Riverdale News & Stories
(Editor's Note: Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph delivered these remarks to parents at closing celebrations for 5th grade, 8th grade, and the senior class.)
We all have touchstones in our lives. Places, people and things that give us solace in moments of difficulty. Something we can count on when the “darkling plain” becomes too uncertain and too confusing. There are special places that can make us whole. William Butler Yeats had it in the Isle of Innisfree that he felt in the “deep heart’s core.” Thoreau found it on the banks of Walden Pond. I have several places that mean much to me, including the two campuses and my home in Riverdale. I’d like to share another one of those places with you tonight. It is where my mother has lived for the last 40 years on the edge of a lake in New Hampshire. I have looked at that lake in winter, autumn, spring, and summer for most of those 40 years and that lake has served as a reminder of both the mutability and immutability of nature. The tarry pine trees, the emerald wintergreen, the bright ripples on the lake and the small red cabin on the other shore are all etched in my mind’s eye. And yet, those things are also all changing, shifting slightly, are dynamic. The ripples are never the same. The red cabin’s paint fades, the trees fall in storms. I sat on that dock again last weekend and thought about my 18-year-old self, sitting on that dock close to 40 years ago. What is clear to me is how much I have changed and how I haven’t changed at all. It is an interesting paradox that I want to think about with you tonight: change and permanence and how to live with that paradox.
However, the one poignant metaphor for the northern lake world is not what I have seen or see, but what I hear. My brother and I would venture out in the night, sometimes when we were not supposed to, to watch the stars while lying on our backs on the dock and listen for the call of the common loon, a bird that lives in the northern lakes and makes the most poignant calls usually in the evening or night. In the black night with the water lapping at our sides, we would hear this.
I was just with my mother in New Hampshire on Lake Kanasatka, and I thought about that call, that simple call coming from the midst of nature that beckons me away from the world of smartphones, from the stages of world politics, from the strife of humans arguing to a very simple place that is atavistic, pure and ageless. It is a call from thousands of years of history, and with that it is in some way permanent and unchanging. At the same time, it is also marginal and frail. Loons on these lakes are in danger from all the humans and boats. The loons are like our memories and perceptions at once strong and also fragile.
I came here when some of you were in first grade and I have memories of all of you when you were younger. We have learned lessons from each other over the years, and, as I was listening to the loon and thinking of how to talk to you this evening, I thought of three verbs inspired by my time with you here and my time on that dock, looking at the water, listening to the loons’ calls and staring at some distant stars. I thought about toggle, grapple, and ripple.
TOGGLE- As the loon “toggles” between flying in the air and swimming below the water, I hope you can toggle as you continue to get older. What that means is that I hope that you refuse being boxed into a certain stereotype of you. I hope that you will continue to confound people that you can be both democratic and conservative, edgy and traditional, polite and irreverent, showy and restrained. It is indeed possible to defy definition. Your class has been that way. Remain agile even though some people call it unpredictable. Don’t let who you are now determine completely into whom you will become. Defy easy definition and “toggle” to keep us guessing.
GRAPPLE: I think that you know that I am interested in the concept of grit and resilience in life and how that helps us do better work and also become better people. People also argue with me about the importance of grit and if a focus on that is really that essential. If you read the research of Robert Bjork, on what he names “desirable difficulty,” you will find that effective learning comes from something being both desirable and difficult. For example, flashcards are a better way of learning than highlighting or reviewing notes. Flashcards are harder than looking over one’s notes, but also more effective. I think that this point can be extended to life in general. The moments that one remembers, the times that one feels satisfaction are linked to moments of struggle that lead to success. Easy successes or simple victories are just not as compelling or memorable. So as you have done here and you move on, embrace struggle and grapple with what you love most.
RIPPLE: I swim in the lake of the loons. I quietly and slowly move through the chilly water with a methodical stroke. I see small ripples, unlike the wake of motorboats, spread from my chin out across the expanse of the black water. They are slight ripples, but they disrupt the massive surface of the lake. And I imagine then my brother swimming by my side and friends and family and others all swimming in that lake and the ripples become stronger and crash on the shore of granite rocks. Those ripples carry change but also generosity and caring. That is what I have seen you all do: create ripples of change that are generous, open-minded and caring. I hope you continue to create ripples and disrupt with care as you move on from here.
So, I guess my advice is to be loons. Toggle, grapple, ripple your way to your futures and continue to figuratively wail in joy as good loons do to keep in touch with each other and us.