Graduation 2020

Elizabeth A. Brown, Ph.D.

Chemistry Teacher and Coordinator
Director of STEM Initiatives
Graduation Address
I hate graduations. They are long, always hot and clammy, people talk way too much about themselves and we always end with some trite advice on how you should follow your dreams and listen to your heart and you will make a difference in this world. Now, before the administration comes to their senses and rapidly removes me from this stage, let me say clearly- I don’t really hate graduations. Rather, I hate the pressure it puts on us to say something profound, or at the very least inspiring; I hate that graduations signal the end of an experience, as if you could put a wall up between your high school self and your college self and isolate the lessons learned on either side, demarcated by this random day in June.  So, here I am, a mess of contradictions. I don’t like graduations, yet I’m bursting with pride to be here with you today; I hate public speaking, yet I got myself up on this stage; I don’t feel I have any wisdom to share with you that you haven’t already heard, yet I’m going to try anyway. 

When I feel lost in a tangle of competing and changing emotions, I often turn to the constants in my life for guidance, another set of contradictions: science and literature. Despite my undying love of science, and my data-driven mind, I’ve always been a voracious reader and fancied myself a decent writer. In my own jumbled academic history, I’ve never truly seen the divide between science and humanities. Certainly, one focuses more on emotion, striving to encapsulate the human experience through word, sound, or sight, but I’d argue that science is just as emotional and driven by the same deep desire to understand our purpose and our world; and we wouldn’t and couldn’t truly experience one without the other. Why else would we look to the night sky and respond to the beauty of the universe by developing complex machinery of mirrors and tubes if not to see those distant pinpricks of light up close? Why, then, would Nikola Tesla, father of modern electricity and A/C current, say “of all things, I liked books best”? We crave the celestial guidance of our physical world, yet describe it in terms so deeply personal and human that the line between art and science is blurred.

In December of 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon on NASA’s Apollo 8 mission. As day broke on Earth on December 24, 1968, these three men became the first in history to witness the earthrise, a breathtaking reversal of our positioning in this universe that so moved the astronauts that they broadcast themselves reading from the opening lines of Genesis as the earth rose slowly and majestically in the window of the Apollo spacecraft. Marie Curie put it simply when she said, “I am among those who think science has great beauty.”

Now, more than ever, is a time to embrace our contradictions and become fully ourselves. I’ll quote Marie Curie only once more, for it frames our current predicament well: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” 

The world you are entering now is not the world I would have envisioned for you. Our world, our country, our city are in pain. It is the collective exhaustion of being cooped up for 3 months as we try to quell the spread of a deadly pandemic virus. It is the fear of the unknown that plagues our friends, family, neighbors as they leave their homes to care for the sick, to run essential businesses, to keep our country going. It is the pain of institutional racism, endemic to the history of our country that bubbles up from the underbelly where we so often hide the unpleasant, reminding us time and time again that we have yet to reconcile our past with our present. It is the uncertainty of your next steps into a world we cannot predict, yet we ask you to be brave and forge ahead into college, careers, and life with no assurances for what lies beyond tomorrow. The pain is real, it is earned, and it deserves to be felt. 

Your generation was born into this world during national upheaval, many of you making your grand entrances on or around September 11, 2001. You came of age having never known a world without school shootings. You enter adulthood a marked generation. But marked with what, is the question? As a millennial I deeply empathize with the frustration of being marked too soon. I have spent the majority of my adulthood running from the label “millennial” because somewhere around 2009 someone decided it was a bad thing to be. We were called “lazy”, “entitled”, “narcissistic”, a “generation ruined by participation trophies.” This is not the place for me to take on the wrong headedness of this characterization and enumerate all the ways in which millennials have benefited society- no I’ll save that for another day. However, it is the time for me to turn to you, Generation Z, and ask: what do you want your mark to be?

Perhaps Tower Hill can give a suggestion: Multa Bene Facta. Many Things Done Well. I will be the first to admit that in my time at THS, I have struggled with this motto. At first, I found it exhilarating. How wonderful, I thought, to be surrounded by students and faculty who aspire to be the very best; it's an over-achiever’s dream. Slowly, I began to feel burdened by the motto. What if I wasn’t doing enough? Or doing it  well enough? I should add more to my plate, obviously. I need to keep up. From there, I started to discover that I wasn’t doing many things well; in fact, I was probably living a motto more akin to “many things done.” Sometimes, it was “many things”, just hanging in the air, undone. The danger of such a weighty motto is that we can be pinned down under the enormity of its good intentions. 

Life cannot be nicely organized into science and humanities, good and evil, done well and done poorly. Instead, we are each a uniquely crafted and honed dichotomy. This, precisely, is why I am so humbled to be up here today, as your student-selected speaker. It is not likely that too many Class Deans find themselves being asked to address the group of students they were tasked with sepharding, and disciplining, through four years of high school. However, like all of us, I am neither good nor evil, friend nor foe. For many of you, I conjure up visions of demerits and sidelong glances while you chat surreptitiously during an assembly. Let’s not mix up the facts: I am an avowed follower and evangelist of the school rules and nothing will get me to notice you faster than an untucked shirt or the dreaded legging-sweatshirt combo. However, I am much more than my reverence for sartorial conformity. I am also the teacher who appreciates a good joke, the cornier (and preferably science-themed) the better; on a long Friday afternoon, I love nothing more than to end class with a rousing round (or five) of pictionary. I am many things, and I am many things done well.

However, my many things may not be yours. And seniors, this is the message I hope to impart to you today. Find your many things, do them well, and let them be your mark on our world. Don’t worry if they don’t match with your roommate, your neighbor, your best friend, your biggest competition. The things that make you so important and unique to this world are not up for comparison. Don’t mindlessly add tasks and goals to your plate simply to state that you are doing more. Choose your tasks and goals wisely and execute to the highest possible standard. The plurality of your “many” is up for debate as well. Perhaps you do one thing superiorly, but in doing so you serve many constituents. Or, you may find that your talents lie in several many, varied, small areas. Neither is better; both are correct and every point along the continuum is valid. 

Your mark on the world, as a generation, that is the future to come. What already is, though, is your mark as a class on this school, on our community, and on me. As we end our four years together, I feel compelled to open the more emotional side of me- in direct opposition, or perhaps in accordance with- my scientific mind, and say the following:

Thank you, Class of 2020. Each one of you has changed me for the better, pushing me to be more open-minded, more diligent in my teaching practice, more compassionate as an advisor, and more aware of the challenges facing the next generation. When I agreed to take on this position 5 years ago, I could never have predicted that I would learn more from you than I gave. This is the true joy of teaching and mentoring, though; you think you are in the driver’s seat, but you eventually come to realize we are all just along for the ride, taking turns steering on a huge, group road trip. You’ve been the best companions I could have ever asked for. 

Though not a parent myself, I, like so many parents in the audience today, have been wrestling with the twin emotions of sorrow and joy of watching 71 remarkable beings grow from children to young adults, ready to go off into the world. And like your parents, I know you are ready for this step, yet I dread it too because it means I won’t get to share each day with you anymore. You will go to college and meet new people and find your place in this world and I will sit back and watch with immense joy and pride that I had the luck to be part of even a tiny moment in that existence. 

Just as I have charged you to find your own contradictions and build your own Multa Bene Facta, don’t forget where you came from. You will go on to be wildly successful in your own right, but don’t let humble Delaware and Tower Hill fall away. Return from time to time and share your gifts with the next generation; leave your mark. They will learn from you, but you from them as well, and you will find the greatest joy in life comes not from achieving something on your own, but watching those you guide realize they can do it themselves. Class of 2020, my kids, you are ready, you can do it yourself, and you will change the world. Regardless of where you go in this world or how old and successful you become, I will always be just a phone call or an email away. If you listened to nothing else today, remember these final four things:
1. Sit up straight
2. Tuck in your shirt
3. Put your cell phone away
4. I love you.