One-hundred-eighty-one members of Milton Academy’s Class of 2011 received their diplomas on the lawn outside Apthorp Chapel during the School’s 212th graduation exercises on Friday, June 10. As is tradition at Milton’s commencement, graduates and faculty were led by a bagpiper as they made their way from Straus Library to the ceremony on the quad. Following an invocation by Chaplain Suzanne DeBuhr and welcome by Head of School Todd Bland, the student speakers, Elisabeth Makishima and Samuel Shleifer—elected by classmates to speak on their behalf—addressed the audience. The graduation speaker for the Class of 2011 was author Reif Larson, Milton Academy Class of 1998. Reif ‘s first novel, The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet, was a New York Times Bestseller and is currently being published in twenty-nine languages.
Photos from the Graduation Ceremony
Speech by Elisabeth Makishima '11
Thank you, Mr. Emmott. And thank you to Mr. Larsen, Mr. Bland, members of the board of trustees, faculty and staff, all of our family and friends, and of course, the Class of 2011.
Those are some very important words. I’m not talking about any of the names I mentioned, though you are all very, very important people. I’m talking about the words “thank you.” In life, it is good to say “thank you.” When you really say “thank you” to someone, you’re saying to that person, “you make my life better.” Even great people know the importance of “thank you.” Composer Johannes Brahms’ last words to his family were “thank you”…which were much more profound than Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s last words, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
Gratitude is so important in life. But oftentimes we are less like Brahms and more like Pancho Villa. We often forget to be grateful. And before you all head out into the world, I want to remind you how to be grateful, because gratitude is the key to a fulfilled life.
Now, part of the reason we forget about gratitude is because we don’t understand what gratitude means in the first place. The meaning of the word has become confused. Most people hear the word gratitude, and they think of the act of saying “thank-you” to someone. They think of “gratitude” as an empty action. But it can be so much more than that.
In order for that “thank you” to mean anything, you have to feel it first. True gratitude, to explain it in very Zen terms, is not just something you do, but a state of being. True gratitude is mostly internal—a process of thoughts and emotions. You’ve got to recognize the forces that have contributed to your well-being and achievements because few people achieve alone. We all need someone to tell us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and to keep going, even if we feel like giving up.
But understanding gratitude in such abstract terms is pretty hard on a hot day at 10 o’clock in the morning. So let’s talk about gratitude in a more concrete fashion. Let’s talk about something everyone likes. Let’s talk about movies.
Most of you are probably familiar with the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, starring Geoffrey Rush and Mr. Darcy—sorry. Colin Firth. (Fun fact: A former Milton student, Richard Price, actually “discovered” The King’s Speech and helped get financial backers for it during the early days of production.)
Many of you are also probably familiar with the story of King George VI. In 1936, King George (then Prince Albert) was forced onto the throne after his brother, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry an American divorcee. (USA!) Unfortunately, Prince Albert suffered from a stutter that would get in the way of his kingly duty of giving speeches to the public. Albert—or “Bertie,” as he became known—soon found himself in the office of actor-turned-speech therapist Lionel Logue. Despite Lionel’s shaky credentials (he had no medical degree, and no formal training as a speech therapist), Bertie knew that Lionel was the only person he could trust—the only person who could help him get over his stutter. And so, under Lionel’s tutelage, Bertie learned that the power to be a great speaker was inside him the whole time. With Lionel’s support, Bertie helped guide England through World War II. And the King’s gratitude served these men well. The two “remained good friends for the rest of their lives.”
That’s the story of the film. A story of gratitude to a mentor. Very appropriate, considering the occasion. Again, many of you probably knew that story.
But I’m betting that not many of you know the story behind the film. The hero of this story is not one of the bigger, shinier names. But his story is worth listening to. He is the man who wrote the screenplay for The King’s Speech, which won him his first Academy Award at the age of 73. His name is David Seidler.
Now, Davey Seidler was born in London just before World War II. And anyone who has ever seen a British period drama can tell you that stories that start out in London before World War II aren’t going to be particularly happy. And, at the time, life for the Seidlers was not particularly happy. David’s grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust. His family’s apartment was bombed during the Blitz. And even as the Seidlers fled to America with a convoy of ships, they were, once again, nearly killed in a German U-boat attack. This was David Seidler’s childhood.
So it’s little wonder that young Davey developed a terrible stutter. That’s right. A stutter.
Now, as he grows up, our young British ex-pat spends a lot of time listening to radio broadcasts from his homeland—particularly the speeches of the recently crowned King George the VI. Young Davey knows from his parents that the King has a speech impediment much like Davey’s own. Yet when Davey listens to the King’s speeches over the radio, he hears the clear, confident voice of a great leader. The voice of King George VI inspires David Seidler to conquer his stutter. David finds his voice, not just as a person, but as a writer. David decides to become a writer, but he doesn’t forget King Bertie. David remembers how the King changed his life, and resolves to write something to honor him. The King’s Speech—the Academy Award-winning movie—is a frightened young boy’s tribute to his childhood hero.
A film about gratitude, written by a grateful man.
The King’s story changed David Seidler’s whole life. But the story has affected many people in smaller ways—myself included. I watched The King’s Speech for the first time in mid-production of this year’s musical, Chicago. And at the time, I was dealing with an obstacle of my own. You see, I had been cast as Matron Mama Morton inChicago, and I was still grappling with a chronic fear of singing in public. I had made it through the audition, but during rehearsals, I struggled. I was feeling a lot like Bertie. I had to carry off a performance in front of a lot of people, and I didn’t feel that I had the basic skills to make it work. Only the whole thing was made much worse because, unlike Bertie, I had asked to be put in this position, shown up for a week of auditions to get the part. I felt like a failure. If the cast of Chicago was the Backstreet Boys, I thought, I was the group’s Howie Dorough. Who was Howie Durough, you might ask? My point exactly.
Yes, I felt like a failure…but I didn’t feel that way for long. You see, I had the support of some fifty Lionel Logues behind me. I had three saintly directors—who were willing to deal with my inability to kick-ball-change. I had co-stars who patiently coached my singing on the side. And no matter how badly I felt I had done, there would always be someone to walk up to me and say, with a completely straight face, “you were great.”
The cast of Chicago gave me the confidence I needed to belt the high notes…no matter what key they were in. I felt so lucky to have gotten to spend two whole months with my Chicagoans. I wanted to find some way to thank them all…so I decided to take my cue from Bertie and David Seidler, and turn my gratitude into a speech. It’s not going to win me an Oscar, but I still want you all to know how much your love and support meant to me. Thanks, everybody.
So, I just showed you mine. Now you’ve got to show yours. I want you all to start living gratefully today, by finding someone you are grateful for, and thanking them.
When you get a minute, please think about one person who helped you during your time here, and take just a second to walk up to that person and say, “That really short girl at graduation told me to talk to a person who changed me life. (Hand out for a handshake.) Hi. You changed my life.”
And if you need more incentive to do this (other than making someone else feel good), being grateful in life will help you in other ways. Gratitude does three very important things.
Number one: Gratitude makes you aware of how much you need other people, because gratitude requires humility. It makes you realize your own limitations and recognize the people who have helped you overcome those limitations—your Lionel Logues. Every successful person has shortcomings—but they know who to go for help getting past them. Even the King of England knows when to ask for help.
Number two: Gratitude helps you stay true to yourself. Gratitude forces you to recognize the parts of your life that really matter to you. Examining what you are grateful for teaches you what you value, like it did for David Seidler. Seidler wrote about something important to him—King George’s inspirational presence in his life. And David Seidler has become very successful as a result. Gratitude helps you stay true to yourself, and saying true to yourself is a winning formula for success in life. Dare to be true. Dare to be grateful.
And number three: Gratitude makes you, and the people around you, happy. After today, who knows what’s going to happen to all of us? You can’t control where you’ll end up in life, but you can control the way you live. You’ve got to both be thankful for others, and give others reasons to be thankful for you. No matter where you go, if you can look around you and see the love of the people who have helped you, and the appreciation of the people you have helped, you’ll never feel alone. Everyone needs and is needed. If you both give and receive gratitude in your life, you will always feel happy and connected.
So it’s good to say “thank you.” It’s a little reminder we’re all in it together.
Speech by Samuel Shleifer '11
Thank you, Mrs. Gerrity. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a similar spot, after that kind introduction, my father is incredibly proud, and my mom believes everything you said. Mr. Larsen, Mr. Bland, members of the board of trustees, faculty, staff, family, whoever painted the grass, and the Milton Academy Class of 2011.
Today is our last day at Milton. That was the first thing that came to mind when I woke up. Then I realized that I was going to speak in front of a lot of people who didn’t know me, and really only came to take pictures of someone who isn’t me, and eat. I now stand between you, pictures of your loved ones, and pasta primavera. And for that, I apologize. In the vast swaths of time I’ve wasted in the last month, Milton taught me its most important lesson. Even more important than how to use a colon, thank you Mrs. Steimle, or how to probe a colon, thank you Improv Class, is that it’s good to be committed.
Committed people do a lot of things that they will be happy to have done, but also do things that they are happy to be doing. Committed people become that way by investing their time in whatever will take it, accepting people’s offers, and saying yes even when saying no would be easier. They understand that if they don’t invest their time, they simply won’t have it anymore. Commitment isn’t always convenient, but, at Milton especially, the payoff is worth the effort. The vast majority of our regrets can be attributed to offers that we didn’t take, or make, rather than the offers we took or made imprudently.
Until the sixth grade, I went to Rashi, a neighborhood Jewish day school where doing your homework got you a lollipop, and leaving it at home got you two. Needless to say, the transition to Milton, where a B+ leads to crying in the bathroom, was difficult.
I came to Middle School here and had a hard time committing. There were no letter grades back then, but when you were failing classes, the teachers were clear about it. By Halloween of seventh grade, they were very clear about it. My mom started sitting me down at the kitchen table for homework time, and shooting me dirty looks whenever I erased something. I started getting in trouble for everything from pulling George’s chair out from under him at assembly, to throwing snowballs indoors, to telling one of my teachers that, in her profession, “she was in a class by herself.” I liked playing squash, but wouldn’t commit to training on a daily basis. The word “uncommitted” appears nineteen times in my comments between the seventh and ninth grades. The free time didn’t make me a happy kid, but an angry one, who provoked debate whenever I could. Finally, at the beginning of tenth grade, something changed.
That October, I switched into Creative Writing class, not knowing that my advisor, Mr. Connolly, was the teacher. When I told him I was switching, he told me “Don’t worry. Just write a poem, and bring it to class.”
I tiptoed into my first Creative Writing class the very next day and handed in my work. Mr. Connolly told me to make ten copies. I asked why; he said you’re getting “work shopped after Jonah.” I had no idea what being “workshopped” even meant. I pictured thousands of tiny elves hammering away at me in a very cold place, with some red suited fat man urging them on. My classmates were seniors. I was a sophomore. Jonah had a full beard. I had an awkward, prepubescent “mustache.” His poem was about jazz and whiskey. Read slowly, it sounded like music. When he finished reading, the class took a minute to collect their thoughts, and then workshopped him, which just meant talking about his poem. When one senior told Jonah that the verbs in stanza four were a weakness, I started shaking.
My offering for the class was titled “Ballgame.” “Ballgame” documented the terrible torture techniques employed by the Norse to discipline their sons. Just kidding. It was about baseball. The only rule of workshop is that the writer can’t speak once he reads his poem. So, after a manly voice crack ruined my poignant close, I leaned back,exhaled, and prepared for the onslaught. My poem was a little rough around the edges, they said, and by no means done, but a good start. I should try to cut down on my modifiers, and not capitalize the first letter of every line. Mr. Connolly lent me a collection of sports poetry. Every single one of my classmates drew smiley faces between my nouns and passed me the marked up copies of what they somehow referred to as (BIG PAUSE) a poem.
I couldn’t believe it. The class committed to the cause of improving my writing, even before I did. Mr. Connolly wrote a paragraph that filled the blank space below my poem. His comment ended, “looking forward to your next draft. Glad to have you on board.” I finally understood. Boom goes the dynamite. If I committed, it would not only help me, but the class. The seniors that I looked up to had already taken the plunge. Now, they expected me to. Simply investing in ourselves is not enough. We must commit to others.
The first half of that year, I wasn’t a very good poet, but we were committed to each other. I annotated everyone’s poems, and the belligerence that led to distractions in Middle School led to discussions that improved the work of my classmates.
In my first semester comment, Mr. Connolly called me a “strong, and committed voice in the workshop.” The class kept caring, and so did I. By June, I had the first A of my life.
Commitment is strenuous, to be sure, but Milton has given us some of our happiest moments by making us work for them. Hearing the audience applaud your final, Saturday night play performance shows you that kicking your bad habits from Thursday and Friday was worth the rote of saying “Red leather yellow leather red leather yellow leather” to practice your annunciation. Seeing a student laughing at The Measure parody headline “Survey shows one in five students think Todd Bland is Muslim” is gratifying because you and the other editors invested your Thursday night. The bone deep exhaustion of the hockey team after their three-hour triple overtime victory over Nobles only made the victory celebration sweeter.
The thing that makes Milton different is that it eases you into commitment. Sure as heck wasn’t my first instinct. When your first paper makes your English teacher question your commitment, she walks halfway and offers to meet you after class. If you commit to working on your squash game, you get to join the team that competes for a national championship, coached by Mr. Millet, who has seen nearly a century of high school squash players. If you’re cast in a play, and invest your time in memorizing lines and blocking, others will invest their time in lighting the stage, helping you build your character, and telling you when your German accent sounds just a little too much like you are propositioning ze audience, ya?
In the real world, it will be harder to find those willing to meet you halfway. Our teachers have spoiled us into expecting adults to care before we step foot in their classroom. Our parents cared about our well-being even before we took a breath. Many of the adults in our futures will expect to be coaxed into commitment, only accepting offers from which they stand to gain.
We will almost always need to offer first, unsure if anyone will meet us. Often, we might find ourselves well past halfway and still walking. The first few times, we might not be met at all, but, if we keep on offering, someone, somewhere, will take us to prom.
Rising seniors: For you, the difference between this past year and the one that lies ahead is the object of your commitment. This year, our class learned to give as well as it has taken. We became editors, directors, and captains, leaders responsible not only for writing a good article, but for working with a writer on improving his article, not just for memorizing our own lines, but for helping others memorize theirs, not only for scoring a goal, but for winning a championship. We have made our commitment to Milton. Now it is your turn.
Our commitment has given this class and those that came before us more than letter grades, diplomas and prom dates. The grade Mr. Connolly gave me three years ago means nothing compared to the bond we forged. I know that I’ll always have a partner in commitment, someone to read my poem.
The Class of 2011 will leave Milton with competence, confidence and character, as the mission statement predicted. But, more importantly, today we graduate with friends. Friends we know will join us in commitment. Thank you.
Speech by Reif Larsen '98
Thank you Mr. Ball, Mr. Bland, students, teachers, family, members of the board of trustees. It is such a deep honor to address you today, on this day when we witness 180 students stand on the edge of the diving board and then jump off into the great wide world. I have to say, I was a little surprised when Mr. Bland called and asked me if I would be today’s speaker. In many ways, I am a very unlikely choice: while I was here, I won no awards; I was not top of the class; I was stuck somewhere in the middle. At my graduation, surrounded by so many of my talented classmates, I found myself wondering if I would ever really excel at anything, because it seemed like my own peculiar set of interests weren’t really the kind of interests that won awards. And indeed it would take me awhile, including several false starts, to figure out how to harness these interests into something that even resembled a profession. I did not take the obvious path: I ended up writing a novel about a genius twelve-year-old mapmaker. Yet the question still remains: Graduation speaker? Why me? And then Mr. Bland gently explained to me that I was actually not their first choice, that I was actually number seventeen on the list behind such luminaries as Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, and it all became clear. I was brought here to clean up. No, of course, I’m just kidding. I’m honored by your choice, senior class, and I’ll try not to let you down.
If all of those assembled today here don’t mind, I would like to address my talk directly to the graduating seniors. Everyone else may still listen in, (it’s okay—I give you my permission) but this talk is really for them. It’s their day.
There is an old zen koan which asks “How do you go straight ahead on a narrow mountain path which has ninety-three curves?” If life is this mountain path, then I am a bit further down the path than you, seniors, but not by much. Maybe like nine curves or something. Indeed, only thirteen years ago I was sitting in your exact spot, thinking exactly like you, when is this guy going to stop speaking so I can just get my fricking diploma already? I’m still figuring things out, now as I was then, as I will always be. In fact, right at this moment, I’m being even more reflective of the 93 curves than usual because—ta da—I’m getting married next week. And when you get married you ask a lot of big questions, like: “What do I value most in life?” and “What do I have to offer this other person who’s pretty awesome?” and “When will this person discover that my left armpit smells way worse than my right armpit?” So, since I am being reflective, I wanted to share three things that I have found helpful in my own journey through the 93 curves. Again, everyone else, you may listen in, but this is for you, seniors.
One of the reasons why addressing you on this day of days is such an utter privilege is that I know what a brilliant, diverse, engaged, curious bunch of people you are. I have talked to your teachers. I have talked to some of you. I have heard the stories. Graduations are so momentous not just because of what has been achieved today but because of the accumulation of what will be achieved in the future. Look around you, seniors. Your classmates will go on to study and unravel the human genome, to write novels and hilarious television shows, to argue cases in front of the Supreme Court, to find new and miraculous ways to keep the kitty litter inside the kitty litter box. We look at you, seniors, and we see a world that will change because of you. (No pressure or anything.)
But you graduate into an increasingly complex world in which you are constantly being bombarded with distractions, each piece of media begging for that last ounce of your precious attention. Over the course of my brief life, I have witnessed the rise of myriad technologies designed to simplify our lives, to entertain us, to bring us closer together. Email was just becoming popular when I first arrived at Milton. No one had a cellphone. Text messaging did not even exist. Now we send almost 5 billion text messages to each other every single day. I am not going to be one those people who stands up here and says, “I remember when we used to write letters and everyone spoke like Abraham Lincoln and soda cost a nickel.” No, I’m not going to do this because soda did not cost a nickel and this kind of nostalgic handwringing gets us nowhere. But what I will say is that Milton has done an amazing job of preparing you for this world of media saturation because it has taught you what I believe to be the single most critical skill one can have in life: the ability to listen. You were lucky enough to have great teachers here—teachers like Mr. H—and great teachers are defined by their ability to listen, react, adjust, respond to their students. Teachers are hero listeners. But in this world, even the ability to listen to others is not enough. Milton has given you something even more important, even more intimate than this: the ability to listen to one’s self. To reflect on one’s work, to wonder, to compare options, and to settle on what you need to do next. This kind of reflection is at the heart of all good work, be it professional, personal, or spiritual. As Saint Francis of Assisi says, “What we are looking for is what is looking.” And this takes time to look at the looker. It takes quiet time. Reflection doesn’t work like a game of Angry Birds–in short two minute bursts while you wait in line at the snack bar. And reflection does not just happen spontaneously, like a sneeze, although sometimes we desperately wish it did. You have to build in time for it. Reflective time is active time.
For example, in my own life, a life in which I attempt to conjure novels about things I know little to nothing about such as growing up in Colonial Cambodia or surviving WWII in arctic Norway, I spend my mornings writing, sitting in my chair for hours. There are no secrets to writing novels, only time and persistence and a little more time. And while showing up each day is important, I believe the most critical part of my day isn’t even the time I spend in the chair. It is in the afternoon, after I leave my office. Everyday I go on a jog or sometimes a walk with my dog through the woods. I try not to bring along my headphones. I reach for them, but then I put them away. This is because I want to leave room for my brain to marinate on what I’ve just written. And as I walk though the woods, I start to make these connections between previously disparate ideas and I begin to realize what it was I was trying to write in the first place. But this process cannot be rushed. We all know that feeling of sitting down to write a paper and not knowing what it is we’re trying to say. Well, figuring out what you want to say takes time. As our lives fill up with business, with texting and twittering and commentary about the commentary, the first things to go are these subtle moments of reflective quiet, because their fruits are often not apparent in the short term. But they are critical. So this is my first piece of advice: keep listening, leave room for the quiet. Take a walk each day and study the curves in the path.
The whole “walk a day” thing, however, might prove a little tricky because your lives are about to change drastically: many of you are off to college in the fall. Some of you are wisely taking a year off to go find yourself, and some of you are building a high tech flying suit of metal so as to fight crime and flirt with Gwyneth Paltrow. Hold on…what? Oh, that was the movie I just saw last night… Anyway, I am excited for all of you. Freshman year in college is an amazing, eye-opening, very busy time, a time of realizing the only really important rules are the ones that you set for yourself. Many of you have already made some plans of what you want to study in college. And this is all fine & dandy. We like plans. But don’t plan too hard. Leave room to be surprised. This is a good rule of thumb.
I want to tell you a little story about my own freshman year at Brown. My roommate—we’ll call him Peter to protect his identity—was quite different than I was. He was what you might call a “nerd.” Not that I wasn’t a nerd. I was pretty nerdy, but I’d come out of Milton, where nerds are allowed to thrive and blossom and play the harp. I’d been in a Pixies cover band. I’d had long hair. I was on the Arts Board. I was a nerd but I was an “artsy nerd,” and in the great nerd taxonomy, these are some of the most powerful nerds. Peter was not an artsy nerd. Peter was a nerd’s nerd. Peter comes into Brown freshman year convinced he was going to be a Bio Chemist. It was already decided. He signed up for organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry and genetics and all these heavy duty science courses. And a part of me deeply admired him for knowing exactly what he wanted to do, particularly because I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I did notice some interesting behaviors from our friend Peter. For instance, he would stay up late playing Final Fantasy on his Playstation, which, as far as I could tell, is a video game where you walk around castles and fight people with a sword that is bigger than your body. He would IM his friends all night long and I remember the cacophonous sound of his space bar, marking the beat of his typing—my God that space bar sounded like it was attached to a stick of dynamite. On more than one occasion I wanted to throw his computer out the window. But I didn’t. Instead, I once asked him what all this late-night IMing was about and he said “I don’t know. Castles.” And I was like “Okay.” But in my head I was thinking “Castles? Who IMs about castles at 3 in the morning?” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like castles as much as the next guy. But Peter really liked castles. Peter also had a giant glass bowl in the middle of his desk that he liked to stare at for long periods of time. On one occasion that fall, I had some “ladies” over to watch a film. I was trying to impress them. I switched off the lights, the ladies were excited and then I went to turn on the television. In the pitch black, on my way to the TV, I encountered some strange resistance. I ignored this, tried to keep walking, and all at once there was this tremendous crash. Okay, I thought to myself, that’s strange, I don’t hear that everyday, but I guess I’ll just keep walking to the TV. Except each time I tried to take a step forwards, I heard more smashing noises. It was only then that I realized I had walked right into our telephone cord, which had pulled the telephone and Peter’s prized bowl off of his desk and onto the floor. And now, with each step I tried to take, I was essentially slamming and re-slamming the bowl with the phone. I mean, I was just pounding the thing. Eventually I figured out what was going on and I turned on the lights, deeply embarrassed in front of all these ladies. And at that precise moment, Peter walked in. I will never forget the expression on his face. Needless to say, I felt like a very bad person. I think I spent the rest of the semester apologizing. And he spent the rest of the semester painstakingly reassembling the bowl, piece by piece, like some kind of archaeologist. (Yeah, I’m a jerk.)
So fast forward to spring of sophomore year. [make the fast forward gesture with hands] We’re no longer roommates, but I run into Peter at Spring weekend. I hadn’t seen him all year. And you know what he says? He tells me that he’s switched his major from Bio Chemisty to French Medieval History. And guess what? That summer he’s going on an archeological dig in Brittany.
“So you’ll get to hang out in castles?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Peter said longingly. “Castles…”
Peter’s not alone. History is peppered with people who started life going in one direction only to switch course and end up heading in a completely different tack. Sam Adams was an unsuccessful business man and part-time beer brewer before something caught fire inside of him and he helped to lead the American revolution. Joseph Conrad was a sailor adrift on the sea before he wrote all those wicked sweet novels in his fourth language. Samuel Morse was a struggling painter before he invented the telegraph machine, an auditory device which would collapse space and time and change the way that we communicate forever.
The point is, while hopes can be good, expectations will almost always disappoint us. My motto is: don’t expect too much and then be pleasantly surprised when things work out. And really leave room to be surprised by the 93 curves, because life is most certainly not going to go as you planned it. Stay open to this. When something comes along, and the buzzer goes off inside of you, even if this thing is castles or goat-herding or particle physics—go for it. Take that class that you are interested in but does not quite fit in your life’s plan. Who knows. It could end up being your life.
Finally, seniors, I want you to take a second and look up and down your row. Notice the people you know, the people you don’t know so well. Beyond the academic skills you have gotten from this place—this, these people are the greatest gift that Milton is giving you. These people in this community are going to be some of the most amazing people you will ever meet, now and forever. Next week when I get married, three of my five groomsmen will be from Milton Academy, class of ’98. And not only that, the guy who is marrying us, our officiant, is Ryan Harvey, also class of ’98. Except the funny thing is that while Ryan and I went to Milton together, and went to Brown together, and both took a semester in South Africa, it wasn’t until after college that we really became friends. Friendships, like life, can take years to develop and unfold, blossoming only when the time is right. Just think: the person sitting next to you, the person you barely know, could be the person who ends up officiating your wedding thirteen years from now. Maybe it begins today. It begins when you reach across the aisle and say to them, “Um, will you officiate my wedding? Maybe in like… thirteen years?”
Your classmates are such an amazing and essential gift, it can be easy to overlook their presence in your life. And my last piece of advice is this: don’t take them for granted. Too often we wait for something tragic to occur before we show people how important they are to us. I want to tell you a story that I have never before told in public. But I thought it would be right today because I feel so warmly towards this place and also because I understand that you all have been through several tragedies of your own this year.
Shortly after college, I had moved to Brooklyn, unsure of what would happen next, ready to see what the world would throw at me. On a cold, clear afternoon in December, I went ice skating at a rink in Prospect Park. It was just after one pm. I was walking back to my car, skates over the shoulder, when four kids came up behind me and swung a bat at my head, completely shattering my face and cracking my skull. They took my money, acted tough, and then ran away, unaware of the karmic implication of their actions. Miraculously, I did not lose consciousness, but managed to stumble back to the skating rink. From there I was rushed to a trauma ward, and then to another hospital, where two days later one of the top surgeons in the country agreed to put off his Christmas vacation and operate on me. It was an eleven hour surgery. My forehead was in seventy six pieces. Amazingly, they found all the pieces, reassembled them on the operating table using glue and metal plates and then put them back into my head. My orbitals, the bones around my eyes, were pulverized, so they shaved part of my skull off and made me new ones. They bolted my nose back into place using sixteen screws. It was complicated stuff, but everything that could go right, did go right, save perhaps that initial swing of the bat. People say to me, “Oh, but you are so unlucky to be attacked like that in broad daylight” and I say to them, “You have no idea how lucky I am.” This is the overwhelming feeling I had at the time and still feel today. How utterly lucky I am to be alive. But my real sense of luck comes from the incredible, incredible outpouring of support that all of my friends and family showed at the time. It was amazing. I felt like I was resting upon this great balloon of love. It is a feeling I will never forget. My friends’ compassion was so palpable, so completely generous, that it made my recovery—both the short-term physical recovery and the long-term emotional recovery—possible and even joyful. We are so, so very lucky to have these people in our lives. So what I am here to say is, don’t wait. This love and appreciation for those around us exists now and it will exist always, but sometimes we forget to express it. And it can be a very simple thing to express. A note. A handshake. A text. The point is: don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t wait.
So that’s it. That’s all I got. Stay quiet, keep listening, embrace and thrive off of the unexpected, and don’t wait to tell those people you know and love how you feel about them. That’s about it. The rest I’ll tell you after I get married next week.
Congratulations Class of 2011. Good luck with the 93 curves. I know you will all bring down the house.
Reif Larsen ’98
Todd Bland, Head of School
Elisabeth Makishima ’11
Samuel Shleifer ’11