Commencement Address 2016 given by retiring math teacher L. Paul Gilden
"When I learned that I would be speaking here today, I sat down with the idea of writing something memorable, a Goodbye Mr. Chips address that would put up guideposts to ease the graduates through their long lives. Life is like a box of chocolates. Plastics. Never get involved in a land war in Asia. But then I thought about the graduation speeches that I have heard here on these steps over the past 20 years, and I realized that the only one that I remember was given by Roger Bennatti on the occasion of his own retirement from GSA. The topic of that speech was that nobody ever remembers graduation speeches. I decided to set my sights lower.
Upon reflection, I realized that I am here merely to add a veneer of formality to the day. I think that the central purpose of this day, beyond even the awarding of diplomas, is to give families a chance to kvell. For those of you who were brought up more than 30 miles from the Bronx, kvell is a wonderful Yiddish word which means to feel and to exhibit a warm, loving pride. It is used especially when that pride is directed toward descendants.
And the families here do have reason to kvell. Before you sits a remarkable group of young people who have impressed us all with their intellectual and physical talents, with their imaginations, and, most important, with their hearts. I have been involved for the past few months with hiring my own replacement, and, when I was describing the school, I found myself saying to all our job candidates that one of the things that sets GSA apart is the basic decency of our student body. As a group, our students are kind and open-hearted. But beyond that, the students here are just so interesting. Last month, a young lady came up to me in the cafeteria to announce excitedly that she had gotten a beehive for her birthday. One of my students last year wrote an opera entitled To a Linear Equation. In addition to a spirited aria about the slopes of lines, the student demonstrated in the libretto a deep understanding of operatic dramaturgy, as shown so clearly by the ending of her masterwork: Act Five: Everybody dies. Several weeks ago, while on a school camping trip, two of the young men sitting next to me ran six miles on a dirt road, barefoot, to get a spatula so that they could turn their hamburgers. One never knows where these kids and their energy will take us. They know what to do with a guitar or a jigsaw or a graphing calculator. They know what to do if the opportunity for a pun presents itself. They also know that in order to solve any word problem involving water, one must draw a shark, and they know what to do when their calculus teacher mentions Frau Blucher. I will miss them.
Beyond the praising and the kvelling, I suppose that I should try to say something marginally serious. During most of the spring semesters I have taught here, I have told seniors that they were getting to graduate, but that I was here with a life sentence. This year, I have finally been paroled. Here, at the end of my own journey through GSA, I find myself thinking about the passage of time, and the different time scales that surround this day. We are celebrating today four years of growth and learning, but the students and their parents and we who are older than their parents perceive four years all in our own different ways. Things do go faster as we get older. And there are longer time periods and other time scales at play here. There have been over 200 graduations ceremonies at this school. Students who sat through these ceremonies lived through the admission of Maine as a state in 1820. Students who sat through these ceremonies voted for Abraham Lincoln, and students who are sitting here today will, heaven help us all, vote for one of our current candidates for president.
I think that the best snapshot I have had of the perception of different time scales involved David Hitchings, the man who hired me in 1996. Mr. Hitchings was the GSA headmaster for over 20 years, and he taught here for quite a while before he took on that job. He was, when I came here, as much a fixture as the school’s bell tower. During David’s tenure, I was invited by Carolyn Bennatti to accompany one of her science classes to the top of Blue Hill Mountain to look for migrating hawks. Carolyn is a natural teacher, and she saw that this might be the perfect opportunity to teach the students about geological time scales, and, in particular, that this area was once under a mile thick sheet of ice. So on top of the mountain, she asked the class, “If we were here 20000 years ago and looked up, what would we see?” One student immediately answered, “Mr. Hitchings.”
If I can give the students just one piece of wisdom, it is this: No matter how long a life is, it will, in retrospect, seem to have gone by quickly. Paul Perkinson, another of our former headmasters, liked to use the word “blink” to describe the swift passage of time. I will take that page from his book to finish up. Class of 2016, 13 years ago, your parents nervously and expectantly dropped you off at school on your first day of kindergarten. You blinked, and you sit here now as young men and young women, on your way off to the wide world. Blink again and you’ll be exploring career opportunities, setting up households, and hearing with increasing frequency the question, “So when are we going to see some grandchildren?” This, by the way, is a question that I doubt these graduates have heard very much from their parents over the past four years. Have a nice time on your date. Try to be home by 11. And when are we going to see some grandchildren? But the time will come. Blink again, and you will be nervously and expectantly dropping those grandchildren off on their first day of kindergarten. Blink again, and you will be thinking about what you have left behind, just as your parents today can proudly look back at what they have left behind– food that has been drawn out of the ocean to feed thousands of people, communities and entire countries that have been kept safe by police officers and firefighters and soldiers, and at least one Marine, gardens and fields that have been planted, boats and businesses and houses that have been built, and, of course, the most important thing that your parents will ever leave behind: You, and your siblings. Blink again, and perhaps you will be standing on a stage, almost 50 years after your own graduation, hoping that you have given the extraordinary students sitting beside you and the students that came before them a sense of wonder and a sense of play and a little push in the right direction. Now the time has come for one last push, and we are pushing you out the door. We have faith that you will find your own directions. We have faith that you will make your own directions. Class of 2016, bye-bye Tinkie Winkie. Class of 2016, Godspeed."