Family, faculty and friends stood witness as the 164 members of Milton Academy’s Class of 2010 made an end to their time at Milton during the School’s 211th graduation exercises on Friday, June 11. Seniors began the morning’s festivities with a traditional procession around campus, bidding farewell to underclassmen at each of the eight houses. With flowers in hand, the graduating class made its way to the formal ceremony on the lawn outside Apthorp Chapel. A long-standing and beloved tradition, Milton seniors elected two classmates to speak on their behalf; valedictory speakers Erin McDaniel and Brennan Robbins addressed the audience. Alumnus J. Peter Scoblic ’92—senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former executive editor ofThe New Republic—delivered the day’s commencement address.
Watch the Graduation Ceremony
Speech by Erin McDaniel '10
Four score and seven years ago, the year was 1923, which has very little to do with most of us here today. But zero score and almost four years ago, I walked onto the Milton Academy campus for the first time. Then, I was thirteen years old; now, I’m seventeen. Then, I was intimidated by almost everyone on this campus; now, I’m giving my class’s graduation speech to a couple thousand of those people. Then, I was awkward; now—well, now I’m still awkward. Because some things never change.
But that social consistency, one might call it, is not what we’re celebrating today. What we’re celebrating is much more important: it’s the departure of this wonderful class from Milton Academy, a School which provides an oft-recalled metaphorical bubble allowing its students to act and explore with little fear of scary real world repercussions. In the varying amounts of time my classmates and I have spent at Milton, we’ve been given a lot, both vaguely in the form of a supportive intellectual community and tangibly in the forms of a literally green quad and an environmentally green science center (not that we’ve actually gotten to use the latter). More importantly, though, we’ve been given much to look forward to. I’m talking not only about loving college, but also about seeing the world at large. Given the experiential diversity among members of our class alone, we’ve been given a small (if sheltered) view of what the world outside of this bubble holds. And, rightfully, we’re excited to go exploring.
We will, of course, take with us certain bits of information and encouragement from Milton. First, we’ll remember the fact that we’re pretty smart—not only because of the quality and quantity of knowledge we’ve spent recent years collecting (‘sup, teachers?), but also because of the holistic approach to learning Milton takes; this approach is most clearly evidenced by our having spent years debating our opinions around and across various Harkness tables. In this way, Milton has taught us a lot about being right and defending our rightness to others. But what about being wrong and then conceding our wrongness? Here, we are often at a loss, and for precisely this reason, many Milton students find incredibly difficult the task of admitting that they aren’t right.
Easily applicable here is one of the best pieces of advice ever given to me by a teacher; Ann Foster, beloved Milton history teacher (and two-time instructor of yours truly), often tells students that they should be ready to unlearn what they’ve already learned. Usually, she pulls that phrase out just before asking us to forget the picture books which extol so-called Great American Heroes and to replace those happy images with the deeply saddening and incriminating documents before us. While I appreciate the phrase’s application to history, I find it even more fitting as a sound bite about how to deal with wrongness. In the moments when what we’ve learned doesn’t lead us to the right conclusions, we must be ready to admit that we are wrong and then to explore and understand what is actually right. The Academy, knowing that we can live up to this basic foundation of what it means to be intelligent, is giving us a piece of paper today that will always remind us how smart we are.
This piece of paper—a diploma, I hear it’s sometimes called—will also remind us that we’re a unique and bizarre group of people whose parts are, if even possible, greater than their summed-up whole. While many prep schools encourage ready-to-order conformity among students, with each becoming an appealing package to present in the college admissions process, Milton encourages true-to-the-self expression. To know your most unique (and perhaps embarrassing) self is to know yourself deeply. In that spirit, I recall a series of unfortunate memories from my formative years at Milton. When graduating co-head monitor Nick Jacob and I were freshmen, we were appointed to “public relations” on the Community Service board. This role asked us to step forward during at least one morning assembly each week and announce upcoming service events to our classmates. Though this work does not sound incredibly challenging, Nick and I somehow managed to make it so. Each and every one of these simple announcements topped its predecessor, becoming the most horribly awkward presentations Milton Academy had ever seen. Turning red in the face, we would stutter over words and talk over one another, all the while forgetting what we were actually supposed to be saying. For at least a full year, these announcements were really uncomfortable (and not in a particularly funny way). Only when Nick and I acknowledged that we were awkward, having realized that embarrassment loves company, did the announcements become funny.
By that point, I had come to understand something very important about myself—something much bigger than the fact that I should never be put in charge of advertising in front of a group. Part of that understanding means that, even on days when I feel socially suave (suave being an extraordinarily relative term here), I know how easily I can revert to my freshman self (which, I’ve learned, is really not so much different from my graduating self). We Milton students have the advantage of knowing that embarrassing self because we’ve been asked (or forced), in many ways and at many times, to express it, but always without fear of social exile. This has been a place where we’ve dared to be embarrassing; from that, we’ve become the wonderfully hilarious and relatively evolved individuals sitting here today.
After we leave here, though we’ll carry with us the implications of our graduation from Milton, we’ll quickly face a host of important choices. These choices begin early—which celebrations we’ll be attending this weekend, where we’ll work this summer, what we’ll do at the college or gap year program to which we’ll soon matriculate—and will extend far into the future: what career paths we embark upon, whether or not we’ll get married or have kids, where we’ll live, how we’ll act. Because that onslaught of decision-making makes me so nervous, I must console myself with good old-fashioned parental advice. The best advice my parents have ever given me (over the course of my long, illustrious life) is to find what I love to do and then to find a way to get paid for it. I was five or six when they first advised me in this way and couldn’t help but quip, “what if I want to be Dad all day?” Precocious child that I was, I assumed that I had stumped my parents with my incredibly well-thought-out response (meaning that not much has changed in the interim decade). But, as I reconsidered this advice in the context of my current situation—college-bound with really no ideas about what I want to do in college or beyond—I realized how profoundly right it was. I can think of a way to get paid—maybe not much, but I can get some cash—for pretty much anything I’d want to spend my life doing. So, assuming for a moment that we seniors actually follow my parents’ humble advice, our only job right now—and this is a fun job—is to figure out what we love doing.
Although each of us looks ahead and sees a future open to change, many of us simultaneously have certain expectations floating around in our lives (from unnamed higher powers unto us). To these suggestions and recommendations, we will likely give much weight as we go forward. But we must remember that we are living our own lives. As ever-wise Milton chaplain Suzanne DeBuhr told my Religions of Asia class a few months ago, when we believe something (like, for example, a piece of advice) to be the absolute truth and so adhere to it, we cannot be open to new ideas. We must figure out how to reconcile meeting expectations with defying those same expectations. Let advice from the wiser and more experienced bodies of parents, teachers, and institutions guide you into situations, but also let new friends, classes, and experiences provide their input. Let your life take its natural course. And, most importantly, let yourself be happy. Keep living and learning, unhindered by what actions others are telling you to take, and realize that your final destination (as well as the path by which you’ll reach that destination) is still undecided. Strive toward it, but don’t expect to know exactly what it is because, as Charlie Brown once said, “in the book of life, the answers are not in the back.”
To students still in the throes of this Academy, I offer a word of advice on how to make yourself happy here. Figure out what bothers you about this school (because only once you know what you’d like to fix can you move forward). Then, ask not what your Milton can do for you; ask what you can do for your Milton. If you spend all of your time here waiting for Milton to get more relaxed or more welcoming or more exciting, you’ll likely end up disappointed. Take the parts of this school that unsettle you and challenge them, peacefully pushing the changes you want to see happening. If you do that, you’re likely to find yourself at an institution quite like the one you’d always hoped you would attend.
Finally, to the Class of 2010: as you leave campus today for the first time as Milton Academy alumni, realize that, in order to find whatever form of success you undoubtedly seek, you must first make one major leap forward: you must come out…of the Milton bubble. Right, sorry, you must come out of the Milton bubble. Once you’ve done that, you are finally free to figure out what you love and to pursue that love in the coming years of your life. I have every confidence that our parents and teachers have raised each one of us to do just that.
Speech by Brennan Robbins '10
I just want to start out briefly by saying that I am tremendously grateful for all the support my classmates, teachers and administrators have given me over the last week. News travels fast at Milton, so I doubt there are many of you who do not know this, but last Thursday night, my mom passed away after an off and on again, seventeen year struggle with breast cancer. Of the few hundred people who signed the guest booklet at the funeral, about eighty were from Milton. Your support meant a lot to me, and my family—so thank you. In these circumstances, I never really felt alone, which is in large part due to the support of my friends. I’d also feel remiss if I did not thank Dr. Martha Fishman, Eric and Sarah Fishman’s mother, who arrived at my house at around 2 p.m. the day my mom died, and stayed until my mom passed at 9:34 p.m. She was prepared to stay the whole night. As my mom struggled with breathing, it was incredibly comforting to have a good friend and pulmonary physician close by. She may be embarrassed by my praise, but really who can refuse public tribute? Most of all, I want to express gratitude to my mom, who, if beside me on this podium today, would very gracefully encourage me to introduce a thesis in short order.
In less than an hour, it will be summer—a time for contemplation, creative time-wasting activities, and partying entirely consistent with federal, state and local law, as well as the spirit and letter of the Milton Academy Handbook. For approximately eight of the remaining minutes until our collective deliverance from academic obligation, however, I want to entertain you with a thought experiment: imagine this community in four years. By then, all the Upper School students here today will have graduated or left for other reasons. The majority of this Upper School community will not have been at this ceremony today. Despite being a very old institution, Milton relies on modes of behavior being quickly transferred from older students to younger ones.
My classmates and I are leaving today, and though we may come back for the occasional reunion, and maintain ties to a small group of friends, for the most part we will not be here very much. Yet our past four years here will affect a future Milton we will not often see. I have not had time recently to perform any sociological experiments about the effect of the senior class’s absence over the last month on the juniors, sophomores and freshman—I can only imagine you have become increasingly vulgar and confused—but more seriously, I hope we have provided some guidance to you about how to learn at Milton. Don’t worry; this is not a speech of abstract values. I come bearing stories: examples of how people I hardly knew, or never will know, have inadvertently informed my understanding of myself and the world. If there’s a point, it’s this: each human interaction presents an opportunity to affect others’ lives.
During my freshman year, my friends and I played chess at least once a week with a nerdy band of politically conservative senior boys in Student Center computer lab # 1. I think they felt relatively marginalized, and, as a result, they resorted to proselytizing. The chess games I remember had two layers of competition: the actual games, and the political debate that accompanied them. My chess-playing conservative missionaries exposed me to conservative thought, and led me to question assumptions I had always held dear. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night, panicked: What if progressive taxation did really impede growth? What if gun control failed to keep guns from criminals? I searched Google for liberal counterarguments, read conservative libertarian bloggers, and made my parents discuss the conservatives’ ideas over dinner. Chess with conservatives made me better, faster, more well-read. The better and faster refers to chess, not athletic prowess. Those experiences freshmen year taught me that it’s very easy to write people who disagree with you off, as not worth your time—but engagement with these people is necessary for enriching your understanding of the world. I’ll admit that on very rare occasions, after particularly disorienting mornings, I find myself repeating one or two of the conservatives’ ideas in a lunchtime conversation in Forbes, or in a history class. I doubt they remember me, but to me, they meant a lot.
My father recently asked a rabbi to come to my house. His name is Rabbi Friedman and, twenty-nine years ago, he married my parents. The circumstances of this meeting were not exactly ideal; tumors in my mom’s brain, even after a round of radiation, had made it more difficult for her to think and express her thoughts. Within moments of meeting Rabbi Friedman, however, my mom expressed her wishes quite cogently: she wanted to discuss the Jewish community and death. Now, throughout this conversation, Rabbi Friedman was very gentle, and asked my mother questions about how she was feeling, what she was afraid of, what things she wanted done—and it struck me that this man was incredibly talented at speaking to people who felt like they were losing control. He was bringing out my mother’s personality—strong, elegant, eloquent—more than I ever could have expected. And it was kind of an odd moment to feel proud, but I was really happy that my parents had chosen this man to marry them. His empathy and, kind of, overwhelming gentleness, left me convinced that my parents had made a good first joint marital decision. I’m reconciling myself now to the notion that there is a lot about my mom’s life that I will not be able to hear in her words. But during this conversation, I could see what the younger version of my mom first saw in this man when she chose him to preside over my parents’ wedding. And 29 years later I was appreciating this rabbi, too. That sense of continuity was comforting, and I realized that even though my mom may not be able to answer directly a lot of the questions I have now about her past, the people she chose to surround herself with in life leave me some valuable clues. In a short conversation with my family, Rabbi Friedman imparted some of his values to me, but also communicated a little bit about what qualities my mom appreciated in others.
So after that long, emotional and humorless diversion, many of you may be wondering, Brennan, what’s the unifying theme of this speech: and if I were flippant—which I am —I would answer: CONSERVATISM and TRADITION—the transfer of ideas and values. But those words have a lot of different connotations and value judgments associated with them. So we might be better served by returning to that initial thought experiment: in four years, most of us will no longer attend this school. And yet, it will still be around. And a lot of what we say and do will be reflected in the next crop of students. Even as all we seniors graduate today, we are present in all of you. I think it’s comforting to know that we inhabit the minds of others, but that knowledge also poses a challenge: if our behavior and actions have the power to influence the thoughts and identities of the people who surround us, than that power comes with some sort of obligation: to be aware of what we pass on. That awareness, I think, forces us to consider what we most value, and what we most want to say in the time we have.
Speech by Peter Scoblic '92
It’s such a pleasure to be back here among friends—and 1,200 other people. The phone call from Todd Bland asking me to do this is one of the best calls I’ve ever gotten. I realize that the invitation lists me as an author, which suggests I have some facility with words, but I have to confess that preparing this speech was one of the most challenging writing assignments I’ve ever had.
In April, I was out at Pomona College to give a talk and I met a young Milton alum, so I asked him if he had any advice on giving this commencement address. He told me to be funny and to under no circumstances mention the school motto, Dare to be True. I, of course, had been planning a 5,000-word soliloquy on the nature of truth, and thought that if Milton wanted funny, they shouldn’t have invited a nuclear weapons analyst.
But really it’s great to be back even though looking over the quad brings back painful memories. I mean that literally. Over there I took such a severe blow to the groin during a game of dorm soccer that I was unable to speak for several minutes. Over there I broke my leg in three places during a school-wide snowball fight. And over there…well, I got kicked in the groin again.
But aside from lower-body trauma, I identify my experience at Milton most with my time in Robbins House. Robbins was an incredibly supportive community where I made the best friends of my life—people who I’m still in touch with to this day. It was the sort of place where everyone had a nickname—or had one forced on them—and was given a T-shirt with that name ironed on to make the mockery public. There was a fellow we dubbed Sex Beast, and before the parents become too alarmed, I assure you this was meant ironically. What’s more, two of the letters fell off his shirt, and so for the entirety of senior year he was the even more absurd “Sex Bat.” If we’d had any foresight, we would have taken that phrase, written a book about teenage vampires, and right now I’d be very, very rich.
Robbins House was an unlikely community in some ways. My class started with a small group of six of us who came to Milton in our sophomore year. And then in subsequent years we added two hockey players, a couple artsy types, and a half dozen international students. It was an eclectic group to say the least, and yet it worked. Not everyone got along of course, but in general there was an atmosphere of cooperation and tolerance and good humor. In a way, it was a microcosm of Milton itself, and as a result it was hard to label. Other dorms had clearer group identities. There were the jocks, the hippies, the misfits. We didn’t really have a moniker, though one girl who tried came up with the flattering label of “gentlemen.”
Now, I know what JC Smith is thinking: Gentleman Sex Beast is an oxymoron. But all I can tell you is that my class in Robbins House comprised a force of such refined masculinity that the year we graduated, they had to make Robbins a girls dorm.
Even when I wasn’t a gentleman, Milton always saw the best in me. My senior year—for reasons that have been lost to history—I destroyed a metal trash can with a lacrosse stick. But was I punished for destruction of school property? On the contrary, the last week of school my roommates brought me to the art exhibition where Gordon Chase had mounted the twisted wreckage on a pedestal with its own little plaque, which read: “Peter Scoblic, Class I, Project in Advanced Self-Expression.”
Now, I’m sure by this point you’re wondering how I got to where I am. Or, to be more precise, why Milton invited me back.
A couple months ago I accepted a job with John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and asked me to come work for him, doing among other things nuclear weapons policy. But for a number of years I was a journalist, most recently an editor at The New Republic magazine. And when Todd originally invited me to give this speech, he suggested folks might be interested in hearing about journalism. Given the state of the media today, I’m not sure you do. But let me try out one writing metaphor on you.
There’s a form that many argument-driven articles take. They open with a scene, and that scene serves as both an illustration of the themes and argument to come—and a segue to what’s called a nut graf, which states the article’s thesis. These articles then proceed to unfold their argument until they wrap up at the end having reinforced and expanded on the central idea that was laid out or hinted at in the beginning.
But even in a well-conceived piece, it’s not always clear where the piece is going right away. The meaning of the opening scene may be subtle, the scene may simply tease what is to come, and in some of the most engaging pieces the scene may even lead to a 180-degree pivot, surprising the reader so that the thesis really stands out.
Today marks the end of your opening scene, but it is a scene that could be interpreted in any number of different ways. It could give rise to any number of themes or points or arguments.
I’ve spent the last few weeks searching my memories of Milton for the seeds of the beautiful flower that I became—wondering how I could convince you that I too was once 18 and had a better body. And the only thing that is clear is that there was no clear sign of what I would become—or of what my friends would become.
If you look at the person next to you and guess where they will be at your 10th or 15th reunion, the one thing I can tell you is that you will almost certainly be wrong. In my class, the football captain became an environmental writer. The drummer for a band that was actually banned from campus for starting a riot and whose debut album was titled Death Fig is now a lawyer and the father of two. And my dear friend Gordon, who distinguished himself during high school by his ability to break almost anything on his forehead—fruit, cans of Cheez Whiz, drywall—now heads Internet sales for a major multinational corporation. I expect this will give some parents a great deal of relief.
It’s not that there were no signs of what I’d wind up doing. In preparation for this speech, I asked my good friend and fellow Robbins House alum Jon Rein where he had thought my 18-year-old self would wind up in life. And he said, “Prison. But an interesting prison, like in Iran or Turkey.” And, sure enough, here I am today, working in international relations.
But seriously, it is true that when I was at Milton some of my favorite classes were in English and creative writing—as those of you who have had Walter McCloskey, or Jim Connolly, or JC Smith can certainly understand. My junior history paper with Sally Dey was on the negotiations at Yalta. And I liked arguing. But it was years before these tendencies coalesced.
They began to coalesce in a tiny little start-up publication in college called the Brown Journal of World Affairs—a magazine run by students but that published diplomats and scholars and soldiers. It was in editing the Journal that I discovered I really liked ideas. I wasn’t an academic or even an intellectual, because I cared too much about real world applications. But for me producing a publication bridged the world of ideas with the physical world. Editing was intellectual, but at the end of the day—or at least in those days before the Internet—you had something tangible to hold. And it was psychologically exciting too because the publication was fueled by nothing more than boldness—the audacity of some 19 and 20 year olds that they could recruit, edit, and publish some of the most well known voices in foreign policy. I found the whole project intoxicating.
When I graduated, I was aimless for a little bit, but soon I became the editor of a small foreign policy publication. Eventually, I moved to The New Republic. I took a year off to write a book on foreign policy. This spring I got this job at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And when that happened, a friend of mine emailed and said, “It’s all coming together.”
Which surprised me. Talking about it now, it all looks very strategic and linear, but the truth is that there’s never been a plan. When people used to ask me why I’d decided to go into journalism, I had to explain that I had never decided to go into journalism. I just kept taking jobs that seemed interesting.
Of course it wasn’t all as easy as that. The other reason why I suppose I’ve never seen my career as some masterfully executed strategy is that I’ve failed in spectacular fashion at many different turns. In fact, in terms of sheer numbers, the failures always seem to have outweighed the successes, but the thing is that they don’t weigh equally. This is something that’s not clear in school because every bad grade is recorded on your record. But in the world, success is cumulative; failure is not—unless, of course, you’ve committed multiple felonies in a state with a three-strikes law.
Now, I’d like to be able to stand here and tell you that you should embrace your failures because you learn more from them than from successes. But let’s be honest, failure is lousy. When I submitted my first book proposal, my agent told me that it was the perfect book at the perfect moment and we were looking at a six-figure deal. So I quit my job, wrote the proposal, and started looking at houses I could buy. That proposal was rejected 20 times inside of two weeks. I don’t know if you’ve been rejected 20 times for anything, but it’s brutal. What did I learn from this? I learned that my agent was a huckster whom I needed to fire right away.
I’m not going to tell you that every bad thing happens for a reason, because people who say that drive me nuts. But I will say that failures for me have often contained the seeds of future success. In the fall of 2002, I was rejected for a job at The New Republic, but the next spring—just as I was unemployed and firing my book agent—they called back and offered me a better job. And with a few years at TNR under my belt I ultimately found a publisher for a different book that was far better than the one I would have written earlier. That success is out there permanently. The failure is only out there only because I just mentioned it—and because Milton has insisted on posting this speech on the Internet.
But you have a few years before you need to worry about professional success and failure; and I thought seriously about the pieces of advice that my eighteen-year-old self most needed. So here in quick conclusion are a few pieces of concrete advice that I wish someone had given me.
First, ask for help, particularly in lifting heavy objects. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I’m totally serious. The cliché is true—you do have your whole lives ahead of you. Don’t spend most of it in physical therapy.
Second, next year, start looking for something—a class, a club, whatever—that makes you want to get up in the morning. Even better, look for something that makes you want to stay in the night before so that you actually can get up in the morning.
A corollary to that: Go to class. You are about to have less supervision than you have ever had in your life. That freedom is both a blessing and a curse, and college is one of the greatest opportunities ever. If you’re not ready for it, that’s fine. Take a year off. You’ll never regret missing a few hours of sleep, but if you skip classes, trust me you will regret it.
Finally, while I’m on regret, one last piece of advice: Go with your gut. There have been times in my life where my heart has said, do this, and my head has said another thing, and I’ve usually gone with my head, which is a mistake. Sometimes it makes sense to do things that don’t make sense, just because you have to. If you don’t, that’s where regret comes in, and regret is one of the great plagues of adult life. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine, which is called courage. So don’t over-think things. Don’t edit yourself. Certainly don’t listen to other people—except me. I am very wise.
So to conclude: Be brave. Be bold. Go to class. Lift with your legs. And, if I may, dare to be true.
Peter Scoblic ’92
Todd Bland, Head of School
Erin McDaniel ’10
Brennan Robbins ’10