(Editor’s note: Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph gave this speech at the dinner for graduates and their families on June 3. He gave variations of these remarks at the Lower, Middle, and Upper School graduations.
Welcome. As is my tradition, I will share a few thoughts with you this evening. I do make a few brief comments at graduation and introduce the graduation speaker, but this is really the time to share some personal thoughts as we bid au revoir to each other over the next week.
I would first like to welcome family, friends, and caretakers to this celebration. Thank you for helping the graduates navigate their way through childhood to becoming adults. They could not have done this without you. I want to thank my Riverdale colleagues for all their work and mentorship of this great class over the years. You are part of their lives forever. I especially want to thank Tom Taylor, Kelley Nicholson-Flynn, and Carol Pouliot who have been figuratively walking every step with you in your last years at the school. Finally, I want to express my gratitude to the amazing class of 2021. You have always had potential, but all that you have achieved during your high school years has truly astonished us. Thank you for making us all feel a sense of awe.
That awe is especially poignant as I remember that some of you entered PreK and were starting at the school the exact year when I did as Mr. Taylor noted in his speech. Thank you for sharing this period of growth and development with me. You have all helped me become a better person through your thoughts and actions to make our school and world more ethical and more responsible.
Obviously, it goes without remarking that this has been an extraordinary year or so. And yet, I also don’t want us all to be defined by this challenging period of significant strife—hence my thoughts do not contain the words “COVID” nor “Pandemic,” nor do they contain a social commentary. And yet before I get really started, I want to thank you particularly for how you have handled this year with such grace and equanimity. Bravo! You have turned a challenging time into opportunities and that is not ever easy to do. We all admire you for your leadership and your modeling serenity under pressure. A year to both forget and to remember poignantly.
So, the fashion you have handled this year got me thinking about my aspirations and fears and what I have considered models or analogies for the way to frame our endeavors in times of hardship. As most of us do at these culminating and emotional moments, we think of our forebears and reflect on some of their wisdom. I know that I have learned much from my parents, and I have thought of them both often during these last months. And so, tonight, I reflect on the lives of Peter Randolph and Marie-Jose Randolph and what they imparted to me. I will share a small pair of ancestral sparks with you now.
My father was ahead of his time. He died in 1971, but he was already then concerned with environmental stewardship and protecting the natural world. I ponder my father’s fascination with birds and ornithology, especially seabirds. My mother’s work in publishing and the book trade has always been an inspiration to me and how she connected reading to lifelong learning. She believed that books brought magic to our lives—that they could unlock the future. So linking their legacies to me I want to share two secret fascinations with you all tonight: I am really interested in alchemy—the magical process of creating gold and the precursor of modern science. I am also obsessed with the extinction of an amazing seabird, the Great Auk—so much so, Kris, my wife, and I made a pilgrimage to see the last resting place of the last pair in Iceland. I think these interests of mine may possess a few insights I want to share with you now. So the title of my speech tonight is: Be Alchemists, Not Auks.
Let me give you a bit of background information to clarify this dialectic I am proposing. I will share my screen so a pair of images can make these thoughts tangible. I will give a postcard to you next week at the graduation rehearsal so you can remember these ideas.
John Dee lived in the 16th century in England, just outside London in a place called Richmond, where I also happened to grow up. John Dee was one of the main intellectuals of the time. He supposedly possessed the largest library in Britain. He loved books and was a reader. He was the chief mathematician to Queen Elizabeth I. I am not a royalist, but she is my favorite all-time royal if I had to have one. Apart from Dee’s supposed skill in talking to Angels in their so-called Enochian language, Dee was also well known across Europe for his ability to turn base metals via alchemy into gold. Many people at that time were fascinated by the idea that you could turn something that was common and cheap into valuable gold through science. Dee was a man who played at the edge of what was known at that time and was trying to find value in knowledge. He was working to remain vital and relevant. He was a coolhunter and entrepreneur who understood that the world would not wait for him to catch up. Therefore, he had to reinvent himself, again and again, to remain vital and relevant. Dee was magically projecting himself into the future and imagining the sciences as central to our lives and our understanding of our world.
On the contrary, the Great Auk was living on borrowed time in the 19th century. The Great Auk was a large penguin-like seabird that became extinct in 1844 when the last mating pair was killed on the island of Eldey just off the coast of Iceland. This immense Auk was a bird that was eclipsed by the ever-evolving humans who, whether rightfully or not, plundered the natural world to assure their survival. The Great Auk was a Darwinian sacrifice to the massive human experiment that we are all a part of. The Great Auk did not change, and as my father would say: “Change or Decay!” And the Great Auk indeed decayed and became extinct, irrelevant, and was lost to time.
What can you do to avoid that? Be Alchemists, Not Auks! So how do you become alchemists?
You are already on your way. Alchemists are resilient optimists. You have already done it this year. You have made the best of hardship and turned a difficult moment into a time that brought joy, fun, reflection, and learning. You are budding alchemists.
Here are three other things that I think you can do that will keep you developing as alchemists:
Alchemists are curious: Ask questions. Curiosity is what makes us relevant. If you are curious, you will keep on reinventing yourself. You will keep on finding out things and, although your curiosity will never be satisfied, you will keep on developing yourself and remaining relevant.
Alchemists are purposeful: Continually search for purpose. Capacity for purpose is like a muscle. Exercise it. Find things that you enjoy and plunge in deeply. Know yourself, make a goal and find other people to share that joy in purpose with you. If you feel a sense of purpose in your life you will be both happier and healthier. Don’t just go to university to check off another box—go there to find your life’s purpose.
Alchemists formed informal networks in order to share knowledge and to feel a sense of belonging. Alchemists hung out together and traded secrets. They started the early pre-internet versions of Reddit and GitHub. They networked in order to belong to a group. Too often we ask “Do we belong?” Whereas, I think we should change that question to: “How are we creating belonging for those around us?” As we all know, living in a community is not solely about what I get out of the community, but rather what I can give back to my community. There is selflessness in the real community. Therefore, belonging needs to be created as much as it is taken. How do you do that? Well, you practice and grow your empathy to understand how others are feeling first, and then seek ways to welcome them into your world.
I hope that you will all remember, as you move on from this place of evergreen dreams as the pine tree on the school seal at the bottom of your diploma reminds us: we are a place of reinvention, of relevancy, and continuous improvement. I hope that you take that spirit, the “spirit that quickeneth” as our traditional motto declares, a spirit that will keep you perennially alive and relevant like alchemists.
I know none of you will end up as Auks, but I do hope that you feed and sustain your alchemical spirit by taking the everyday dross of life and changing it into gold for yourselves, for the people close to you, and for your fellow humans so you can “change the world for the good” as our mission prompts us to do.
Thank you for who you are. Thank you for who you are becoming. Thank you for your future contributions to our planet. I have really appreciated working with you all over the years and wish you all the best for the future. Alchemy forever!