Out of the Mouths of Babes: A Brief Overview of the Allendale Columbia Student Commencement Speakers

Posted on June 18th, 2019 by Allendale Columbia School

By Ted Hunt, AC History Teacher

“A few weeks ago, I was thinking about A/C and what it has meant to me over the last four years; after all, I had a graduation speech to write.”

With those words, Brandon Block, Class of 1985, began the first senior Commencement speech in Allendale Columbia School history. The list of student speakers now numbers thirty-five, and what a group it has been: articulate, poised, thoughtful, and diverse in just about every parameter imaginable: gender, race, and ethnicity; urban, rural, suburban.  Over the course of the last thirty-four years, these speakers have had two commonalities. First, their speeches collectively represent some of the most impressive student prose imaginable and, secondly, I have had the pleasure to work with all of them as they crafted and rehearsed their speeches. Year after year, our student speakers were able to distill the essence of Allendale Columbia, its programs, and its people as well as any group of professionals we could have hired to market the school. I saved each and every one of those thirty-five speeches and I would like to share some of their highlights.

(See Ted’s 2019 Commencement address here.)

At the beginning of the 1984-85 school year, Headmaster David Pynchon asked me to take on the role of Commencement coordinator, and I asked if we could add to the program a student speaker. My vision was that the speaker would be selected by the senior class in a democratic election, and the substance of the speech would be up to them. David readily agreed, and off we went. At times the selection of the speaker was clear-cut (the class of ’18 did not even have a vote), and on other occasions we needed multiple run-offs to come up with a winner. But regardless of how they got to their decision, the seniors always made wise selections.

One of the common themes of the speeches was, impressively, a sense of gratitude for the hard work and sacrifices that parents and school employees had made to get the students to their big day. Cameron Thaney ’05 gave a moving “shout-out” to the seniors’ parents when she said,

You unselfishly attend our plays and concerts, drive to tourist hotspots like Dundee and South Seneca, and somehow manage to tolerate our mood swings, stubbornness, our self-inflicted sleep deprivation and the numerous other products of high school life. But most importantly, you have given us the greatest gift you ever could have given: an Allendale Columbia education.

“You have given us the greatest gift you ever could have given: an Allendale Columbia education.” – Cameron Thaney ’05

Sumi Crawford-Ramsahai ’10 thanked her teachers with the words, “Not only did you try your hardest to ensure that we knew and understood the material we learned in class, but you all have helped us in some way become better people outside of the classroom.” The next year, Robbie Cooper ’11 echoed Sumi’s sentiments when he described his teachers as,

The group of men and women who bear the torments that accompany spending time with teenagers on a daily basis, who guide us through both the physical and intellectual aspects of growing up, and, perhaps most importantly, who let their students know that teachers are people too, and are just as good as being friends as they are at explaining to us the mysteries of the universe.

Amy Pollack ’90 also mentioned the faculty when she noted that “from our teachers who pushed, poked, and prodded us to do the things we didn’t even want to do, we’ve learned to believe and expect a lot from ourselves.”

A number of the student speakers took the time to thank the staff of AC as well. Martijn Appelo ’14, thanked “our tweeting lunch ladies, our caring custodial staff, and our incredibly knowledgeable maintenance staff.” Ben Ambler ’04 also made special mention of the kitchen staff: “In this world you will not find a more friendly bunch. Every morning they arrive here before everyone else and start their long work on the food which we all so quickly devour.”

The unique nature of the setting and traditions of Allendale Columbia were other topics that a number of our speakers touched upon. Peter Angevine ’88, Nick Brandt ’98 and Kathryn Tsibulsky ’94, among others, mentioned their affection for events like Blue/White Day and Strawberry Breakfast, while Ricky Yates ’15 waxed poetically about the school’s surroundings:

Following a rain here at Allendale Columbia, the grass will be wet, there will be some worms in the courtyard, and the fields will be muddy. But something stands out, and if you try hard enough, you can notice it from across campus. You can hear it after a rain. Allens Creek can run very strong, swelling up to ten feet of turbulent water in certain bends, bearing away all the debris that lay on the banks and rested in the bed. At times, it has even risen right up to the bottom of the bridges, scouring out all of the cobwebs. Weeds, shrubs, and unwanted plants are rarely spared, having their roots unceremoniously ripped right out from under them and dashed against the large boulders and trunks that have been engulfed by the cleansing deluge. The rotten wood and reeds, the yard waste, the Jack O’Lanterns, the litter, the disappointing test grades, the missed homework, the checks, all get washed away by the creek, which continues to press onwards, allowing for rebirth along the banks, giving space for flowers to push through the damp soil, rejuvenating the birches and ivy that were once chocked by flotsam and jetsam.

Not surprisingly, most our speakers have spoken eloquently about the nature of the school and the value of its education. Richard Beattie ’86, who spent his freshman year at another school, explained, “My year away from AC helped me to compare and to realize that all the school’s special features would be difficult, if not impossible to duplicate. AC’s uniqueness stems from the feeling of community which prevails here.” Elisabeth Smith ’91 said that, “As seniors graduating from Allendale Columbia, we have learned from the people we respect and admire to see all the world, good and bad, rather than simply what we choose to see of it.”

McLean Quinn ’01 recounted:

So how has Allendale Columbia prepared us for a lifetime of success? By showing us the value of perseverance. By helping us to appreciate the sacrifice of our loved ones have made for us and to learn to sacrifice for our loved ones. By causing us to realize the importance of good teachers and mentors in our lives and to understand that wherever we go we can search out good teachers and mentors and serve as teachers and mentors for those we care about.

Ben Ambler ’04, ever the iconoclast (he delivered his speech wearing a white kilt), said,

It is a secret to no one that I have my misgivings about this institution. If you know me, then you probably know what they are; if you don’t, then let us merely leave it as understood that they are there. At any rate, however much I fault this institution with, it wouldn’t change the fact that in this, an imperfect and downtrodden world, we stand in the midst of a school which comes as close as I figure being possible to perfect.

Bichen Xu ’12, one of our international students, told the Commencement audience that year that his background gave him a unique perspective on AC:

I spent half a year looking for the best high school in the United States. Now there are more than 18,000 high schools in the U.S., and I virtually could have picked any one of those. But I chose AC. So I think I have the authority to claim that Allendale Columbia is the best high school in America.

In 1992, Eric Harvey ’92 delivered a speech so poignant and moving that it was reprinted in its entirety in the AC alumni magazine. He told the audience,

This underlying sense of community creates a beneficial learning environment, but what really makes it all work are the teachers. Our school may have a few gaps – the library may be small, the trophy case may be a little smaller, and the football team may be smaller yet – but the teachers make up for it all. I can’t say that the teachers here are special because they are always willing to spend time with us and give extra help. I attended several schools before coming to Allendale Columbia, and all of my teachers were willing to help, yet I still felt distanced from them. At each of those schools there were one or two teachers whom everybody liked because they felt more connected to them, they seemed more like a friend who was sharing something with you, not just teaching at you, and who recognized you for your entire person, not just that part of you that spent 40 minutes in their class every day. At Allendale Columbia every teacher is like that.

“What really makes it all work are the teachers” – Eric Harvey ’92

I learned decades ago to expect eloquence and insight from our student Commencement speakers, but in 2013 Davey Jarrell ’13 delivered one line in the middle of his speech that I believed captured the essence of our school better than any single sentence I have ever heard: “The classes are small, and that makes the students feel bigger.” There it was, boiled down and distilled, the nature of Allendale Columbia: the intimacy, the focus on each individual student, the ability of our students to build confidence and thrive. Bravo, Davey.

PHOTO: Mikayla Gross ’19 and Ted Hunt

Mikayla Gross ’19 and Ted Hunt just after the Commencement ceremony. Photo by Gary Levy.

I began this piece by quoting the first line of the very first senior Commencement speech in 1985. I will close by noting the final line of our most recent speaker’s speech. Mikayla Gross ’19 spent a good portion of her speech talking about how disoriented she had felt as a new seventh grader at Allendale Columbia a few years earlier. And then she closed her speech with a quote from author Ursula K. Le Guin that was aimed not at her classmates or the parents, but at another group that was feeling especially disoriented due to the recent news of the impending merger- the faculty: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” What incredible empathy coming from someone so young.

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” – Mikayla Gross ’19

Our senior Commencement speakers have gone on to become entrepreneurs and executives; teachers and college counselors; writers, sculptors, and actors. They have truly embodied the Allendale Columbia mantra, “first here, then anywhere.” Each and every one of our thirty-five students spoke from the heart, shared their feelings about graduating from our school, and in their own unique fashion captured the essence of what makes Allendale Columbia a special place. They made us very proud.

 

Ted Hunt

Ted Hunt

Ted 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.
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