I’m here to offer you an apology. In the concluding stanzas of Robert Frost’s “A Girl’s Garden,” a poem showing us exactly what its title suggests, the poet offers a model of behavior:
Now when she sees in the village
How village things go,
Just when it seems to come in right,
She says, "I know!"
"It's as when I was a farmer ..."
Oh never by way of advice!
And she never sins by telling the tale
To the same person twice.
Those who sit with me in the dining hall or in Debate Society meetings know that, unlike Mr. Frost’s girl, I’m always full of advice and that I delight by sinning and telling tales to the same person not merely twice, but as often as possible.
Now I’ve promised you an apology, but please understand that the word “apology” has its roots in the Greek verb ἀπολογέομαι, which means “to speak in defense.”
So I’m not going to tell you that I’m sorry for repeating myself or giving advice, but I will tell you why I do so.
I was blessed to come here as a child. I was raised by this place: by teachers well-remembered, by students now returning for their 50th reunions, by elm trees that lined our roads and paths. Later a student, I learned from teachers now long or recently retired, from friends who today I swear all look older than I do, and from elm trees, mostly dying. Today I continue to be taught by my colleagues, by current students, by the ghosts of elms that will ever line our roads and paths, and always, by the Great Elm standing at the center of our campus. And I am grateful.
Without the forethought of Mr. D.L. Moody, of whom Jing Liu has just spoken, or the canny decision my father made 80-odd years later when he brought his family here and settled down to teach a few generations of youth, I would be grateful for another life entirely. Instead, today is my Thanksgiving Day. I am grateful to Mr. Moody, to my father, and to all whose paths have crossed mine at Northfield Mount Hermon, and encouraged me to act with — yes — humanity and purpose.
Gratitude did not come naturally to me; rather, it was born after a long period of gestation. But wake it finally did, listening to alumni like the Rev. Thomas Nelson Baker, class of 1889, who in a 1901 address, spoke about our place in education and the world’s work saying, “We need men to-day who are not afraid to be fair.” Or hearing Lawrence Ferlinghetti, class of 1937, exhorting us, “Whitman’s wild children,” to “Awake and walk in the open air.”
My mind is crowded with stories of your school, indeed it is part of my job to have a mind crowded with stories. And for all of our imperfections, I insist that while our sister schools may have fancier buildings, we have better food, but even more importantly, we have better stories. And because they are such good stories, I can’t help telling them, again and again. And if I repeat one of them to you, especially in a didactic manner, please know I am only looking for another way to say, “Thank you.” To Mr. Moody, to this place, to you. And that is my apology.
Photo by David Warren