Charles Frankenbach's Speech
Mr. Mczkenzie, members of the board, my colleagues on
the staff and faculty, families, students, and this perfectly splendid class of
I must say, straight away, that I am honored—to my
heart--to deliver this commencement speech. As many of you know, I have a
certain affinity for this class, and I think it best to dispense of that
reference early on, as a preface of sorts, both to ease my daughter Carla’s
worries of being ruinously appalled and, actually more importantly, to address
the parents on a frequency that may be ours and ours alone.
When I asked Carla if it was okay for me to give this
speech, if it would not be too awkward, I had earlier envisioned perhaps a
touching scene of love and pride. Instead, I received…
A shrug…you know the type, the type that gives physical
dimension to that chilling word of this age: whatever.
Haven’t we all been there?
A while later Carla was asked, in front of her
grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins no less, about how she felt about
having good old dad give the speech.
No shrug, so my heart leaps up, until the dagger: “At
that point we couldn’t really get anyone else.”
And yet here I stand, taken down a necessary peg
or three, but satisfied that some decent deadpan timing has led to better
deadpan timing #8221;
But I know love when I hear it, too; and I’ve never
Parents, as you know, we must be vigilantly attentive
to catch glimpses of our children inside these now young men and women. And I’ll
begin to frame what I may say today with the notion of the unceasing-ness of,
well, all of it, all of this.
You, the graduating class:
When you all walked from the rotunda, away from the
faculty room, forward towards the gates, you passed through ages. On your right
was a rendering of the original main bldg. On your left, a rendering of the
building that stands today. Onward past the Tremaine Gallery and an explosion
of images from exhibits past and present. On your left, entrance to the student
center, where perhaps you found a place, however momentary, in prep land, where
you could see senior quad through glass or hide from it behind a wall, safe
with your pre-cosmic secrets of OMAH or the terrifying myths told to you by J-WU
concerning procrastination. Ping-pong is indeed a wonderful distraction.
Then, on one side a topographical map of a good expanse
of the Housatonic river valley, where we are right now, and facing that, an Ellen
Rand rendering of Mr. Scoville, one of the first shaping figures of this
And then, all those faces of some former Hotchkiss
students, in the Bob Haiko collage of portraits. Some look caught by surprise,
some troubled, defiant, proud, really, really happy. Surprisingly awful
clothes, some styles persisting, some joyful faces. Some at an impasse of
sorts…or simply thinking hard, at a moment they lived here, at a moment they
were happening here and were suddenly aware of it.
They look a lot like you, right now, on this hill, this
place that stands by the grace of Maria Hotchkiss, Timothy Dwight, and
unimaginably huge glaciers.
Of course, the whole time during your walk out here you
may very well have been seeing the back of the person in front of you, the
ground, a proctee or two, people from your dorm, a parent, grandparent,
teammate or tree, Buehler, Memo…that kid, perhaps he of the imperious glare,
who has still not forgiven you for the classroom cleaning cut in October and
has become brazen enough to cut in front of you for stir fry. Perhaps you saw a
lovely swirl of all of it, punctuated by the thought that you haven’t even
begun to pack your room.
So, you’ve arrived to commence. So, what about right
Right now, an excerpt of a poem by Seamus Heaney, whom
many of you heard in person in the spring of your lower-mid year: from his “Making
Then a cunning middle voice
Came out of the field across the road
Saying, ‘be adept and be dialect,
Tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,
Call me sweetbriar after the rain
Or snowberries cooled in the fog…
Go beyond what is reliable
In all that keeps pleading and pleading,
These eyes and puddles and stones,
And recollect how bold you were
When I visited you first
With departures you cannot go back on.
So much imperative in this poem, so much to do! There’s
even a parent present, watching…(Heaney’s father, meeting Heaney and his
friend, poet Louis Simpson)
But note that it is a middle voice, I’d like to say a
voice within all of you that’s doing the urging. Be adept—skillful; be
dialect--in touch with flavor and textures of localities, of self and others
…and then the urging to go beyond.
But where? How? When?
Recollect, say, how bold you were when you decided to
come to Hotchkiss. How many reliabilities have you relied on or…. become. Think
about all of them a moment.
How have you gone beyond? How does one do so, go
beyond what’s reliable?
Can you go back on such departures? Heaney’s right, you
can’t, not quite—at least we shouldn’t. Let’s grant him that. He’s Seamus Heaney
after all. But you have gone back, maybe, in an important and unconscious way,
by walking out here to your seats a short while ago.
So did Heaney, in a sense, always heeding what he heard
as his calling. He wrote this lovely poem about it, and here’s how he ends it:
A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
I found myself driving a stranger
Through my own country, adept
And dialect, reciting my pride
In all that I knew, that I began to make strange
At that same recitation.
To make strange…with pride, through telling, through
making with words and action…and all that energy and space between people. And
I love the simplicity of “next thing/ I found myself…” sounds like a type of
beyond to me.
And maybe that helps demystify the earlier question of
where…and hints at the how: maybe it’s not that mysterious after all.
When you walked out just now, there was a good chance
you took a step on that beautifully worn, cupped step, that granite step that
remains from the original school building. I am aware of the legend that it is
unlucky to step on it, but I’m wondering if that is simply one more way to keep
lower-classmen from moving freely on campus, to keep them mired in myriad fears
until upper-mid year when they miraculously are equipped with more severe,
gripping terrors. I step on that step almost every day.
Think about how many have done so, since the start of
this school. And you?
To return to Seamus Heaney, consider, as soon as you
leave here today, what will be your recitation of what you will then know
differently, by virtue of a few hours at the end of maybe 4 years…what will be
the sources of your pride?
I’ll be presumptuous and say that you just walked
through some of it. Hold that, that sense of the history of this school and
your time in it, but leave it behind, you must, and you know this…
But consider doing so by carrying it with you in your
own recitation, in your own words, words you must speak to yourself before you
share with others.
Ok, perhaps you’ve already envisioned your arriving to
school next year, or your gap year location…or perhaps you’re still worried
about packing your room or not tripping onstage. Or you would love to be
throwing frisbee…in any event… your new contexts next year may be thrilling,
and I wish that for you all, be ever ready for thrill, but there’s always the
chance, despite the thrill, for an initially withering moment that—keep the
faith—then may glow with glimpses of time ahead, beyond that class, beyond the
week, beyond college, beyond whatever your present may be.
I look right now at Buehler, named for Huber G. Buehler
, 2nd headmaster of the Hotchkiss School, who attended college and seminary in
Gettysburg, home of my alma mater, Gettysburg College.
Buehler dorm was our family’s first home here.
At Gettysburg College I took a sociology course from a man named Wade Hook, a
South Carolinian intellectual wizard who had me, utterly, at “take your seat,
son.” I had done pretty well in the class, early on, and had developed a keen
sense for sociological inquiry into the material at hand. I, in turn, asked
this searingly precise question one day: “Dr. Hook, is this gonna be on the
His response, I now know, figured largely into my
becoming a teacher: “Charlie, your limitations, as suggested by your question,
are troubling to me. Knowledge is cumulative; therefore all tests, quizzes, and
classes shall be as well.” That he delivered these words with a glint of eye
and faintly wry smile helped me to begin to…Get It. He wasn’t talking about
tests and quizes. He was talking about how I was to take on all of it, in
school and beyond. He eventually taught me how to eat grits in exacting terms.
How have you prepared to take it all on? What have you
been offered and either accepted, rejected, or stored away?
You have memories, all types, to be sure:
Your team has won.
You rocked a quiz.
Your team lost; the ref was crooked.
Pizza Friday and last glass!
You shape that solo to the thing itself.
Your team loses and you know why.
Your roommate laughs really hard about something dumb.
You miss your folks and family.
The sun does its thing over Indian Mt. Or earlier over
You miss your folks and family and know why.
You get something, really understand it…and it matters
to everyone in the room, especially if you’re alone.
Your walk-back ends on the front steps of the dorm and
you talk about Latin or home and the moon is killer, on an unspeakably rich
Whichever the case, you’ve arrived along with a past
and a history, not just of the school and your time here, but of this local
area. The chunks of Beckley Furnace slag—yes, that’s what it was-- that you
passed around last night at your traditional gathering persist as moments of
local industry caught, truly, in motion, this refuse from iron cooking, shocked
into a solid silicate state by Blackberry River water, then fractured by
laborers’ hammers. If you want more, there’s a roughly 8 acre, 80 ft. Deep
plain of it just a few miles away.
Think on it. They are jewel-like, those chunks, with
lovely swirls of purple, grays…and they are the leftovers! Not the thing
itself, but what remains…the main iron product often became huge train wheels,
or through multiple iterations: phonograph needles!
(One imbedded piece of graduation advice: listen to
vinyl records--if you have no idea what I’m talking about, ask your parents.
Turntables are back.)
Here we are… I see Memo and remember finally tracking
down a young man for check-in in the basement, playing John Coltrane licks on a
sax as he did his laundry…this same young man wrote a heralded biography on
Notorious B.I.G. I’m thinking of all the possible recitations stirring
unknown…the future whatever major who changes course—whatever it was--and
modernizes an ancient lighthouse…the young kind of hippie who now manages
investment accounts and is still a kind of hippie with better clothes and
keener ideas about local schools. A sportscaster, a poet, the lacrosse player
who translates love of sport into an apparel company… or the one who prefers to
write a novel and coach young kids. Or goes to fight a war. The alum who
studies art history and starts an interactive media company that involves his love
for art. Auction house experts, philanthropists, education reformers,
Olympians, Teach for America folks, river runners, fly shop grunts, lawyers,
workers all, doctors, statesmen and stateswomen, the wanderers still, perhaps,
still—and perhaps ideally—still wanderers, arriving, always.
I set out to be a teacher for one year in 1985.
So, again, beyond is where, and how?
Right at the keen edge of the right then next. You
can’t live there, remain in that place. But we trust that you’ve been prepared
to notice the glint of that edge when it flashes. We, these rogues’ galleries
to my left and right, hope that you continue to widen the scope of your
curiosities. This isn’t just pure wonder. What I’m talking about is continuing
to provide yourselves with ways in which to be interested, intrigued, dialect,
adept at ways in which you can value and discern what you will be doing.
These two old elms say to me, “stop” by their
effortless stretching. Discover what magic music is, and poetry, and knowing
and doing. Those encounters in a coffee shop, bus, cab, or plane are
transitions, always. Keep a sharp eye and ear for any sign of the exultant, of
the possible around you, always, even at 4:17 in the afternoon, on a
streetcorner or anywhere, in Memphis, San Fran, DC, Gnawbone, IN, or Lakeville,
Ok, I hear the elms again and an encouraging, wise
colleague, who told me, “There is very little you will say that they will
remember.” So be it.
That may be true, but in a nod to Wallace
Stevens, a little known scribbler of idle verse,
memory is overrated if we consider those
exquisite moments when, for no obvious reason, perhaps because of a tilt of
stars, a certain slant of light, a tick of clock, a shrug, a kiss, a tree in
wind, you are aware of yourselves more truly and more strange.
May you be the “beneficiaries of chance” in all the
best ways, but know that the game gets mighty rough sometimes as well. Be
“Whatever” demeans the constantly happening, including
you. Think of your self, in the midst of the group around and with you,
ever—me-ever, we-ever, faring well and faring forward.
Remarks from School President
Meaghan Kachadoorian and Jack Shanley
(M) At Hotchkiss, music is
the foundation of everyday life.
(J) Whether it be fist pumping to techno
in Senior Quad, Stephen and Rio’s OCP, or Angela and Ms. Trethaway’s piano
performance, as a class we have experienced the power of music.
(M) We have defined what
music has meant to us on an individual level as well.
(J) For Meaghan, it means singing in
Calliope and performing as Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods.
(M) For Jack, it means
getting pumped up for a swim meet to “just dance”.
(J) For some, music might come in the
form of the World of Warcraft theme song at 4 in the morning.
(M) For others it might be the
sound of bird calls while crossing the stream to Terrapin.
(J) Music has brought us all happy
moments: such as when the Marimba band from the Mar a Pula school came to
(M) Music has brought us controversy, such as when
our stu-fac discussion centered around what music could combat “inappropriate
dancing” . But most importantly, music has brought us together-and for that reason;
Jack and I have decided that today we will let the music do the talking
(Cue Under Pressure)
There is an overused phrase that goes something like this: there’s work, there’s
sleep, and there’s a social life. You can only choose two. Nowhere does this
better apply than here at Hotchkiss.
(M) Some of us went for the
work and sleep route, others went for the sleep and social route. Then others somehow
excelled with the work and social life route At Hotchkiss there are many times
that, like this song, we feel that we are under pressure.
But has all the hard work our class has done been worth it?
(M) There are many great
classes in Hotchkiss history, but what makes ours stand out?
(J) We got into “good” colleges- but can
admissions officers be good judges of our character?
(M) We have 85 people on
Honor Roll, but are our GPAs a good judge of how much we have learned here?
(J) We have won countless New England
championships and added clubs ranging from the Classics Club to Dumbledore’s
Army -but does that mean we are truly involved?
(M) What makes our class special
is while individually we have achieved a lot, as a collective class we have set
a standard for community, respect, and diligence that will inspire classes for
years to come.
Born to Run)
The song born to run probably embodies our class a little bit better than Bruce
Springsteen’s other famous song “Born in the USA”. From the second we got on
this campus, we were meant to run from it with the skills we’ve learned here to
do great things. This is embodied by our school’s motto,- moniti meliora sequamur.
(M) Jack’s butchering of
the Latin phrase means“After instruction,
let us move on to pursue higher things.”
(J) In the classroom we may learn about
integrals and or memorize the definition of a synecdoche.
(M) No, synecdoche, these
things are not what will help us most later on in life. It is the work ethic,
the experiences, and the lessons that we have learned from everyone here that
will make us the people that will be featured on the news, on the presidential
ballot, and hopefully not on our doorsteps. The skills we’ve gained here will propel
us into the future with grace and ability, and we have each other to thank most
Call Me Maybe)
(J)Up until now, getting in touch with
each other has been simple. To the rest of the world, the fact that our primary
modes of communication are a landline and ichat might seem a little outdated.
But somehow it has worked.
(M) After today, we might leave
the stone-age and actually get cell-service, but staying in touch will get
(J) We’ll stalk each other on Facebook-
and become envious of each other’s new college friends. But there is only so
much that someone’s cover photo can convey about their new life.
(M) It’s hard to believe,
but we won’t be around each other all the time anymore.
(J) Unless you are at Yale, where
Hotchkiss will make up 30% of the Freshman class, we will know less and less
about each other’s lives. Whenever you remember someone from Hotchkiss, and
think, should I call them and see what they’re up to? Don’t say call them
maybe, just do it.
(M) Part of being forever young is
maintaining an OMAH mentality. For those of you who don’t know, OMAH is an acronym
made up by Ms. Trethaway, our class dean, meaning open mind and heart.
(J) What at first seemed like a strange acronym
from a strange little Asian woman became our driving force as a class. Our
school isn’t the same place that it was at its founding.
(M) In the dining hall, we have
heard first-hand accounts of how it feels to grow up with military occupation
(J) In the dorm, we learned how to curse
(M) At our dances, we saw
the Greenwich girls sing along to such classics as “My Cup” courtesy of the
soccer team’s unique Ghanain/Jamaican hybrid culture.
(J) Most of all, we’ve made our own
definition of how high school should be.
(M) By keeping an open mind
and heart we learned from each other and heard all the incredible stories we have
brought to this place.
(J) As a class we are practically graduating
as a “mini UN”. And we don’t need a Hotchkiss brochure to remind us of this,
because we’ve lived it.
(M)Another part of being
forever young is having fun. Hotchkiss has taught us all how to have fun.
(J) Before you roll your eyes, think of
the sports games, the dances, the late nights in the dorm that make up your
(M)While many American
teenagers are out on Friday nights-we are at school-and every once and a while
we have a great time.
(J) We want you to remember the fun that
we have had as part of Hotchkiss- at the Breezes in Nassau, in NYC during the
blackout, at the Taft Day pep rally, or watching a Hotchkiss Musical.
(M) These moments of pure
fun will be hard to come by as we get older. New responsibilities will begin to
get in the way of enjoying ourselves. Remember to never take yourselves too
seriously, and always make room for the pure type of fun that exists only at a
place like Hotchkiss.
(J) As this phase of your
life ends, and a new one begins, we will undoubtedly hear new sounds.
(M) We might hear the
sounds of busy cabs in New York City
(J) Or The sounds of Church
bells on our Wedding Day
(M) Or even the sounds of a
crying baby (hopefully not too soon)
(J) Regardless of what
music you encounter as you enter the real world-Class of 2012- make sure that
the music of Hotchkiss always echoes in your heart.