Ms. Lopes has asked me to share a few thoughts on what it means to be a Holderness alumnus. When she asked, she had no way of knowing that I am a terrible choice for this task. Terrible for at least two reasons:
First, my own experience as an alumnus is the worst-case scenario for most of you right now. You seniors want to become alumni because you are ready, beyond ready, to see high school in your rear-view mirror. You are each envisioning a future that takes place far from Weld Hall.
So, what am I supposed to say to you? “Congratulations, you are now in the alumni society. If you play your cards right, you could be giving a speech in the East Wing in seventeen years!” That would be a tragedy for most of you.
Secondly, as many of you know, I maintain a deep skepticism toward any type of group identity/tribalism/nationalist sentiment. I don’t have a Holderness bumper sticker on my car. When people who graduated in the 1970s talk to me about the school we went to, my response is: we didn’t go to the same school. I don’t think Mr. Ford and I went to the same school. I don’t think Mr. Weymouth and I have ever lived on the same planet. If the 70s are not the 90s and the 90s are not today, then what could it possibly mean to be a Holderness alumnus.
Well, I can’t answer for anyone else, but I can answer for myself. I can describe three ways that being a Holderness alumnus matters in my life. I will call them: “Thin connections,” “Thick connections,” and “Personal-historic humility.” Warning: The first two will come with advice.
The thin connections are what we normally think of when we picture membership in an alumni association. You now have at least something in common with thousands who have come before. These are the cocktail party connections. You can sit down with total strangers and develop instant rapport over stories of Out Back, Walkbacks, the Nordic trails and all other things Holderness.
These connections are necessarily thin because Holderness changes every year. Last Christmas, someone came up to me in the lodge at Stowe to shake my hand and tell me that he graduated around the year of my birth. Because of the age gap, we discussed just the tip of the iceberg of Holderness experiences. We couldn’t compare notes on favorite teachers, but at least we both knew what Bartsch and “sit-down dinner” were.
Do not make the mistake of discounting these thin connections. They form a web, a network that can be both uplifting and incredibly useful. Wherever you move from now on, there will be Holderness people there. These people will be inclined to welcome you, they will introduce you to new friends, or offer you jobs, or show you the best places to ski. If you find yourself lonely or desperate later in life, start walking around with a Holderness sweatshirt on. Nice people will come up to you in train stations to say hello. That happened to me once in Belgium. It improved my mood for the entire day.
So here is my first piece of advice. Be that nice person who says “hi.” Keep your eyes out for fellow Bulls. When you take over the world, hire some young Holderness kids simply so that this part of my speech becomes true.
Part II: Thick Connections
The thick connections are the bonds that exist already within this room. The “Essence of Holderness” may be hard to pin down, but there is certainly such a thing as the class of 2017. Unlike the old man in the ski lodge, you know what your classmates experienced over the last few years. You have seen the rest of the iceberg.
For you, membership in the alumni association might translate to permanent membership in the Holderness class of 2017. The people who sat next to me at graduation also stood next to me at my wedding. Look around. You will have these people forever. The ones who are already friends will remain so. The rest will start to look better after you meet the world of non-Holderness people.
Your shared experiences include bits of the official Holderness program. You know about the rainy Tuesday after solo. You know about soccer championships and Poetry Out Loud and AP US History.
More importantly, you shared experiences of your own making. Whether you currently think of these people as friends or not, your classmates know you quite well. They know about some of your great successes and failures. They know about your first loves and heartbreaks. They will remember embarrassing stories about you.
Last night I talked on the phone to a Holderness classmate who is expecting his first kid. The first time I talked to him about our shared desire to avoid fatherhood was in Rathbun dorm in 1998, but it feels like yesterday. You will never recreate the types of friendships you made here.
So here comes the second piece of advice: Take your last ten days here and make sure you leave on good terms with as many members of your class as possible. I constantly bump into classmates to whom I could have been nicer. Avoid that. Patch the holes. Heal the wounds. Be good to each other.
This is just the beginning of a theory, so it will come out half-baked, but this is the home stretch.
There is a tendency to remember old schools or old towns or old jobs as places through which we passed. I might think I passed through Holderness for four years, then through college for four more, etc.
I am starting to think that this idea of Sheppe entering and exiting his surroundings is false. The truth is, the time I spent at Holderness was time I spent becoming Sheppe. I did more becoming in college. I am still doing it right now. In this frame, our schools and jobs start to look a lot more like our families. I didn’t pass through my family as a child. My family was the environment that created me. Ditto for Holderness. As Mr. Baier put it in Chapel on Monday, we have to look back and acknowledge the trail that brought us to where we are. To put it another way, you might grumble about sit-down dinner, but at this point you ARE sit-down dinner, at least in part.
Like any really good wisdom, this is entirely useless as advice.
It may, however, be a useful approach to college. Remember, you are not entering a school. You are joining a new, incomplete community that will be defined by your engagement even as it helps to shape your personality. Keep becoming yourself forever, but remember that an important part of that becoming happened right here at Holderness.