Headmaster’s Notebook — May My Ashes …

“May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving the moment,”

These are lines from Mary Oliver’s Prayer that a Cate senior read this week in the chapel, to preface a talk she gave on the journey that took her to Cate, through Cate, and ultimately beyond Cate. It was one of many stunning presentations we have enjoyed from this year’s senior class, talks that are full of both profound wisdom and endearing vulnerability.

It’s funny how often the two go together. I was talking with one student after his talk who said, “For the last five or six months I have been thinking a lot about who I am. I wanted that to come through.” In that young man’s case, his world collapsed a bit for him at the end of his junior year. But he never conceded. He found his way back to himself, a stronger, more balanced, more appreciative self.

The presentation this week was wholly different, but some of the themes are familiar: a need for more, the challenge of high expectations, initial struggles finding our stride and our place, success and its absence, and ultimately understanding, perspective, peace. No life is a straight line, but our students seem to find in their journeys the ability to assess along the way. It isn’t comfortable, more often than not, and revelations of any sort don’t come quickly, if at all. But clarity, wisdom, truth—they find their way in. It’s slow. Much slower than we would like. But it happens. It’s education. The kind we give ourselves.

I have often, when speaking to prospective students and families about Cate, offered an important caveat. Amidst all of the superlatives I share about the community of the school and the people who compose it, I always remind my listeners, “Boarding School is hard.” It just is. To show the level of independence and initiative and resolve necessary to build a life and an education. That’s higher level stuff.

I believe our students understand that, but they are still taken aback when that first setback arrives or when they find the way is not as smooth as they imagined. We all struggle, that too our students understand ultimately. But what impresses me most is the manner in which our seniors in particular use those struggles and setbacks to find what lies beyond them. If anything is likely to portend a full and robust life, it is such resolve.

And the fact that our seniors don’t just keep it to themselves; that they share it so generously; without euphemism or obfuscation; that is the icing on the cake, the point at which they give back to our community exactly what our community needs: their legacy, their knowledge, their ashes.