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Commencement Address

Dr. James Dawson, Head of School

delivered at the 103rd Commencement Exercises
June 13, 2019
Merkin Hall - Kaufman Music Center

To my dear friends in the Class of 2019:

When I was five years old, after watching the movie Swiss Family Robinson on TV, I decided it was time for me to leave home and go off on a great adventure. I told my mom that my time was now and that I was planning to begin a long and arduous journey into the unknown. My mom, more wise than I could know, told me that my dad, who had been a paratrooper and in the Army Corps of Engineers during the war, probably knew much more about adventures and the challenges such an adventure would include, and she suggested that I wait about an hour until my dad got home from work so I could talk to him about it. Being a headstrong little boy, I told her that I had no time and really needed to begin my journey right now, before it got dark. So, being the dreadfully deliberate little five-year old that I was, I took an old makeup case of hers, threw in a shirt, some socks and a few Oreos and set off on my journey of a lifetime. I made it as far as across the street from our house, sat on the cement curb underneath a street light, not yet on, and began my life altering journey into the unknown. And there I sat for an hour, as twilight began to creep over the setting, seeing my dad come home in his suit.  (I didn’t think he saw me but later in life he told me that he did) and I waited. Sure enough, five minutes later, still in his suit, he came across the street and sat down on the curb with me.

“Your mom tells me that you are off on a great adventure like the Swiss Family Robinson, to places unknown, places of danger. That’s a lot to take on”, he said with all seriousness.

Hope.  It’s more than just a wish; it’s more than just a sentiment; it embodies something that we yearn for...

Hoping for something  - anything -  from my wise father to resolve my obvious dilemma, having sat quite bored for an entire hour, I asked him, “What do you think of my trip?” Still serious, he said that the rivers would be tough for a little boy to cross, the mountains even harder for a little boy  to climb, and the cold nights with wild animals certain to bring huge challenges.” “It might make sense “, he continued, “to grow up a little more, to let me teach you how to tie a knot, to set a trap, to learn to forge streams. I’d be happy to help you. Maybe you can come home now and you can go off on that journey a bit later, after I’ve taught you all those skills, when you’re a little bit bigger. Your mom has some good food on the table and we can talk during dinner about what you’ll need to do and what you’ll need to learn so as to start to get you ready for that trip. What do you say?”

No sooner had he suggested I head back across the street to home, I was off. Ready for a good dinner and the prospect later that night of a comfortable bed, happy to put off my dangerous, hair-raising, “filled with death defying challenges” journey for now.  I was left, however,  with two aspirations achieved: I would live with the hope that my father’s training would help prepare me to fulfill my five year old wanderlust and, with that help,  that I would achieve the grand plan that surged through the fantasy of my little boy’s mind that night to one day take that journey into the unknown, and I had a  second, less obvious but nevertheless real hope fulfilled and that was  that my father would come find me that night – just 50 feet away from our house -  and offer his wisdom on what to do next,  to find a way to bring me home and to be a partner going forward on the journeys that fill the mind and heart of every little boy. I had hoped that he would be there to keep me safe and he was. As always.

Hope. What a strange thing it is. It’s more than just a wish; it’s more than just a sentiment; it embodies something that we yearn for; it represents something which has the capacity to make us whole.  It’s more than a dream but it is a less than a fantasy; hope is the driving force within each of us – a call to action - to make the world turn closer to our best imaginings, our highest aspirations, our most cherished realization of the perfect moment or the perfect relationship or the perfect outcome. Hope drives us forward and gives us a context to visualize, realize and actualize our inner dreams and it motivates us to make real those inner sentiments and wishes that ultimately make us who we wish to be and to make others who we believe in, fully capable of becoming their best selves.

I hear more and more these days that people have no hope or that they have lost hope or that the future seems less hopeful. How can that be possible when we are all still filled with those best imaginings, those highest aspirations, those cherished realizations? I submit that in the darkest of times hope is the most necessary and most powerful. I speak not of the common wisdom of hope, I speak of a new, vital, powerful force, not complacent and timid but fierce and proud. I think we need to revisit the idea of hope; we need to change it from a docile noun, a passive wish, a benign pie in the sky aspiration to an action verb of intent, of purpose, of willfulness. To hope for anything, for anyone,  must be equated with a call to action, a call to achieve, a call to persevere and to seek the methods or the steps or the process by which we can achieve – or try our hardest to achieve – those end points inspired by hope.  We must see hope, not only our own hopes but equally driven by the hope of those we care for, of those we care about, and of those we love, as a clarion call to action, a catalyst toward change, a harbinger of the best of times not lost in the shadowed clouds of despair.  I submit that every aspiration, every dream, every goal, every lofty plan we have is individually and collectively founded on hope and I believe too that every hope is founded on the possibility for action and reaction. We are the hope of those around us and we are the hope for our own dreams to be fulfilled. We are the source of hope to better a city or a nation or a global community. We are the brilliant light in the darkness, the kaleidoscope of color at the dawn and dusk of each and every day. With every genuine hope must be a concomitant obligation to act if at all possible. With every genuine hope, we are called to duty, to a cause higher than ourselves, to a sacred task to work with all of our might and every ounce of drive and strength we hold to seek to make that hope or those hopes real. My dad coming across the street was his action to fulfill my hope. We can all do that, we can all cross that street, we can all fill that wish, we can all make that call, we can all help that friend, we can all visit that sick person, we can all listen to the pain and the uncertainty of those filled with life’s challenges. We can step up to the plate and step into action to make those things we hope, real – or at least do our damnedest to try.

What are examples of this hope I speak of? I can give you examples from my own life, knowing full well that each of us has our own set of hopes, each of us has our own set of  wishes, some less open to our actions and others more subject to our control, but, in every case, each of us is called to act upon our own specific hopes, primed by such hopes to make decisions and to make plans and to create strategies. 

Some of my hopes following my Swiss Family Robinson plan were as diverse and as varied as my imagination;  sometimes achieved, sometimes not.

Hope is the journey we all take to be who we are,  to accept who we are, painful or not, and to embrace who we are.

Hope is being wild enough, in my case, in graduate school, to work on two widely divergent PhD topics in both behavior and neurological basis of biology at the same time. Hope is doing research that defies common wisdom and seeks and ultimately proves a point valid but against the odds and against a well-established giant in the field

Hope is what you have to fall back on when, as I was, you are misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and you  have to live for a week while in your early 20’s having been told that you have only a few months to live. The experts were wrong. Wrong test results, wrong person, wrong conclusion. The hope to live and to cherish life has never been lost since, however, not for a single second.

Hope is your great desire to rush home from college one weekend to see a favorite aunt who has fallen ill before she passes and missing her by a few minutes

Hope is your great desire to have your critically ill father fully back to remember and to talk with before he passes away and being fortunate to catch  him for those few minutes before memory and time ran out

Hope is the risk we all take to tell someone that we love them and above all else to take the chance, to endure the risk, to accept the vulnerability that comes with our intense, burning desire that they will tell us that they love us in return.

Hope is to work toward a solution to a disease like AIDS that took away two of my closest friends unbelievably early in their lives, one of whom shared my birthday,  and to push for scientific, political and social changes to make that disease both survivable and manageable.

Hope is the face of a long-time colleague battered over and over again with illness who remains defiant, in the arena, fighting with all of her might to live and to live well.

Hope is finding a life partner and working with all that you are to find a way to change the politics and laws of a nation so that you can actually marry that person

Hope is becoming a head of a small, special, unique school in your 30’s, a school filled with challenges, and working with so, so many others to make it the gem that it is today

Hope is loving someone with all of your heart who is going through a challenging time and making sure to walk beside him so as to offer companionship, to walk behind him  so as to push him forward, to walk in front of him so as to pull him along so that when you together reach that better place that he seeks, you find not only that he is a stronger person but that you are too for taking the journey with him

Hope is believing fully that we can, together, create a better, more just world

Hope is believing that anything is possible.

We are all filled with hopes, some clear, some less so, some easily obtained, some not, some  under our control, and others not at all, some on a short time frame for success and others only after decades of work and  even with the occasional or frequent setback. As a people, in a technological age, we have lost some insight on how long some things take to achieve, how rare it is that anything is instantaneous in life. Hope is  not only a call to action but a call for patience. It takes time to change the world, or to change a person, or to change a point of view. It does not always work but I do believe, firmly, that hope is about the journey. It’s staying true to what you believe, it’s staying honest about what you see, it’s finding peace in what you achieve. I believe that an active understanding of hope as a motivator is the single greatest gift we have in life to give us a sense of purpose, to drive us toward the distant lofty goals, to face the unexpected and dreadful challenges that come to us and to those we care about and love.

If hope is a call to action, than we are obligated to do the best that we can with the aim to achieve the goal at the center of those hopes. Nothing miraculous, just the best that we can do. There was a time that doing the best you could do was enough. What happened with that? When did we stop giving credit for trying? When will we salute the journey to fulfill hopes as much as we salute the end product? Hope is an ongoing process, finely tuned over time, and pliable and variable as we approach any given endpoint. We can all work to make our hopes and the hopes of others more rather than less likely. Will we always succeed? Absolutely not. We should, we shall and we will, however, always be compelled to try, to strive to make our hopes and the hopes of others real.

And, today, looking down upon our beloved seniors, in these your last moments as high school students, with a wondrous, uncertain  future calling to you, what is it that I hope for you:

I hope that I will see each of you again, knowing full well that I will not. I hope that our good-byes are merely a stepping stone before our next hello. I hope that you’ll find a career or occupation that fulfills you, that keeps you energized, that feeds your soul. I hope that whatever passion you have had at PCS is not lost, even if it does not remain your major focus but especially if it does. I hope that each of you finds love in your life with a grace and peace that only  love can bring to each of you. If you so desire, I hope that you are blessed with children to nurture, to lead, to teach, to embrace, to encourage, to care for. Children for whom  you will cross the street to encourage them to follow their own exotic, fantastic journeys and  dreams but to always welcome them home with wisdom and care in order to prepare them to travel onward.  I hope that you will all live long and happy lives, that you might be graced  to have the company of the people in your life who are or serve as family for decades to come. I hope that you will lead us forward to better times, to good leadership, to smart policies that will protect and embrace the needs of all. I hope that you will use hope as the guiding force in your life to act, to seek change, to touch lives, to better lives, to embrace virtues and values, to work toward a more just world, to fulfill your inner desires and dreams with passion and courage. You are the hope of the future. Your hopes will become tomorrow’s realities  ---  but only if you try, only if you use the education that all of us at PCS have offered you as our action to empower your hopes --- only if you are driven by those hopes to work toward them and to make real that which starts in the imagination of the mind, which is inspired by the needs of others, which serves as  the basis for any future call to action, or arises due to the dilemmas thrown at you. Use your best sense of hope – and the actions that such hopes inspire -  to make for a better world.

One last point of closure: my father did teach me all those skills that he promised me that night – how to swim against a strong current, how to hike the tallest mountain, how to survive in tough conditions and, all these years later, I am proud to say that I have crossed the rivers and climbed the mountains and traversed the wilds. I have climbed inside the great pyramid of Giza, and I’ve hiked the arctic circle; I’ve journeyed through the dense jungle; I’ve traveled the frozen tundra and ridden horseback across the great plains; I’ve discovered the simplicity of the back woods and the great ancient cities of old. It all started with the bold hopes of a little boy, the wisdom  and willingness of my father to realize  and nurture my hopes, and the life journey that called me to action to learn, to discover, and to make my hopes a reality. May your own life stories be both as fulfilling and as exciting and may your life be a series of successful journeys, nurtured by your education and those around you who serve as the catalysts that empower your hopes so as to make your aspirations, your dreams, and your desires a reality for you and for those you love.

Thank you very much.