Graduation Speech: Nicole Keith, Class of 2021 Dean and Math Faculty Member

Before I launch into the typical words of advice that one should give in a graduation speech, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge all of the parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins who are here today. As a new mom, it is hard to imagine all of the feelings that must be bubbling to the surface as you look at your grown child on their graduation day. All I know is that my husband and I wanted to throw an actual party when our little guy rolled over for the first time so if I had to guess your family members are probably bursting with pride. Seniors, as much as this day is about your accomplishments here at Tower Hill, you could not have made it to this moment without all of the love and support of your family and friends. Don’t be too cool to give them a big hug when you walk off the stage today and tell them that you love them.  Let’s give them a round of applause for all their love and support. 

So, when I was a junior in high school, my AP Calculus teacher assigned us a famous mathematician to research and give an oral presentation on. At the time I thought the assignment was very silly but looking back I now understand the difficulty of keeping twenty teenagers engaged in meaningful mathematical work in June. Nonetheless, I was a conscientious student and did what was asked of me. I researched, I practiced, I was ready. The day came for me to present the life of Galileo. I stood in front of my peers, opened my mouth to speak, and promptly burst into tears. While the work of Galileo was inspiring, I will take this moment to be honest and say that was not why I was crying. You see, at the young age of sixteen I was deathly afraid of public speaking. Unfortunately for me, I am still deathly afraid of public speaking. 

As you can imagine, when I was asked to speak today I was very honored but mostly wanted to run away as fast as possible. Mrs. Cover, Mr. Silva, and Dr. B all urged me to think about the opportunity before saying no, and thinking about it is exactly what I did. I thought about my role as a teacher and what it means for me to stand in front of my students each and every day. Everyday teachers ask students to take on difficult, challenging, and even tear inducing tasks. John Ruskin once said that “Education is a painful, continual and difficult work to be done in kindness, by watching, by warning, by praise, but above all – by example.” What type of teacher would I be if in this last moment of your Tower Hill education, I choose not to lead by example? So here I stand, facing my fears just like I would want my students to do and hoping very much that I do not promptly burst into a puddle of tears. I would like to think my sixteen year old self would be quite surprised about where she ended up and maybe even a little proud. 

Class of 2021, you have done the difficult, challenging, and tear inducing work. When you first arrived in the halls of the Upper School some of you had been at Tower Hill since you were learning your ABC’s, while many of you were brand new. I watched as you formed new friendships, created havoc in the freshmen homeroom, and awkwardly stood around at the homecoming dance. You bonded over build-a-paper week and conjugated a never ending list of verbs. Many of you stumbled through your first season of a new sport. Before you knew it, the year was over and you were no longer the youngest students in the hallways. 

Sophomore year brought its own set of challenges with a dose of geometry proofs and the daunting periodic table. You learned how to navigate broken hearts and rolled your eyes as I asked you to pick up the trash in the lounges for the one hundredth time. There was a week of volunteering during winterim and countless hours spent practicing musical instruments and rehearsing lines. You ate more cookies from the dining hall than you could possibly count. Before you knew it, the year was over and you were halfway through your high school career. 

When you entered the building again as juniors, you stood a little taller - mostly figuratively but also literally for many of the gentlemen. You finally got to take the history electives that you hoped for and began to dream about college. You celebrated the school’s centennial year and tackled the infamous trio of sine, cosine, and tangent. There were promposals that unfortunately never happened and you dove into a whirlwind of virtual learning. Before you knew it, the year was over and you were looking forward to things returning to normal for your senior year. 

As senior year drew closer, you quickly realized that it would be anything but normal. There were face masks and desks six feet apart. Classrooms sprung out of thin air in the fieldhouse and there were enough disinfectant wipes to supply a small army. But you carried on. There were still college applications to write and senior speeches to give. You never expected there to be so many waffle trucks and let’s not forget about that random bingo game. You laughed with friends and made beautiful memories despite the turmoil of the world. You wrote your last paper and swam your last lap. Before you knew it, the year was over and you were about to say goodbye to this place that you made home. 

All this time I hoped to set a good example for you as your class dean. However, when I look back on the last four years I am struck with the fact that you, seniors, have set the example for me. You reminded me to laugh at the little things and there were a lot of little things. You taught me what true friendship looks like. You took on social justice work with more thoughtfulness and maturity than many adults. You remained humble through the wins and held your heads high through the losses. You were creative, resilient, flexible, and inspiring. You checked in to see how my day was going more times than I can count. And… you eventually picked up the trash in the lounge without me having to ask! You did many things well. For all of this, I am forever thankful. 

And now here you stand. After four years of forcing you to listen to me in homeroom, here we are for the final time. There are so many things I wish I could tell you before you head off into the world but I know you will have to learn most things on your own. So, I am going to tell you the one thing I wish I could have told sixteen year old me when she was crying in front of her entire math class. Here it is seniors. You are about to enter a world that desperately needs your help. You will be torn in a thousand different directions and asked to make choices almost every second of every day. Choices that will be yours and yours alone. Because that is what life is, a series of choices that both defines your character and puts you on a path in life. Most of these will be made without a second thought. Can I hit the snooze button one more time? Should I wear the blue sweater or the green one? Do I have a second scoop of ice cream? Yes - have the second scoop of ice cream. 

However, every once in a while life will hand you a difficult, challenging, and tear inducing choice. The kind of choice that will actually change your life and define who you are as a person. Should you apply for your dream job even though it means you have to move to a new city? Do you open yourself up to love even though you have been hurt before? Do you stand up for what you believe in even when it is hard? These types of choices often make you want to run away as fast as possible. To take the easy way out. I am here to urge you to make the brave choice, the difficult choice. In the wise words of Nelson Mendela, “may your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Do the things you never thought you could do. I promise you won’t regret it. When you get outside your comfort zone and make the brave choices along your life’s path, your sixteen year old self will most likely be surprised at where your life ended up and maybe even a little proud. 

Before you go, I will leave you with some final words from the ever insightful Winnie the Pooh, “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” And if you ever feel stuck with a choice, know that your Tower Hill family is only a phone call away. I will be here waiting with the tissues. Congratulations Class of 2021! You did it!