Good morning! And a warm welcome to Hewitt’s Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, families, students, alumnae, and special guests, including former heads of school, Linda Gibbs and Joan Lonergan. Thank you for being here today to witness the Class of 2018 as it partakes in the joyous and momentous rite of passage that is Commencement – not an end, but a new beginning.
This spring, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the difference between a thin institution and a thick institution. Brooks writes:
Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory….A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul….
Brooks goes on to lament that too many schools are thin institutions that feel indistinct from one another, but in thick institutions, Brooks writes, “People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places.”
This year’s Commencement speaker exemplifies Hewitt as an institution that calls forth the best version of people. For over two decades, Nancy Gallin has made an indelible mark on countless Hewitt students, alumnae, and families as a history teacher, department chair, advisor, member of the 2012 Strategic Planning Committee, cross-country coach, crew team chaperone, advisor to Model UN, the CLIO History Journal, The Hewitt Times, ACTION for Social Justice Club, The Jewish Culture Club, and chaperone to countless Hewitt trips, domestic and international. Nancy Gallin has given her heart and soul to this school, and she is retiring after 22 of distinguished service.
When I first thought about how best to introduce Nancy, I immediately thought of the fact that, ever since my first day at Hewitt nearly three years ago, whenever anyone from Hewitt calls my mobile phone (and this happens nearly every day!), my screen reads “Nancy Gallin or The Hewitt School.” I’ve never told anyone about this until now. And whether it’s a technological glitch, human error, a message from the universe, or all of the above, I have never endeavored to change it, and I smile every time the message appears. Indeed, it is hard to imagine The Hewitt School without Nancy Gallin. To honor Nancy is to attempt to disentangle her from the institution with which she has in many ways become synonymous.
And then, one afternoon after school this spring, I spotted Nancy sitting in the lobby on the curved bench with a bunch of Hewitt girls. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were all gathered around her, smiling and listening to her. Nancy’s arm was lifted and moving from left to right as if to connect some point they were making to yet another they could not yet see. And I thought: “Yes. There.”
And as I watched Nancy with those girls in the lobby, an image formed in my mind to describe the totality of her body of work at Hewitt. It is as if she has all this time been standing at the edge of a calm, still lake, skipping stones.
I conjure this image for two main reasons.
First, Nancy empowers others to connect one seemingly disconnected thought to another, and in so doing make sense of some of the underexplored or shrouded aspects of history. Like the stone that bounces on the water from one touch point to the next, there is delight in the skipping from one point to the next, delight in making or discovering new and surprising connections across space and time.
Second, to watch Nancy in the classroom is to watch a historian who disturbs the untroubled waters of history and moves her students to think differently. Like the stone skipping and ultimately falling into the still surface of the water, Nancy’s effect makes no “big splash” but rather has a quiet, lasting, and ever-widening ripple effect. As countless alumnae tell me, that ripple began one day in class or outside of class. That ripple went on, limitless, just as Nancy made her students feel that their capabilities and possibilities were limitless. Many realize only years later that it was the stone she threw.
And so to end with the original ripple.
Twenty two years ago, Nancy entered the Hewitt lobby for her interview as a history teacher. It was summer, so Stillman Hall was still, and more or less empty, save for a few administrators. She looked up at our iconic central winding staircase and the smiling alumnae faces in the photos lining the rotunda. And, as she tells the story, she felt the whole building hold its breath. She, too, held her breath. Because something was about to happen. What was about to happen was that Nancy was approaching the edge of this lake to skip her first stone, the one that would make the original ripple, the one that would travel outward from there, out to the students, to the teachers, to their families, to the alumnae, and to the very school itself. Skipping stones.
Please join me in thanking and welcoming to the podium our 2018 Commencement speaker, Ms. Nancy Gallin.