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At the NMH On Stage event last night, you heard a series of words from the bravest of your peers ­-- powerful and destructive words that hurt, demean, and humiliate --­­ and you were challenged to let that be the last time those words are heard on campus. This morning I’m charged with putting together some words that encourage, uplift, and rally you on this first day of the 2015-­16 academic year at Northfield Mount Hermon School. I will always maintain that there are no more powerful words than the collective charge of our mission statement to empower you to "act with humanity and purpose."

The emphasis is, of course, on act – not just to talk with humanity and purpose but to act with humanity and purpose. Maxims abound along these lines: actions speak louder than words, one must back up your words, you have to walk the talk, etc. Agreed. We are profoundly disappointed by our political leaders and public figures when we learn of their hypocrisy, when their actions belie their public pronouncements. Our school’s founder, D.L. Moody, was one of the most recognizable and influential figures of the late 19th century not just in the United States, but in the world. Until we find out otherwise – and I think it’s safe to say we won’t – he walked his talk. But he also talked. People piled into this Valley from all around the country and world not to see the cut of his jib but to experience the power of his words.

This is a long way of encouraging you not only to commit to taking destructive words out of your everyday vocabulary, but to practice putting constructive words into your everyday vocabulary. Acknowledge the work of others; express your gratitude; encourage our teams rather than demean our opponents; text less and talk more. Tell a family member you love her; thank him in return for his love. When I leave the house in the morning after a hug from my daughter, I am ready for the world; when she says “I love you Daddy” I can move mountains. It shouldn’t get so complicated to say this as we get older.

So here I stand in the bully pulpit, and I’m no match for our founder when it comes to speechifying, and I don’t expect to move mountains this morning in spite of my daughter’s encouragement. We, like most academic institutions, begin the academic year with words from the lectern. When I asked my best friend, also a head of school, what he said yesterday at his school’s convocation, his response was that it read like it was written by a computer programmed to string together clichés. Doubtful, as he’s both brilliant and infuriatingly humble, but it really is daunting to stand before you this morning and avoid the trite admonitions to lean into your schoolwork this year, to get out of your comfort zone and take risks, to learn from your failures. I want all that for you but rather than borrow from the library of clichés I will instead unabashedly plagiarize the words of Harvard professor and NMH alumnus Jim Engell, whose words you did not hear but you should – no, you must ­listen to them on our website. As last year’s commencement speaker he told the Class of 2015, simply, that the world needs them. I again say to you, that the world needs you.

I remember saying something similar to students 15 years ago when we began the school year days after 9/11, when all of you were either in utero or a toddler at most. I called upon the best selves of the students in front of me to use their educated selves to discern fact from fiction, to process the event with their intellect and compassion, and to use their talents to right wrongs and work toward solutions. I said the same thing ten years ago when we all opened the school year immediately following Hurricane Katrina; and again last year after Ferguson. Sadly, but not surprisingly, there is plenty of fodder from which to choose for a Convocation address this year: the refugee crisis in Europe, the callous debate on immigration here in the United States, and Ferguson has not gone away. I was even tempted to riff on Denali – it is, in fact, just a word.

Instead, I’m going to take on Estevan’s challenge from last night, who in his wonderful words for our moment of silence asked us to be honest and make ourselves vulnerable in our efforts to better communicate with one another. A personal event that preceded the opening of this school year was the loss of my sister last week to complications from Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes. She was, according to her doctors at the University of Michigan, one of the few people they’ve seen live with the disease for 64 years. And she only did so because teams of intellectual, compassionate, and talented medical researchers, physicians, and advocates have been for the past 75 years actively seeking better ways to treat and cure this pernicious disease.

They weren’t born at 30 years old with a lab coat and a mission; they were once like you, lucky teenagers with opportunity and promise who answered the call of a world that needed them. As a result, my daughter had an aunt. And as a result, young people today with Type 1 diabetes – a couple of you in this chapel – are living lives unimaginable to my sister when she was your age. And they will live long, productive lives well past 65 years old.

A number of years ago I led an expedition of high school sophomores into the mountains of California and, for reasons that are obvious, I chose a 15-­year-­old Type 1 diabetic to be in my crew. As we pushed through falling snow on our way up over a mountain pass, he signaled and we stopped while he pulled from a pocket a tiny glucometer, which with a prick of his finger checked his blood sugar. He then adjusted the insulin pump underneath his storm jacket, threw some GORP in his mouth and signaled for us to carry on. In 10­-15 minutes on the side of a mountain, knee­-deep in snow, he was able to do what took over two weeks for my sister at his age only a few dozen years previous. Not that long ago, a juvenile diabetic would have suffered insulin shock or perhaps slipped into a coma-­like state, been rushed to the hospital, had blood drawn and sent away to a lab for testing, then weeks later only patterns would have been analyzed to adjust insulin levels administered only by needle. It’s no wondering the ravages on the body of a young diabetic prior to 1990.

There will be a cure for diabetes. As there will be for cancer and other diseases. And there will be solutions to our societal ills, political and environmental crises, and the challenges of poverty, educational inequities, and other injustices. The world needs you to think about them and you don’t have to wait until you graduate from NMH to begin acting upon them, or to begin talking about them. Start today. On this first day of the academic year full of promise, full of your potential for a life of humanity and purpose.


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