The 2017 Baccalaureate speaker was Claire Reishman who retired at the end of this academic year. Claire Reishman began teaching English and clay part time at St. Andrew's School in August 1970. In January 1971, she became a fulltime teacher, staying at the school through the merger that created St. Andrew's-Sewanee School and serving as Academic Dean for the newly merged school. She remained in administration, serving as Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs until 2010. In addition to being SAS's longest tenured teacher, Mrs. Reishman pioneered several special programs on the SAS campus including the nationally-recognized Shakerag Workshops which brings creative adults to campus for two weeks each summer to explore courses in the arts. Claire's legacy was described perfectly by senior Annemieke Buis in the yearbook dedication: "through a combination of intimidation, intelligence, wisdom, passion, and a fierce love of literature, the arts, and her students, (Mrs. Reishman) has given us courage to call ourselves writers." The Reishman-Chamberlain Middle School wing, named upon Claire's retirement from her administrative service will stand as a lasting reminder of her importance to SAS.
The first thing that I want to do is to thank you - certainly for asking me to be your Commencement speaker, but primarily for being the extraordinary class that you are. We who teach here at St. Andrew's-Sewanee are so lucky. Year after year we get to be with students like you during those occasionally tumultuous teenage years - a period which we think of as wonderful. It has been a joy for us who teach to watch you all grow into the class that you have become, and we are so very proud of you.
And so now you are here graduating, and I thought that it might be interesting to you to hear, as your teachers look at you, what it is that we your teachers have seen in you - what it is that makes us glad to be here at school day after day, working with you on your journey. And that question brings me back to the lesson for today. Paul writes to the Phillipians, "Let your gentleness be known to everyone." We have seen that gentleness in large and small ways throughout your time at St. Andrew's-Sewanee, and throughout the careers of countless other students who came before you, and those younger than you who are looking to you now, those who will follow you. We have seen you in the clay room, as you have helped someone still struggling to learn to center the clay - we have seen you stop and go to that person and help him to see how to hold his hands on the clay. We have seen you cheering for the middle school girls basketball team, and encouraging them to persevere and believe in themselves. We have seen you at lunch, carrying a tray for your classmate who is on crutches. We have seen you requesting a day of silence as you support the LGBTQ movement and speak for those who feel silenced by discrimination. We have seen you include a student who is trying to adapt to a different culture, struggling to understand the jokes and teasing words of her classmates. That gentleness that Paul writes about is evident in your kindness to one another, and we think of that kindness as one of the essential characteristics of our school. This month my English class just finished our weeks-long study of William Faulkner, and we your teachers see in you today what Faulkner saw in humanity nearly a century ago: in his 1949 Nobel Prize speech, he wrote of the "courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice" that he saw in humanity, and those traits are what we see in you. And so as we look at you who are graduating, and think about you today, we see your gentleness, your support for one another, your essential kindness, traits which we hope are representative of our school.
But we also fear for you, as we think about you leaving this place. We know that there will be times when, as Jesus said in today's gospel, "you ... are weary and are carrying heavy burdens." We know that at times those burdens will seem overwhelming, and that at times your way forward will not be clear to you. In the Old Testament, the Jews, after wandering in the wilderness for years, felt that God had abandoned them, and even cried to God, "Where are you?" Christ himself famously asked from the cross, "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?" Isaac reflected on this very question in his creedal statement on Monday - those times when we ask, "God, where are you?" We know that there will be those times in your lives when you doubt that there is a God, when you feel alone, when you feel that your burdens are overwhelming, and we hope that in those times, you will remember what we have tried to teach you here in this place: that you are loved, and that you are not, in fact, on your path alone. John Donne knew, as Caroline quoted in her creedal statement, that "no man is an island, entire of itself" - that every individual is "a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine" - that we are connected to one another, even when we feel most isolated. And so we hope that when you do feel alone, you can look outside or even within yourself and find that voice that will lead you forward to others, to recognizing your connectedness to your classmates and to your friends and to those who love you.
And so, what else do we hope for you, on this weekend, as you prepare to leave this place? We hope that you have learned to embrace and celebrate failure, as our alumnus Conley Averett said to you just two weeks ago. We hope that our school has taught you that true learning comes from trying new ideas, new experiences - and risking failure in that effort. We celebrate and embrace failure here at St. Andrew's-Sewanee: we recognize that if we all simply do what we already know that we can do, we never really progress - and we never know the joy of real achievement. And so we are happy when you decide to register for the class that is reputed to be difficult. We are excited when you decide to make a presentation to the History Club on Tuesday or Thursday morning, and present your findings and your conclusions about a question to a random audience of your peers and teachers. We applaud when, at Creative Assembly, you recite a poem or sing a song or play an instrument, when you are willing to step up and play the piano in Chapel, when you try out for a play or ride in a mountain bike race or determine to learn how to play tennis. We cheer when you earn the right to compete in the state championships in golf or tennis or wrestling - or when, as a female athlete, you decide to challenge the societal norms and go out for wrestling! We are happy when you decide that for your creedal statement, you are willing to submit a story or a poem you have written, or read an essay aloud, or when you decide to enter into conversations in class in a language which is not your native tongue. Those actions show that you are willing to take risks. They indicate that you have the confidence to move ahead, to try new things, and that you know that even at times when you do not succeed, the importance of your action lies in the doing of it, not necessarily in the end result. You know that it is the climb on that rock face that is important, not just the moment when you reach the summit.
On this weekend, we are celebrating your accomplishments and achievements. We want to hold up for your parents what we, your teachers, have seen in you every day here, as we have worked together in school - that spirit of gentleness and kindness and love, that willingness to try new things and resilience in the face of failure, and that recognition that you are not alone in this world. Cooper in his creedal statement on Tuesday talked about changing the world through theater, and he just might do that. A wonderful folk singer in the 1960s named Pete Seeger believed that he could change the polluted environment of the Hudson river by simply singing about it, and through his songs by drawing attention to it - and he succeeded. We hope that each of you, as you leave here, will realize that you can in fact make a difference in your world - and that you will feel empowered by your time here at St. Andrew's-Sewanee to get involved, to speak out, to be active, to live the life that you envision. That is our ultimate hope for you - that you can leave this place committed to be kind and generous, and ready to live lives which reflect the essential truth that every human life is valuable, knowing that, as God in the form of a burning bush said to Moses in the wilderness, "the place where you are standing is holy ground." We believe that wherever you go - whether you are staying on this mountain or going to college all the way across the country or returning to a home thousands of miles away - wherever you go, holy ground is indeed where you are. And we hope that as you leave this particular piece of holy ground, you will leave with confidence in yourselves and in your ability to be the person you have chosen to be, a confidence that we as your teachers have in you, a confidence that we think that you richly deserve.