Head of School’s Notebook — Commencement Season

April 30, 2020


In honor of all of the Commencement Exercises that will not happen this year—at least not in traditional form, anyway—The Atlantic magazine has invited a series of notable writers and thinkers to pen graduation speeches for the Class of 2020. The first, which appeared in this week’s issue, was written by Caitlin Flanagan, who dedicated her speech to her two sons and to her godson, Dean Smith ’16 at Cate and ’20 at Macalester College.

Her genuine and pleasantly nostalgic offering draws parallels between this year’s graduating seniors and those in her father’s generation who left college in 1941. “History found you both,” she says. And generally, when history arrives on our doorstep, while something might well be gained ultimately, most assuredly something is also lost.

For our seniors, their loss is an ending, a spring season, a time and a way to say goodbye, and, of course, a graduation. Such ceremonies, Ms. Flanagan writes, are “distinct, unmistakable, and linked to the past.” Ours at Cate certainly fits those descriptors, and I am reminded as I write of the comments I often hear about Commencement, compliments about its character or setting and comments (concerns) about its length.

 A year ago, ironically, The Atlantic published an article on the custom of reading the names of every graduate. In some cases, that’s a weighty ambition, but schools and colleges hold fast to the ritual because in the words of one university president, “Graduation is a personal honor.” Apparently MIT has managed the process with the greatest efficiency (no surprise there). They can get through 2,400 graduates in 60 minutes. That’s 1.5 seconds per graduate. The average—and yes, there are people who actually study this stuff—is 2.8 seconds per graduate at most schools. By such metrics, Cate is the tortoise to MIT’s hare. We take two hours plus to graduate 70 or so seniors.

But that’s because we believe profoundly that each personal achievement should be honored. It is also why this spring has been so agonizing. Letting go of our final trimester together is one thing. Letting go of Commencement? That’s different. It’s a moment we celebrate every other moment that has led to it. It is why as Caitlin Flanagan points out, that no matter how many ceremonies we attend, when we watch that procession of graduates, “We feel like we might cry.” Often, it’s far more than a feeling.

We don’t know, candidly, when the Cate Class of 2020 will have their moment on this campus, when we can celebrate them in the manner they are due, when we can “commence.” Our current plans have us focused on Memorial Day 2021, exactly one year from the date originally on the calendar. It’s a long wait.

And yet, it is a moment worth waiting for. Caitlin Flanagan ends her Commencement Address in The Atlantic by reminding soon-to-be graduates, “Nothing in life is better than being needed.” Surely that is true for the members of the Cate Class of 2020, who are very much needed right here on this Mesa we call home. It will be waiting for you, just as we will be, for the moment when we can do justice to the lives we have lived together.