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2019 Commencement Address by Tiffani Brown ’96

The Relay

The first time I was here on Cromwell Field I was 16 years old.  My neon green track shoes just arrived in the mail. It was NMH 1994 and I was preparing for my first track meet. Coach Batty says to me, “I want you to try to run the 400-meter dash.” The 400, however, is not my race. I am a long jumper.  At 5 feet 10 inches, my competitive advantage is clearly in long jumping.  But, this is Coach Batty.  No one says no to Coach Batty.  So I said “Yes.” And as I take my place in the starters’ block, it occurs to me, “I have never seen anyone run the 400-meter dash. Have I even run 400 meters?”  The pistol sounds and I run as fast as I can. I am leading the pack at the 100-meter mark. I’m excited to be so far ahead.  I start to slow down and look for the finish line, but the other runners are now starting to pass me so I pick up the pace to keep up with them to the 200-meter mark.  I’m tired, winded, and am lagging behind as we get to 300 meters. There is no finish line in sight and as I round the track my pace starts to slow from a sprint, to slow run, to a walk.  I can feel myself dry heaving and the only thing I want to do is leave the track, better yet, lie down on the track.

I stop.  My head hangs down. I’m embarrassed.  I’ve failed my new teammates. I’m frustrated for having been asked to do something I didn’t train for and said yes to.

Someone starts to call my name and I look up.  It’s not just one person, but a few people, my teammates, calling out “Run, Tiffani”, “You can do it.”  Now it’s not just the NMH athletes wearing the white and maroon jerseys, but athletes from the opposing team start to call me by my number. I smile, pick up the pace, and then briskly start to run to the finish line.

Coach Batty came up to me afterwards and said, “You did good enough to continue to run the 400.  To prepare for the next race, I want you to train now with the cross-country team.” And I said “Yes.”

Now I would love to tell you that this ended with my receiving an athletic scholarship, becoming an Olympian, and winning a gold medal.

This, however, is not that running story.  My running career ended as a two-year junior at NMH. 

In life you will have many new opportunities. Some will start out amazing. But sometimes you will hit a wall and want to give up.

This, Class of 2019, is life. 

Graduates, I want to be direct with you. 

You are big-vision students. Each of us has the capacity in some way to change the world. That’s why you’re here. Consciously or subconsciously it’s in your DNA when you attend a school with a mission like NMH. 

But I want to be honest – big vision hurts.  Big vision feels like this race. And I want to hype you up because, when you hit the wall, I don’t want you to stop running and think that the race is over at 100 or 200 meters.  I want you to stay the course.

When I left NMH, I had one goal – aside from wanting to flee the New England winters — I wanted to emulate the diverse community I saw here.  I had friends at NMH from every corner of the globe – Daphne from Turkey, Hisae from Tokyo, Deb from Beverly Hills, Loira from the Bronx. The black-and-white world from North Carolina I had seen growing up was nothing like this, and I knew I wanted to feel what I felt at NMH forever.  So I attended USC and majored in economics and international relations with a goal of becoming a diplomat.

But my vision of this idyllic world and the reality of what I experienced were very different.

I started my race after NMH by saying yes to an opportunity to study in Brazil.  I listened to Brazilian music and checked out books to prepare me for this amazing travel experience.  My day as a global traveler had finally arrived at the age of 20.

I already had a passport, I just didn’t have any stamps in it.

However, when I arrived in São Paulo, I did not receive the global NMH welcome I had expected.  As one of four black students studying in our program – there were not enough local hosts that were comfortable housing each of us.  So I had to commute 1½ hours each way from school by bus. This was not ideal, given that most students and my friends lived much closer to campus.  I was placed with a loving family, but lived in a building where the concierge interrogated me every day before letting me in the building, even while I stood in the pouring rain. I knew they were unaccustomed to seeing someone like me, and in turn they felt threatened. 

Luckily, I found a new host family, and soon moved in with a wonderful Italian family in one of the nicest neighborhoods in São Paulo, much closer to my university. Boy, had my life really turned around. But on the day of my move, I was mugged by three street children, at knifepoint. 

This was only the first six weeks, and I hit a wall.  I wanted to give up. But I turned the disappointment into fuel. I decided to learn and write about the socioeconomic causes of some of my experiences. And I kept running. My local Rotary club in North Carolina read my work and awarded me a fellowship to study advanced economics in London. My community of North Carolina rallied and became a part of my larger team. 

By 25, I finally reached my goal of working for the State Department. Not as a diplomat, but as a graduate research assistant for the U.S. ambassador in Lisbon.   Working with him, I saw the influence that business leaders could have on the global community. So I decided to become a corporate attorney.

I went to law school and it felt amazing and I found a law firm that I loved and it felt great to finally make some money and pay off my law-student loans. 

My first project was a financing for an Australian media company. I had finally arrived as an international corporate lawyer.

And then the economy crashed in 2008 and my law school classmates and I were faced with the possibility of having our jobs rescinded.  And although I wanted to quit and do something more stable, but I still kept my job and I kept running.

Fast-forward nine years; I finally made it to the executive suite. The job was everything I had dreamed. I worked and travelled all over the world with my CEO. I accumulated more miles in a year than I had in a decade and I felt that I was making a difference. And then I read gender-pay-gap studies, about my company and the industry as a whole. And then I realized that equal work did not necessarily lead to equal pay. Dejected, I started to wonder whether all of my efforts and personal sacrifices had been worth the cost. And I wanted to quit.  And then I shared my concerns with my CEO, somewhat loudly. And to his credit, he asked me to stand with him and champion diversity and inclusion for our 8,500 employees and hold our company accountable. Globally, we’re not there yet, but I think you get the message — we have to keep moving. 

I’m going to continue because I’m not doing it for myself. Now, I’m running for you.

Cheering me on in my race are my colleagues and all of the communities that I have been a part of in my life. 

As you envision the next chapter of your life, I urge you to acknowledge the team that has helped you get to this point and will continue to cheer you on: 

Here at NMH, the board of trustees, your head of school, your professors, the staff — some who were here even when I was a student — who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make your educational experience a reality.

At home, your parents, grandparents, and guardians ensured you had a first rate experience at NMH to prepare you for a global community.

Not to mention your aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends, and sponsors; these are all the people who accepted your calls when you were stuck on campus with nowhere to go.  They sent you care packages, or picked you up and signed you out for the day.

This is your team, the team that will shout from the stands of life and cheer for you during your race. 

Some of you already know what course you want to start on. Some of you are still figuring it out, and that’s okay. 

If you’re really out of ideas, take your parents’ suggestions so you can get started on something.  The bright side is, the faster you do something you don’t want, the quicker you figure out what you do want.

Rest assured, opportunities will come your way. They may be amazing. But, in the event you hit a wall and want to quit, in those moments, I want you to remember this time.  Surrounded by your classmates, the greater NMH family and your family.  You are a part of a wider team.

My wish for you is not that you find your passion, even though I hope you do.  My prayer is that you find your reason to keep running.

When you do, I guarantee the race will be worth it.

Graduates to your starting blocks.

On your mark.

Get set.

Go.

Chaplain's Invocation and Benediction by Rev. Lee-Ellen Strawn, Commencement 2019

Invocation

Northfield Mount Hermon Class of 2019, family, friends, teachers, coaches, and mentors, what a joyous occasion we have gathered for this morning! We come with our gratitude for all those who have given of themselves in significant ways that we might arrive at this very moment. We come with our celebratory wishes, that this day may become a deep well of encouragement for our graduates as they go forward. And, indeed, we come with both our joys and our sorrows for this ending that will bring forth yet a new beginning.

So we must call upon all that is good, all that is embracing, and all that holds beauty that these young people will know the hope we pray for them this day.

We must call upon all that is wise, just, and merciful that these young people will know the dream we hold for them for their days to come.

And we must call upon all that breathes compassion and brings forth love that these young people will know the joy that can live on even beyond the finite number of their days.

We join our hearts together in these moments when meaning is made and memories are created.

We join our hands to know the community that has sustained each one of us and has reminded us we have all been imbued with humanity and with purpose.

We come together in this place for we have a passion for all that is possible in these young people.

May we be blessed by this day and in turn be a blessing for others. Amen.

Benediction

Class of 2019, may you know that we bless you. May you know the degree to which you are valued and appreciated. May you know the confidence this community has in you, and may you know the home that will always be yours at Northfield Mount Hermon. Our thoughts and prayers will be with you as you leave your alma mater and move forward in life. Share with us your joys, your anxieties, your accomplishments, and your failures, too. Remember it is not the successes or the mistakes that draw the outline of your identity. It is your response that builds your character. In the end, you are a human being, not a human doing. Savor that truth and allow others that freedom. Take our benediction, our words of blessings, with you today.

I leave you now with words from Psalm 121, from the Hebrew Bible, because at Northfield Mount Hermon we wake every morning and sleep every evening embraced by these amazing hills.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help….
And the sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil...
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
May it be so for you now and always. Amen.

2019 Commencement Address by Valedictorian Ian Cheaheon Lim ’19

The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Adichie details the way Nwamgba, a willful black woman in colonial Nigeria, loses her son to the teachings of a Catholic missionaries’ school. The way her son abandons his home culture saddens Nwamgba, but she later finds solace in her granddaughter Grace, who stands behind her heritage and becomes a “headstrong historian,” eventually writing a book titled Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.

Upon being introduced to this narrative in my World Literature class, I was amazed by Adichie’s enchanting rhetoric and cogent voice. Nwamgba’s pain was almost tangible as her son slowly drifted away, and both my friends and I condemned Western imperialism for her sorrows. It was, however, only after my return home to Korea that I truly internalized the story.

During mass at the Methodist church I attend with my grandfather every week, I was fighting a losing battle with my jet-lagged mind, waiting for the pastor’s sermon to come to an end. But the moment he started talking about the church’s plans for launching a missionary effort in Tanzania, I snapped wide awake. While my grandfather smiled and silently mouthed thankful prayers to God as our pastor described the Tanzanian children that will have access to much-needed supplies and a Christian education at our soon-to-be-built school, all I could think of was Nwamgba, her son, and the discussion I had with my classmates here at NMH.

And suddenly, I was afraid. What if some Tanzanian mother wrote about losing her child to the Christian teachings of our school? What if some self-righteous, entitled boarding-school kid started criticizing my grandfather for patronizing the Tanzanians? Should I — or rather, did I have a right to — speak up and point to the way the Tanzanian children will lose elements of their home culture at our school?

After all, my grandfather, alongside most elderly members of church, had great reason to believe in the absolute virtue of God. From the Korean War to the Asian financial crisis, many were hopelessly impoverished, and my grandfather always found consolation in the aid that the local Christian community and Western missionaries provided. Therefore, being the humble man that he is, he credited God’s guidance — rather than his own backbreaking endeavours — for the family business’ eventual success.

And it is thanks to his company that I now finance my education here at NMH, including the World Literature class where I so eagerly disparaged the Catholic missionaries with my peers. So again, is it wrong for my grandfather to support the missionary effort out of a genuine desire to share his good fortune with the Tanzanians? And even if it is, what right do I — a privileged individual who has never had to pray for survival — have to question my grandfather’s faith?

Well, one thing is for sure — even after two years, I do not have answers to these questions. I am, however, no longer the man I was in World Literature class sophomore year, thoughtlessly condemning the missionaries without really understanding their story and how it related to my own. Although I have yet to reach synthesis in between the dialectics of accepting or rejecting our church’s Christian mission, the fearful moment of realization I had at church prodded at my previously nebulous sense of morality, forcing me to question and evaluate my understanding of right and wrong as I internalized the antithetical tales of my grandfather and Nwamgba.

Even now, I probably remain self-righteous, judgemental, and privileged. But I am also aware. Although I stand on this hill where, as one of my teachers described, the “far left of the far left” dwell, I have learned to ponder stories more thoroughly, recognizing the multiplicity of every situation and the many layers of my identity that define my perspectives.

Neither Christian missionaries nor Donald Trump are just “bad” nor “good.” Our very humanity stems from the intricate nuances that set each and every one of us apart, and I implore you to make it your purpose to see the world for not its generalities, but for its complexities. Our experience here at NMH has taught us to approach the world with neither the naiveté nor arrogance of an outside observer, but rather with a penchant for introspection and analysis that can serve as fuel for the lifelong evolution of our identities and self-awareness. Thus, I urge you to remember not only Adichie, but also the intricate complexities behind her story, even after our diaspora from this hill commences and we all find ourselves situated in new homes around new people. As for myself, I shall always carry not only Nwamgba’s story, but also that of my grandfather, wherever I go.

Thank you.

2019 Senior Oration by JD Pruett ’19, Given at Commencement Exercises, May 26, 2019

“Head Rush Reciprocity”

I get head rushes in the mornings. When I get out of bed, I see either nothing or three of everything. It’s disorienting, a little scary, and really fun because, when it passes, I am suddenly aware of the little details of everyday life. Like, I’ll look down and say woah, those are my feet. This is exactly what it was like to come to NMH. After the initial “head rush” of a new school, I began to notice what makes this place unique. And in the face of an important decision in my life, I came to realize that what made Northfield Mount Hermon NMH was reciprocity.

Classmates, my dad is older than most of your grandparents. His mortality crosses my mind every day. To me he’s sort of like this book, and my whole life I’ve been free to flip between his pages, learn from all that’s written inside, and sometimes I even get to add a few sentences of my own. But lately, I’m more aware that there’s a timer on the first page and each day that I don’t spend with him, a page filled with lessons on how to fish and navigate relationships with grace falls out of the book. A page I’ll never get to read. So when it came time to make a decision about college, from the outside it looked to people like a decision between east-coast and west-coast weather. But to me, it was really a decision between lunch with my dad every Tuesday on the east coast, and 3,000 miles, bridged by an occasional FaceTime or text.

I didn’t want to think that I’d give up a chance to continue to grow up with my dad just to see a different part of the country. But yeah, I chose the west coast, and I chose it because of something that became very apparent to me during my time at NMH, which is that that our lives are not linear. They spiral and jump continents, just like you all do, physically and intellectually. I love my dad and I know he loves me, but he hopes that I give — not to him, but to others.

Reciprocity to some may be a simple exchange. Like, I pay NMH my family’s life savings and in return I get a piece of paper. Yet my understanding of reciprocity has always been that it’s more than a one-to-one transaction, and I saw this type of reciprocity come to life at NMH. Because when your dorm parent stays up late to remind you that the world is more than grades or to listen while you speak your mind, they are giving. And then when you show up to support your friend at their game, and that same dorm parent is the coach, you have not only given something to your friend for them to pass on, but you have also given back to your dorm head. No one thinks about our lives this way and quite frankly no one should, but it’s this ingrained spiral, this reciprocity, that is the essence of NMH. So while someone keeps you on your feet, you’re helping someone else stay on theirs.

As we build new communities as well as our futures, I hope we remember that there are two types of moments in our lives; the first type is everyday moments driven by achievement or recognition, times when we live looking down at our work and ahead at our goals. The second type, though, is made of spring evenings when the world becomes a little more malleable, mysterious, when you forget about the next quiz and instead wonder with friends about people continents away, a neighboring galaxy, if everyone else spells out “Wed-nes-day” in their head.

NMH bridged these two types of moments for me. Sure, Mace gave me plenty to worry about with weekly math assessments. Thank you, Mace. My soccer coach Charlie Malcolm always had a scouting report ready to go for the next match. My other coach and second father Jim Burstein and my advisor Peter Weis were there to read my essays, even tell me a story … or two … or three. Each moment, though, was a stepping stone to get somewhere else.

But then there was that second type of moment. A soccer team sitting around a fire at preseason, talking about our homes, our families, telling the new kids about the vast array of academic and extracurricular activities available in Blake, Beveridge Hall, and the RAC; nights when a few of us in a cappella stayed behind to mash our own music, some piano, a little beat boxing, mediocre freestyle. Just sitting there, the six of us, making music.

At school, where individual futures can consume us, these latter moments are the ones that ground us: moments of community, moments that aren’t predestined to lead us somewhere else, at least, nowhere beyond an inside joke, a question, or a new song. So, as we leave NMH, I urge us not just to look down or even ahead, but around, look around for these second moments. Just think back to your own cherished memories from NMH. I doubt they came in the classroom or college counselling, but perhaps soaking your friend on their way to class, watching a sunset on the dock, or sneaking off campus with your day-student friends.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Our motto, as you’re well aware by now, is to “act with humanity and purpose,” and I would add: especially when no one is watching. Even during those second moments when it might seem that it doesn’t matter what we do, humanity is to be expected of us because in our convoluted reciprocal world, we don’t always know who we’re giving to.

It does not matter what you do, where you go, or who you know. Humanity comes with eye contact and a smile, or with comforting your friend who’s upset over something that to you seems trivial. And purpose? Well, purpose is what you make of it. And that’s the point, that your humanity and your purpose need not be validated by anyone other than yourself. This school understands this and so does my dad.

NMH, I came not knowing what to expect and leave hopeful that reciprocity can survive in our world, even today. It will be weird tomorrow when we each wake up with different futures on our minds, but we’re ready for it. Just expect some head rush and don’t forget to look at your feet.

Baccalaureate Reflections by Chaplain Lee-Ellen Strawn, May 19, 2019

Baccalaureate Reflection

Rev. Lee-Ellen Strawn
Words change us. If this were not so, we would not be here at school, where much of our day involves encounters with words. This morning, let us put three words into the space of this chapel; wisdom, freedom, compassion. As we ponder these words in the context of a story, please know they are my prayer for you as you start new chapters of your lives.

The story I will share is one that perhaps you already know. But listen carefully, because it has been modified for our 21st century, and think, too, about which character or characters you feel you identify with. The story goes like this. ...

There once was an individual who had just finished their studies and had been traveling for some time from one town to the next in search of inherent human goodness. Influenced by philosophers and activists, this individual was committed to a minimalist lifestyle, and carried all they owned in one small sack. They had given up technology and had decided to carry only a small amount of cash knowing they would find work along the way. This individual had high hopes for finding goodness and changing the world by caring for the earth, reaching out to those in need of food and shelter, and working for peace in all ways possible. They were not quite sure yet how to put ideas into concrete plans, but enthusiasm and hope propelled their way forward.

The individual journeyed on foot, glad for the solitary time that walking allowed to reflect on the meaning of life. Birds were singing, the sun was strong, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It seemed that life was perfect and everything was falling into place as planned. But, right as the individual turned a corner, they encountered a band of robbers who grabbed the individual’s meager sack and searched for electronic devices and money. The individual’s insistence that the sack was all they owned only angered the robbers more. After being repeatedly kicked and punched, the robbers spat in the individual’s face and left them curled up by the side of the road in a pool of blood. Dashed were this individual’s hopes in the possibility of ever finding human goodness.

A long several hours passed with not a soul in sight. Then, a car with loud blaring music seeping through its closed windows whizzed by this individual crouched over in pain. A half hour later, an apparent scholar reading Plato’s Republic walked by, noticed the individual, but kept going as if to say the suffering he saw in the individual was but a reflection and not its actual form. After some time, two people in love walking hand in hand actually crossed to the other side of the street so as not inadvertently to come in contact with the bloodied individual.

Finally, one more person appeared in the distance. But it was not who was expected. To the shock and dread of the individual curled up in pain, it was their neighbor from years past. It was their neighbor with whom they had fought to secure the attention of a certain person in their community, and with whom they had got caught in a swirl of lies and accusations. They had even argued over ideological differences and had exchanged unconscionable words, all at a time before they had been awakened to the essence of life and understood the noble purpose to which they had been called. In so many ways, this neighbor had been the enemy who provoked feelings of jealousy and hatred.

The throbbing pain of the robbers’ beating was now coupled with the pain of embarrassment about their present weakness and about memories of distressing rivalry with the neighbor. Yet the individual did not even have the strength to hide. But the recognition of their current devastation became oddly liberating for the injured individual, because it opened up for them hope that a vestige of humanity might still remain in the neighbor’s heart.

When the neighbor saw the individual, she stopped. She had been on her way to visit elderly relatives, but she got off her bike to examine the individual’s wounds. She said not a word, but her gestures suggested forgiveness. There was no trace of the bitter exchanges from previous years. She pulled out her phone and called 911. She followed the ambulance on her bike and waited the long hours in the emergency room while the individual was being cared for. She was not family, so she could not consult with the doctors, but she bought flowers to be delivered and paid for the individual’s medical expenses herself. She wanted to be sure the individual would heal fully, and returned two weeks later to the hospital to check on their recovery. Later, when the individual learned of what the neighbor had done, they wept tears of gratitude, for indeed they had found inherent human goodness that could heal brokenness and bring peace to this world. But it was not found over the mountains and across the seas, as they had expected. It was found in a place the individual never would have looked.

And that is how the story goes. It is a story that has been told over and over throughout the centuries in different ways. It is a story about wisdom, freedom, and compassion.

If we recall the story, first we are told of a car that whizzed by the suffering individual, then, a scholar, and then, a couple in love, before the neighbor appeared. For everyone except the neighbor, they all seemed unable really to understand what time it was, to know the moment as a time requiring a response. The passage that Lydia and Keith read to us earlier reminds us that, in life, there are certain times to do certain things. There is a time to listen and a time to speak; a time to be still, and a time to act. There is a time for all of you to celebrate your graduation loudly and to jump up and down for joy. But that is not the time now; now it is the time for you to sit in this chapel and reflect in your heart what your experiences at NMH mean to you.

In the story, those in the car, the scholar, and the couple in love thought the time was to get to where they were going, or to understand the depths of philosophy, or to lose themselves in each other’s embrace. That is how they understood what it was the time to do. It was only the neighbor, the supposed enemy, who had the wisdom to know it was the time to be interrupted and to stop and care for the person before her. Her action broke the cycle of pain and shame that had entrapped herself and the injured individual. This neighbor displayed wisdom because she was able to read the times accurately and act on her understanding.

She also exercised her freedom by changing her course in order to be compassionate toward someone who had had only hurtful things to say to her. She exercised her freedom to ignore previous patterns of relating to this petulant individual, and found, instead, the power to reach out in compassion. Her compassion did not allow her to be complacent in the face of pain. Her compassion did not allow her to remain comfortable in her neatly scheduled routine of visiting and caring for her own family. Her compassion jolted her to step out of her own skin, and this made all the difference, to the suffering individual, at least. How do we know? Because this story lives on, even through its many iterations. It is usually entitled, ‘The Good Samaritan.” You might want to call it “The Unexpected Neighbor.”

But, I think I’ll call it “The One by the Side of the Road” because I’d like us to focus not only on the character who goes out of her way to help another, but also on the character wounded and by the side of the road. Where is the wisdom for this person, you might be thinking? Wisdom clearly does not lie in the puffed-up pride of having uncovered the mystery of life as the individual had initially believed, but in the vulnerable yet humble realization that there comes a time when one simply needs help from others. You, too, will experience moments in which you need the assistance of others, be it socially, academically, financially, emotionally, or in terms of your health. My hope is that, with wisdom, you will be able to recognize that time for what it is; a time to allow yourself to accept the help that is offered you.

Freedom is evident, too, in the wounded character in this story. Their freedom lies in the ability to recognize that neither the past nor the present needs to determine their lives. Difficult past relationships do not need to inhibit their future, and current wounds do not need to dictate their health going forward. Just as Jonas read to us earlier, the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances is a fundamental human freedom that cannot be taken away. This is the freedom I want all of you to know today. I hope you will know that, despite any of your past successes or failures, your life will never be predetermined to be a particular kind of thing, unless you say that it is. The freedom to shape your next moment is always yours.

And finally, as we think about the “one by the side of the road,” we know that compassion saved them, but it came from a completely unanticipated place. This was the surprise that defied normal logic. Someone who had been like an enemy showed the undeserved compassion that saved life. Graduates, as you leave this school and find yourselves in new places with new people — and soon-to-be 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, as you continue to engage in your studies and school life — you may be tempted to assume that you know, for sure, who will show you compassion and who will not. My prayer is that you, too, will have an experience of receiving, but also giving, unexpected compassion, that will change your life and grant you faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.

So my words for you this morning are wisdom — wisdom to know what time it is and to be interrupted, if need be; freedom — freedom to know your life is only ever determined by you; and compassion — compassion that saves and reveals human goodness. I shared these words in a story because I want these words to take root and come alive in the unfolding story of your life, which you should never be ashamed to tell. It just might make all the difference in the world to you and to your unexpected neighbor.

Thank you.

Benediction

Class of 2019, underclass students, faculty, and staff,

Together, let us seek the wisdom to know the time that is before us; let us own the freedom to shape the moments of our lives, and let us embody the compassion that reveals inherent goodness. May you be empowered to live your identity as a member of the NMH family. May you know the blessing of your learning as you make it a blessing for the good of the world. May you know the blessing of your talents as you use them to reveal beauty and kindness to all, and may you know the blessing of living with humanity and purpose. Find joy in these blessings and share them with one another whether you remain on this hill or find yourself in new places. And may the peace that passes all understanding be with you now and forever more. Amen.

Salutatorian Address by Cora Barrett ’19, given at Baccalaureate, May 19, 2019

Good morning, NMH! It is such a privilege and an honor to be standing before you all today. I am beyond grateful for the chance to speak to the whole school, a final hurrah in my last week on this grassy hill. My friends, my peers, my classmates, my teammates, my dormmates, my teachers, my coaches, my advisor –– I cherish the moments I’ve spent with each of you over the past four years. I understand that I was given this opportunity to speak to all of you today because of my achievements in the classroom. While my time spent in the classroom here has been invaluable to me, I have found that some of my greatest learning moments from my time at NMH occurred outside of Beveridge, Cutler, or even the Lower Mod. When I first came to NMH, in the fall of 2015, a shy 14-year-old leaving home for the first time, I was like a daisy, easily bent and blown over by the wind. I had no resiliency, no inner-strength. Over the last four years, I have sent roots deep into the ground, and I have grown into a tree, mighty and tall. Now, I will not be blown over, I will not be bent. I stand tall, I stand proud, and I stand with self-respect. I have been able to build this resiliency in myself by discovering my three pillars of strength –– the rowing team, my family, and myself –– and by learning to embody three values –– perseverance, love, and self-acceptance. In my freshman year, I was diagnosed with three autoimmune disorders. Celiac disease makes my white blood cells destroy my small intestine every time I eat gluten, Hashimoto’s disease makes my immune system attack my thyroid, and Sjogren’s syndrome damages the moisture-producing glands in my body and saps my body of strength. When I look back on my first year at NMH, I recall a pervasive fog of nausea and crippling fatigue. Even after cutting gluten out of my diet, my symptoms lasted well into sophomore year, as I waited more than half a year for the medication finally to start taking effect. That year, I abandoned my dream of playing varsity ice hockey, because I knew that my body couldn’t keep up. I felt demoralized and reduced by my diseases. But as spring began to near, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt good. I didn’t feel nauseous. I didn’t feel fatigued. Of course, I still had good days and bad days, but at least my life was no longer just an endless string of bad days. So I decided not to give up on myself. I decided to join the crew team. I cautiously walked into the first crew meeting and peered around the room. There were many girls who had been rowing for years, and a handful, like me, who had never touched an oar, and who were looking to try their hand –– or should I say legs? –– at rowing. Initially, I was overwhelmed by talk of 2k splits, wing rigors, and catching crabs, but I was welcomed with open arms onto the team. And I soon learned something great about rowing: it’s hard if you’re perfectly healthy, and it’s hard if you live with three chronic illnesses. I wasn’t at a disadvantage because I struggled with nausea and fatigue. In fact, if you’re not nauseous and fatigued by the end of a 2k on the erg or a race piece on the water, you didn’t row hard enough. As I settled into the team, I discovered another amazing thing about rowing at NMH: my teammates are always there to support me. They cheered for me when I pulled a personal best 5k on the erg, and they had my back when I caught a crab, got my oar stuck deep in the water, in the last minute of a head race. My teammates are a constant in my life, and they will always be there to push, encourage, and inspire me, even as my health fluctuates. One day, I had to leave Chinese class on five separate occasions to throw up in the Beveridge bathroom, head bent over the toilet bowl, retching stomach acid long after the abrasive gluten had left my system. But the next day, I was back in the boat, flying down the Connecticut River with my teammates. One of the best feelings I’ve experienced in my five seasons rowing here is the start of a race. I’m sitting at three-quarter slide, blade squared and buried, eyes up, chest up, breathe, breathe. I’m in two-seat, with stroke pair in front of me, the two teammates I will follow; I will add my power to their rhythm. Bow seat is behind me, and I know she is backing me up 100 percent. And my coxswain, nestled in the hull of the boat, will lead us to victory. Head in the boat, eyes up, listen for the start call. Attention, Go! Pry…. POP, Pry…. Our boat lurches forward, and now we’re locked into this race. I’m in this race, and I’m in it with my teammates. My teammates are some of the best inspirations in my life, and they give me the strength to persevere. And because they push me to persevere, I have become all the more resilient, ready to bounce back every time illness gets me down. When I first went away to boarding school, I was so busy with my new life and all the new people. I was finally away from my family and I felt free to figure out who I was without my family. In my sophomore winter, just three days before Christmas, my older sister turned 18 and left home. I have not seen her since. I have only spoken with her twice over the past two and a half years. Anger, grief, and anguish well up inside me whenever I think of her. My heart becomes a gaping hole when I try to reconcile my love for her with her abandonment of me and my family. My sister had threatened to run away in prior years, but I never thought she really would abandon me. My family has never been the same since. As painful as her absence is for me, it has made me see immense value in the presence of my other family members. My mother, my father, my little sister, Tess, and my little brother, Roman, have always been there for me and they will always be there for me. They will never abandon me. And it is my duty as a sister to hold tight to Tess and Roman, so they know that I love them. I cannot go back in time and hold my older sister closer to me. I now see that I was foolish to think of boarding school as a chance to get away from my family, as a chance to find out who I was without my family. I am so much better with my family. My family is what makes me strong. I find it within me to go on, day after day, to tough it out through the hardest moments, because of my parents’ unwavering support and because of my siblings’ unconditional love. At NMH, I am physically separated from my family, but I now understand that does not mean I have to be emotionally distant. Now, as a senior at boarding school, I feel closer to my family than ever before. And I feel more resilient knowing that the love I share with my family is deeper. I have always been rather introverted, and I have always found it hard to make friends. In my first couple of years here, I found it much easier to spend a fleeting 22 minutes –– not counting commercial breaks –– with Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe in the comfort of my own room rather than brave a dining hall of unknown faces, trying to find a place to sit. In ninth grade, I tried to make friends, with little success. By the end of the year, I still hadn’t found “my people,” that great group of friends I could always rely on, but I didn’t worry too much. There were three more years, and of course, our class size would double in sophomore year. But sophomore year crept past, and I was still the odd one out. By junior year, desperate for friendship, I tried inserting myself into a well-established group. But they had all known each other since “day one,” and I was two years too late. The school was already sectioned off into little networks of friendship and love, and I seemed to be the only unconnected dot. It only took so much rejection before I convinced myself that I was always going to be the odd one out, I was always going to be the one who got left behind, and I was always going to be unwanted. I didn’t deserve friendship, and I didn’t deserve happiness. One day, at a school dance, completely surrounded by people, I realized that I was more lonely than when I was alone. Somehow, I actually preferred my own company to being encompassed by a group of people who didn’t really care about me. This realization was the first step toward showing myself a little more love. I started to view my time alone not as missing out on friendship, but as a chance to spend time with me. I’ve come to really value the time I spend alone. I can spend hours up in my bedroom at home sewing and serging, making quilts, stuffed animals, and clothes. I can sing completely off-key to soft rock from the ’70s. I can nestle into a little cocoon on my bed to do homework or watch TV. But most importantly, I can just be by myself and be perfectly content. Since I’ve come to like myself more, I’ve started to view myself as someone who deserves happiness. And the ironic thing is, that after more than three years of struggling to find friendship at NMH, it was only once I started to accept and appreciate myself that making friends became easier. Now I’m about to graduate, and I still haven’t found my people, and I’m still not part of a group. But I’ve been able to create more friendships and I am significantly happier. It all started with a little self-acceptance. I know that friends may come and go, and I know I will be moving on to Wellesley next year, where I will be surrounded by new faces. But I will always be with me wherever I go. I can always count on myself, and I find my strength in that stability. In four years time at NMH, one of my greatest accomplishments was discovering my three pillars of strength: my teammates, my family, and myself. My teammates have taught me the meaning of perseverance, how to go on in the face of illness and adversity. My family’s unwavering support and unconditional love have given me the strength I need to face any challenge. And learning to accept myself has empowered me to count on myself, to draw strength from my own dependability. I have shared my journey to find resilience with you because I hope that you will take the time to identify those people, places, or things in your life that make you strong. There is nothing more valuable than resiliency: the ability to bounce back after failure. Take a moment now to visualize one person, place, or thing that gives you the strength day after day to go on, and give thanks. We must cherish what makes us strong. Now here I stand, looking out over a sea of familiar faces, across a vast horizon, the sun’s first rays peeking out, climbing, reaching up towards the heavens. The rays of sun and warmth, rising, lift my heart with them, and I feel light. I feel steady. I feel strong. Thank you, NMH.

Spring 2019 Athletics Banquet Keynote Address by Phoebe Rossman ’19

If you knew me freshman year and have not spoken to me since, you are probably wondering why on earth I am standing up here right now. For everyone else, let me explain: I did not come to NMH as an athlete. Actually, to say I was not an athlete would be a fairly gross understatement. I was the antithesis of an athlete. I hated sports and was resolutely determined to keep a couple hundred feet between me and Forslund Gym at all times during the next four years. Well, for those people who are shocked to see me up here right now, let me give you some updates. I care a lot about sports now. Well, actually, only one sport: rowing. I’ve spent the past few years training and am going to be on a Division 1 team next year at Columbia University.

So, how could this radical transformation occur? What force could possibly be strong enough to make me, who despised sports, willingly sign up for rowing, a notoriously difficult sport? The answer, embarrassingly, is fear of missing out. At the start of my sophomore year, three out of four of my closest friends were rowing and the other was doing JV soccer. I had this deep fear that they’d all bond and, soon enough, forget about me on the daily walk down to the lower fields. This was admittedly irrational, but if you’ve ever been an insecure 15 year old, you know FOMO is a force powerful enough to move mountains and, even more challenging, get Phoebe Rossman to day one of rowing tryouts.

My first year of crew was an uphill battle, both physically and mentally. I walked to practice every day plagued by self-doubt. I felt like I was making the team slower, and freaked out every time I was the last to finish team runs or the first to collapse during planks. I was convinced that I would never succeed and that everyone around me was judging me, thinking “Why is she here?” Pretty much every minute, I wanted to quit. And, had it not been for the support of some really exceptional teammates, I would have. I remember sitting on the Rikert floor with Toyesha Khatau, stressing about what boat we’d be in for hours at a time and then pestering my incredibly patient RL, Leah Shukan, with an infinite number of rowing questions at pretty much all hours of the day. And, of course, talking to Krystal Kim, who believed in me way before anyone else did. Learning how to row and how to be on a team was really, really hard. But the relationships I formed were almost enough to make the pain and anxiety worth it. What really got me hooked, though, was that I was able to prove myself wrong. I’d go to practice convinced that I was destined to fail and that I was holding the team back, but then  I’d win a seat race or PR on an erg piece and it would force me to rethink the way I saw myself. Even though the thought of caring and putting in effort terrified me, I realized that it was a lot cooler to work hard and fail than never even to try. By the end of my sophomore year, I started to think that maybe, somehow, by some weird, sick twist of fate, I actually enjoyed a sport. Even stranger, I wondered if I could start calling myself an athlete?

Right around this time, I got an email from a study-abroad program I’d applied to on a whim, telling me I’d won a full scholarship to do an exchange year in Amman, Jordan. This was exciting, but moving to a country that’s almost entirely desert threw a big wrench in my rowing ambitions. I trained at the gym on and off while in Jordan, but came back this year having absolutely no idea what to expect.

What I found was an entirely different team. All three coaches were new, and there were more strangers than familiar faces around me. As if that weren’t enough, we were now racing in a whole new league. On top of that, I hadn’t even started the recruitment process even though rowing in college was definitely on my radar. To say that all this was stressful would be unfair. I was freaking the heck out. You see, I care a lot, but that can be really scary when there’s so much out of my power to control. So I focused on what was in my control. I did extra workouts in the morning, core after practice, and pushed myself as hard as I could every day. There were times where I probably pushed myself a little too far — I’m still struggling to find the balance. But  what I did learn this year is that working hard is actually really fun and that, sometimes, you get cool results. I was — and am — honored to have been voted co-captain and to work alongside the amazing Skylar Nieman and myriad other leaders on the team in rebuilding our team culture. I got to race at the world’s largest regatta in likely the single greatest boat ever to row down the Charles River. At the Head of the Charles, I met with the Columbia rowing coach, who had shockingly replied to my email a few weeks prior. And now, after a long winter of training and a really strong start to the spring season, we’re gearing up to race at New Englands in eight short days.

Rowing has made me into who I am today. I am a stronger, harder-working, and more confident person because of crew. It taught me how to unapologetically, unironically, care. But the greatest thing rowing has given me is an outlet. I’ve talked about this before, but, as my coach Lou once said, there are so few spaces in the world where young people — especially young women — get to focus just on going as hard as they can and supporting each other. During a race, I forget everything, even my name sometimes. The only thing I’m thinking about is pushing harder. Despite the pain, it’s weirdly like a form of meditation. I’ve had a really tough year. Two people who were very important to me passed away this spring, and there’s been a lot of turmoil in my family back home. There have been days when the weight of everything was so heavy I didn't think I could get out of bed. But then I’m at practice and nothing else matters. I spend two hours solely focused on being the best version of myself and being there for my boat, and soon enough I’m laughing with my teammates on the walk back up to campus, and everything just seems a lot lighter.

I’m so blessed to have this outlet in my life. Many people don’t; I didn’t for 15 years. A lot of people have helped find this space: my parents, who sent me to NMH, which was step one in the cosmic chain of events that got me to a boathouse. The trainers, especially Jesse, whose patience is endlessly appreciated. The coaches, Lou, Emily, and Liz, who make what we do every day possible. And most importantly, above all else, my teammates. Y’all are the toughest, funniest, most kick-butt, and most caring 35 people I know. I’m so not ready to not be on your team. I know I will always, like, be an NMH rower, but adjusting to not seeing y’all for multiple hours every single day is gonna be really friggin hard. The one thing that lessens this heartbreak though, is how pumped I am to watch you all fulfill your potential next year and in the many years to come. This is a team to watch.

In all honesty, I struggle with calling myself an athlete. Whenever I don’t get the results I want, I fall down this mental rabbit hole of “you’re never gonna be good enough, you’re never gonna be strong enough, you’re destined to fail.” But what’s really helped me is realizing that nothing is predetermined in rowing. You don’t win races because you’re somehow, cosmically, good enough; you win races because you fought for it.

So I want to end by thanking my teammates for letting me fight alongside you. It has been an honor and a joy.
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