Commencement Speech 2018

Good morning. It’s a deeply felt privilege for me to be present for the graduation of the class of 2018 this morning. Returning to Woodstock is one of life’s great pleasures and I’d like to thank Dr Long and the Woodstock community for inviting me. A special greeting to all the proud parents, siblings, and extended family who have come from far flung corners of the world to be here today. Congratulations and condolences to my fellow teachers, counselors, and dorm parents here. You’ve made it through May intact—I think. I sense your conflicted, perhaps frazzled, hearts as you face the daunting gauntlet of farewells to beloved students and colleagues today. Thank you for your work. There is none more important in this world. Namaskar to our employees and community members. You’ve been here long before most us, you’ll be here long after we leave, thank you for your hospitality and patience.

[turning to the Class of 2018] And finally, finally—hello, old friends.

Mrs. Seefeldt sends her heartfelt greetings to you. This message is as much hers as it is mine.

It’s good to be back here in Wakanda. I’ve made the secret passage through Barlowganj, under the bridge near St. George’s and already can sense the healing power of vibranium, ah, vibrating through me. I feel a bit like I should be Michael B. Jordan; returning to Wakanda from the disgruntled ghettos of America to stir things up. By the way, that would make Dr. Long the Black Panther. Alas, I don’t have any of Michael’s muscles or bitterness.

I do, however, have memories. More than I can honestly handle. Of your journey as a class, of each of you.

It’s been somewhat of a restless year for Mrs Seefeldt and I. During one particularly restless evening, while I was staring blankly at the same-old screen of same-old Netflix titles, I just said to myself out of the blue, “remember Subho?” [Subho is the name of a graduating senior]. I smiled very slowly. A vision of Subho came to me and interrupted the drone of a dreary American work week and I said, “oh yes, I remember Subho.”

The truth is my mind now on any night can replace that bland screen of Netflix shows with a far longer list of random, mostly wonderful, memories of Woodstock and the Class of 2018.

Perhaps it hasn’t quite hit you yet in the exciting blur of graduation week, but I imagine all of you are sitting with a far larger, even more chaotic database of memories today as well. Cluttering your head. Choking up your Instagram.

Commencement is usually a time for looking to the future. And the commencement speech is a time for some advice about that future. But the future is coming in a few hours and I’d rather we pause for a second. These are the last few minutes you will exist as a class. Graduation is not just an individual landmark or event. It is the end of a community as well. It’s the last time this particular community of teachers, dorm parents, staff and students will be together, it is the end of an era.

As you get in your separate taxis and board your separate planes, you will be transitioning from a time of experiencing Woodstock, to a lifetime of remembering it. Living with a thousand memories, full of pleasure, full of pain.

What can do we do with all this? Well, first, expect some bumps along the road. People will tell you the first year away from Woodstock is difficult because of culture shock. That’s not why. You all are thoroughly adaptable, independent, and for better or worse, pretty accustomed to a global elite culture. No, it will be difficult because you have an unusual landslide of rich, thick memories to process. And memory is visceral. Your body feels it like the Picture Palace “7-D” theater experience.

Scientists have isolated the physical area of your brain that handles memory. Because of its unusual shape they call it the hippocampus, Greek for seahorse. When you see or hear certain things, like “remember Subho” your hippocampus triggers a flood of chemicals and sensations, images and emotions throughout your body. In other words, memory is a full body experience, is hard to control, and—if you’re graced with a healthy body—is not going anywhere for a long time. Memories can trigger physical pleasure and pain years and decades away from the actual experience. The isolated 24/7 experience of Woodstock only intensifies the number and depth of memories you’ve stored away. In short, you have a little Invicta seahorse in your head that’s going to be giving you full virtual reality experiences for years to come.

It can be hard to know what to do with all that emotion and re-experience, particularly during your first years away from here. Let me just give you two thoughts about how to tame the seahorse. First, don’t try to go back. Your time at Woodstock has come to end. I’m sure most of you at this point can’t wait for that. But as the weeks pass and you face some new challenges, don’t be surprised if you feel the deep urge to go back to what you think were simpler times here at Woodstock. Resist that urge. You have new friends to make, new challenges before you. Woodstock and Invicta will now exist and live with you primarily as memories, and that is a good thing.

Second, and most importantly, don’t be ashamed of your memories. Of their richness. Of their pain. Some of my best friends from Woodstock have occasionally expressed embarrassment that they still feel so strongly about their friends and their time here. You shouldn’t be. Many of you have quite literally grown up together. Many of your teachers, dorm parents, counselors and advisors have come to know you as they would their own children. These are the richest, deepest relationships life gives us. Treasure them. Honor them. They are hard to come by.

Most cultures in the world, prior to modern global capitalism, have centered on memory. Most of what we have come to call religion or tradition, is in fact the practice of remembering, of living according to our collective memory. Stupas, dargahs, samadhis, the Quran, the Mahabharat, crucifixes—these are all ways of remembering. Of ordering our lives based on life-altering relationships from the past. In the years to come, don’t be ashamed of missing and cherishing the friends sitting next to you. On Instagram, on Facebook, in your heads, hearts, and hopefully at formal and informal reunions for years to come. It’s how we were made to live. Woodstock, for better or worse, has given you an unusual abundance of these relationships.

But still, is there any importance to all of this besides just personal advice on how to handle the emotions of the coming year? I say without hesitation ek dum, phataphat, 100% yes. Valuing, savoring, centering, mastering memory is a lost art whose absence is rotting our world more rapidly than we realize. We live in a world that is forgetting—both the good and the bad of what has come before. Ghosts of fascist pasts are returning to Europe and the USA. In India, we’re losing languages, forests, even memories of breathable air, rivers we can bathe in, millennia of dharm and tehzeeb—all to the forces of colonialism, modernity, and a new global cult of unabashed individualistic greed whose gods are the holy male trinity of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, whose scripture is Steve Jobs’ biography, and whose unspoken creed is get rich by all means, love yourself in all things, forget all else. The world is blowing up Bamiyan Buddhas and Syrian Palymras right and left, figurative and real, leaving modern life a barren, boring, broken place.

No, it’s no small thing to be someone who cultivates and honors memory. Celebrating, cherishing the positives. Remembering, processing, learning from the more painful parts of our past. The modernizing world may sneer at you as impractical, archaic, or as we sometimes say at Woodstock ‘too senti’. I would say carefully remembering where you came from, where you’ve been, who has taught you, who has shaped you, who you’ve loved, who you’ve hurt, your moments of joy, of pain—remembering all of this will not only tell you where it would be wise to go next but, quite simply, makes life worth living, savouring.

In short, Class of 2019, keep that little seahorse in your heads healthy and active. Enjoy these last few moments of the Woodstock experience then look forward to visiting a new Picture Palace in your mind. You’ve been gifted a lifetime of Woodstock-tinged memories that can guide your way through the coming challenge of college, career, and in all seriousness, saving the planet.

Love to you from Mrs Seefeldt and I. You will not be forgotten.


Speech Writing

In June 2018, I was invited back to speak at the international school where I served as Head of Upper Years for 3 years (2015-17). The speech was challenging as I needed to address a highly diverse global parent and alumni network, while also delivering a personalized message to a unique student body (you can read more about the school here). I include it here as an example of my speech-writing ability and my capacity to adapt my communication style to match an audience.