writings and Reflections

Commencement Remarks to the Class of 2021: Forging Connection and Community in a Time of Human Suffering
Tara Christie Kinsey

Good morning! And a warm welcome to Hewitt’s Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, families, students, alumnae, and special guests. Thank you for being here today as joyful witnesses to the Class of 2021 as it partakes in the joyous and momentous rite of passage that is Commencement – not an end, but a new beginning. My name is Tara Christie Kinsey, I serve as Hewitt’s head of school, and today I have the honor of saying a few words and introducing this year’s Commencement speaker.

For those family members and loved ones who have joined us today, both in-person and online, thank you for all you have done to love and support our seniors. Like so many of you, I have watched in awe and admiration at the way that the Hewitt Class of 2021 has navigated a final year of high school and the college process during a global pandemic. But let’s not sugar coat it--it has been truly difficult.

And as I contemplated the challenges our seniors have faced, my thoughts turned to my late friend and colleague, sociology professor Marvin Bressler, who was known for always making time to listen to the joys--and, more often than not, the struggles--of his students. After listening for long stretches of time to a student’s problems, he would often say, “Yes, I can see why this is difficult.” And then he would ask: “On the scale of human suffering, where would you put your problem?”

Now, on the surface, Professor Bressler’s question might seem to mock or dismiss his students’ pain, or perhaps invite them to compare their own suffering to that of others. Though certainly understandable at first glance, these interpretations would, in my estimation, be missing the larger and deeper point of his rather philosophical question. 

I believe his question was intended to help the student gain some newfound perspective—not by comparing one’s suffering to that of others but by connecting one’s own suffering to that of others, and to the world at large. 

For in order to locate oneself on the scale of human suffering one must connect one’s own challenges to the vastness of the human experience. As Sophocles wrote, “You must remember that no one lives a life free from pain and suffering.” When we feel connected to others in our suffering and offer love and kindness to ourselves and others, we not only help to reduce our pain but also increase our resilience and capacity to heal.

Locating ourselves on the scale of human suffering also reminds us that we are not alone. When we are facing challenges, our tendency is to avoid others and turn inward. And while taking care of ourselves is an important part of coping, we cannot forget that being connected to others and to a community is essential if we are to remain healthy and whole through tough times.

As we begin to turn the corner and come out of this pandemic, we know that we have important work to do--whether in this school, this city, this country, and this world. But we can’t do it alone. We were not built to do big things alone. We were built to do big things together. Doing big things together requires us to look within ourselves and beyond ourselves, to engage deeply and honestly with different opinions, emotions, and life experiences. 

And this is precisely what these seniors graduating today have done. This is the legacy they leave to Hewitt. 

How fitting, then, that the Class of 2021 chose this year’s Commencement speaker. She is the embodiment of Hewitt’s mission: she is a game changer and ethical leader forging an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future; she engages deeply and honestly with differences of every kind; and she shows us all what it looks like to do big things together. We are so honored to have our speaker with us this morning. 

Known as one of the smartest and most trusted political analysts and journalists in Washington, D.C., Amy Walter is respected by politicians and pundits on all sides of the aisle. In a sea of polarizing political analysts, Amy’s voice is unflinching in asking tough questions. Perhaps just as importantly, she asks questions in ways that invite us to lean in toward each other rather than further driving us apart. As she recently said in the closing episode of her show, “Politics with Amy Walter” on WNYC’s “The Takeaway”: 

“Over the last few years, political reporting has become more about generating outrage than seeking to explain. Covering the loudest and most controversial voices, while ignoring those who are doing the work at keeping our democracy alive. The goal of this show was to be the opposite of all of this. We wanted to help people understand that politics wasn’t meant to be distilled in 140 characters. That curiosity is one of our most valuable - and underappreciated - assets.” 

Amy, your life’s work shows us all what it looks like to put in the time and sustained effort to keep our democracy alive. Everyone at The Hewitt School and especially our seniors in the Class of 2021 celebrate your integrity, your strong voice, and your important work to strengthen our democracy. 

Please join us in welcoming the Hewitt 2021 Commencement speaker, Amy Walter.


Remarks to the Class of 2021
Amy Walter, Political Analyst and Journalist

Thank you for this invitation to speak to your graduating class at Hewitt. What really struck me in the invitation from your class officers was this line: “you remind us to remember our values of equity, empathy, and empowerment.” 

It can be really hard to remain tethered to core values - especially now. We are living in a time of great disruption and disorientation. You are going out into a world that feels more short-tempered and unstable than ever. To paraphrase the poet WB Yeats, it feels as if the center cannot hold.

And you, the Hewitt Class of 2021, are being asked to meet this moment. That’s a heavy burden to carry. Which brings me to my first nugget of wisdom: consider that your first priority shouldn’t be to ask, “What should I DO?”  Instead, it should be to ask, “Who should I BE?”

So, let me tell you a bit about my story. I love what I get to do. Not everyone gets to say that about their job or career. Every day I get to pull up a front row seat to political history. But, how I got here, well… I wouldn’t characterize my career path as being particularly impressive. Or even all that interesting. I was 30 years old - and had tried many different things - before I figured out what I really loved to do. And it took me another few years to get good enough at it to do what I’m doing now.

I attribute a lot of my success to hard work and a strong running start thanks to my parents and my education; to a healthy dose of luck, which includes being in the right place at the right time. Doing jobs that no one else wanted. And, perhaps one of the most essential ingredients -- treating people well and nurturing long-term relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

But, here’s the thing - the real key to success doesn’t come from getting the right internship or going to the right college - it comes from knowing your own value - and values. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that your internal values are not only what define you, but what ultimately define your success. 

Over time, and through experience, I came to understand what I valued. Empathy. Kindness. Honesty. These traits aren’t always appreciated or rewarded in Washington or in politics. But they matter to me. And, without them, I’m sure that any success I would have gained would feel hollow. 

Hewitt class - you’ve already got a head start. Which can be a game changer. At 17, I don’t know that I could have articulated my values so succinctly. But - your class reps so clearly and eloquently expressed what you value here at Hewitt. Empathy. Equity. Empowerment. I honestly can’t think of three stronger values to take with you into the uncertain terrain ahead. I’d like to take a moment to zero in on one of these principles in particular.

I work in a business that everyone agrees is a hot mess. And, to fix it, folks say, we just need some reforms - abolishing gerrymandering or the filibuster. Getting money out of politics. Adding term limits. Those are laudable goals. But, they don’t get at the core challenge for our politics - and our culture. The lack of empathy.

Empathy is one of those words that gets tossed into the ‘fuzzy, feel-good’ bin. It’s all about being nice and leading with feelings. And sometimes it can be used as an unwelcome “invitation” for women and girls to put others above themselves and their own ambition. But, as you all know - because it is a core value here - empathy is really about curiosity. 

It’s a willingness to get out of your own head and your own experiences. To meet someone or something with questions and not convictions. It doesn’t mean that you have to come to an agreement. Or change your mind. It just means that you meet others with an open hand instead of a closed fist.

Journalism is about holding people to account. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you let people walk all over you. It means you don’t lead with your ego. 

My favorite job I ever had was covering congressional campaigns. I loved it because I got to meet hundreds of candidates from all across the country and across the ideological spectrum. My job was to assess the viability of their campaigns. But, I couldn’t do that if I didn’t appreciate where they came from and what their district was like. It’s why I started every interview asking them about where they grew up - what their parents did. I asked them to describe their district to me. 

It was an incredible experience that helped me to see this country from so many different perspectives that I never would have gotten otherwise. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up on a farm. Or in public housing. Or in the Deep South. Being curious about their life experiences helped me to be better at my job. I could appreciate why and how they made political decisions. And whether their background, experiences, and priorities complemented or were consistent with the people they wanted to represent. 

But leaning into empathy and curiosity doesn’t get you clicks or likes on Twitter or Instagram. It doesn’t get you a fat cable TV contract or your own show. There are lots of people making lots of cash by keeping the outrage machine churning. It also helps you get elected to office.

Yuval Levin, who has written about the roots of the decline of America’s institutions writes: “Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.”

In other words, it literally pays to be performative. And all this posturing is taking a toll. According to polling by Pew Research, about half of all Democrats and a little more than half of all Republicans think that those in the other party are immoral. Majorities of both parties think that people in the other party don’t share similar values and goals. This toxic level of distrust didn’t happen overnight. And, it’s going to take more than one election or one law to dissolve it. 

We also know there are deep structural inequalities that need to be dismantled. Deep wounds that have been dismissed and denied for too long must be acknowledged and healed. Especially by those of us who hold more privilege, power, and access as a result of our financial advantages or Whiteness. We have work to do.

But none of that can start without each of us choosing to abstain from the all-or-none, zero-sum-game type of behavior. This is the moment that has found us. All of us. And, you’ve had the precious chance to practice those skills here at Hewitt as you prepare to launch into a world that needs you.

So…A few minutes ago, I asked you to challenge yourself by asking the question (not “What should I DO?”) but “Who should I BE?” in this world. So who will you be? A change-maker? An innovator? A warrior? An institutionalist? An advocate? A shaman? A trend-setter? A truth teller? A visionary?

And, I asked you to know your value and your values. Name them. Summon them. Put them in a safe spot. A sacred spot. Let them be a light to guide you when you can’t otherwise see the way. 

Your courage…your curiosity…your light. May they be beacons for all of us as you lead us to an equitable, joyous, and sustainable future. Congratulations!
 

Interested in reading more 2021 commencement remarks?

Read A Season of Hope…“At Hewitt” by Gia G., Class of 2021 

Read The Superheroes Within Us by Christine B., Class of 2021

The Class of 2021 stands on stairs outside a stone church wearing blue caps and gowns and holding their blue diplomas

Hewitt's Class of 2021 

Amy Walter stands at a podium with a microphone wearing a blye suit

2021 Commencement Speaker Amy Walter

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