. I told her the things that I had done since leaving her class in 1966; I told her that I had become a teacher. Most importantly, I thanked her for all of the things that she had done. Then I sent it off and ……..nothing. Weeks went by, then months, and eventually I figured that I would not hear from her. But about a year later a letter arrived from Arizona. It was from Mrs. Blomstrom’s niece, and she said that my letter, along with my return address, had been misplaced and had just recently turned up. She said that she couldn’t put into words how much my letter had meant to her aunt, and she wondered if I would write to her again. You bet I would! I wrote her that night, a shorter letter, one that summed up the previous year. I mailed it off, and this time I heard back in about a month, again from the niece. She said that her aunt was thrilled to get the second letter from me but, sadly, she had passed away a couple of weeks later. And after she died, her family had found my two letters in a drawer where she kept her “special things.” You see, the smallest gesture of gratitude can have an enormous impact.
So, seniors, I have one last assignment for you. I think that it would be great if, over the summer, each of you were to write a letter to one of your Lower School or elementary school teachers. You’ll know what to say. It might take a little bit of work to track down the teacher, but you should do it. You have no idea how important that letter will be. And make it a real letter, something with a stamp and an envelope; something they can hold onto; something they can put into the drawer with their special things.
I will close by reading to you the lyrics from one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. I gave my sister a framed print of the lyrics for her twenty-first birthday, and it was the first song on a CD that I made for my daughter when she went away to college. Seniors, I think that you will find the song’s title paradoxical, as I imagine that you have been hearing a lot about how grown up you must be now that you are entering adulthood. The song’s title is Forever Young, and these are my wishes for you.
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Ted HuntTed has been teaching since he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1977. He spent his first few years teaching at Vermont Academy, a boarding school in Saxtons River, Vermont. Upon leaving the academy in 1982, Ted joined Allendale Columbia as a history teacher. He teaches history and economics to eleventh and twelfth graders, and he was the recipient of the Gleason Chair in Teaching Excellence in 1998. Ted is also the HAC Varsity Soccer Coach.