Hewitt News

Commencement Remarks to the Class of 2018: An Unfinishing School
Nancy Gallin

Good morning, families, students, colleagues, members of the Board of Trustees, and first among equals, good morning to the Hewitt Class of 2018.

Look around you and memorize this moment, your classmates, your families, your teachers, this beautiful place, and the chance to sit quietly just for a little while so you can remember it. When its intensity has passed and you can slow it down in your recollection, you will understand how it really is an end and a beginning, an embarkation with no predetermined destination, an unfinished journey. 

To make that recollection as authentic and specific as possible, let me tell you a little about the school you’re graduating from today and how it has formed who you are, collectively as a class of course, but overwhelmingly as individual young women.

It’s often easiest to perceive reality as it changes, because social structures, like people, are far from immutable. In the almost 22 years I’ve been here, Hewitt has changed in some ways I never expected and in some you may take for granted. 

I am not proposing that you are graduating from a perfect school (anyway, you already know that and also know that no such school exists), but I am noting Hewitt’s direction, its purpose, and your part in it. Some of the changes may seem small, long overdue, or even too obvious to mention, but each is significant. And you will see that although Hewitt was, very long ago, a “finishing” school, we are now, and very intentionally, an “unfinishing” school. 

You may not have heard this new phrase before, even though as Hewitt students in 2018 you are already living its reality. In fact, Dr. Kinsey brought the concept, the phrase, and the reality into our collective lives as teachers and students. As she explains it, “it is one purpose of the school to subvert the problematic ways in which subconscious bias and gender socialization still undermine” the full leadership potential girls are born with. In your school, beginnings are strengthened and celebrated. In your school, you are not being trained to sprint across a finish line and consider yourself done.

When I came to Hewitt in the late summer of 1996, all school communications sent to students’ homes were addressed to parents, but somewhere along the way, Hewitt acknowledged and honored, in its vocabulary, the better and more accurate word, families. That might seem like a tiny change, but it would be deeply welcome if you lived in one of the varieties of combinations that are, in fact, families. Using the word family is accurate and inclusive and real. Soon the word inclusive itself became part of the way we think about our community, because one positive change often leads to others. As an institution, Hewitt noticed that any group of people may be very diverse, but diversity alone can be hierarchical and demeaning if it’s not combined with inclusivity. So those words, diversity and inclusivity, that we all hear so often, became and should be inextricably linked. Just as words reveal and also form our ideas and values, students increasingly began to demand that the values inherent in spoken and written words become lived reality and not just aspirational. Maybe one of you and your friends initiated and then others joined clubs or affinity and advocacy groups to examine injustices; the administration and teachers did so, too. 

Hewitt began to enable and encourage teachers, administrators, and students to attend meetings and travel to conferences that addressed and celebrated—not merely tolerated—the urgencies of self-identification, agency, and inclusion. Institutionally, Hewitt has expected empathy of each of us as a necessary part of inclusivity. Maybe some among you feel that you have heard this a lot, even too much, and that you already “get it” so it doesn’t have to be repeated, but like being told you are loved, hearing these messages over and over again enriches, transforms, and supports every one of us.

Diversity and inclusivity come, of course, in all forms, and just a month ago, I saw the diversity and inclusivity in this graduating class where I wasn’t expecting it but where it flourished in a glorious form. What could that have been? Of course, it was the senior sleepover! No one was there because they had to be there; everyone who was there wanted to be there.

As they got ready for the night, a variety of outfits appeared. Pink pajamas and pink furry bunny slippers that were an hommage à childhood, black and white silk pinstripe tops and mismatched sleeping trousers that were an hommage à Katharine Hepburn and Art Deco androgynous elegance, shirts and sweats of all descriptions emblazoned with the names of future alma maters or bits of life advice. The stacks of pizza and stacks of cinnamon twists, dripping with delicious grease and oozing sugar arrived, but the other end of the culinary spectrum also arrived: bags of carrots and two pale green orbs of freshly washed iceberg lettuce, and these were dripping just cold water. Someone referred to the crunchy leaves as “lettuce chips.” The wonderful sanctuary of the main library divided into little clots of interest: four girls on their stomachs, heads tightly together as they watched horror films on a laptop (their screams punctuating the night), a circle of girls playing Cards Against Humanity (apparently with no hurt feelings), others listening to music and singing along, others dancing in dazzling ways I will always remember. 

Two seniors spent the sleeping part of the night (for one it turned into the entire night), working on something engineering/STEM related, and the one who stayed up all night had a look of sheer happiness on her face throughout and a friendly wave for anyone passing room 21 on the way to the bathroom. It looked like what’s called “parallel play” in descriptions of two-year-olds, but for these young Hewitt women, it was a beautiful expression of their individual togetherness, no matter how oxymoronic that sounds. It was diversity and inclusivity together in action!

Academically and intellectually, each of you has studied cultures and worldviews that diverge from what’s familiar, so you have learned to combine research with experience to become who you are. In language study for example, Parisian French as the one and only model became la Francophonie and Spanish is studied no longer as peninsular only but globalized in its cultural and linguistic reach.

One more thing about change: it has become increasingly understood at Hewitt that perfection, just as described in the Preamble to the US Constitution, should not be an expectation but a constant, forward-moving process. The Founders gave us the phrase “a more perfect Union,” which disturbs us as ungrammatical. They meant precisely that grammatical dissonance to remind us to pay attention to process and direction instead of arrival and stagnating, self-satisfied conceit. At Hewitt, you have learned that you will travel that journey for your whole lives. Its never-arriving, always “unfinished,” never completed quality is actually its strength as well as one of its great pleasures.

What else goes into making a Hewitt woman who she is, and how else has your school formed you? Just as each of us is part of a whole, each is also responsible for her own identity. Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed this personal responsibility in 1892 when at 77 she resigned from the presidency of the National Woman Suffrage Association. 

Cady Stanton was certainly part of the great collective of the first feminist wave, a wife, the mother of seven children, and a great and deep friend, but in that address she noted what she called the “solitude of self.” That solitude was not aloneness or loneliness. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of self-sovereignty, a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment by inheritance, wealth, family, and position.” She urged each of us, each of you, to “use all [our] faculties for [our] own safety and happiness” and asked us to remember that, “an uneducated woman trained to dependence, with no resources in herself, must make a failure of any position in life.” 

And here is the wonderful news! Each of you is trained in independence and has every resource, both personal and academic, for just about any position in life. Sometimes imperceptibly but with unflagging certainty, Hewitt has educated you and you have the confidence to go on. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton did, you can understand and even embrace the solitude of self, knowing that through it you will connect to others, that you will be present in the lives of others. You know that service learning is often the link that unites the solitudes each of us carries as individuals to the collective whole we yearn for.

I began by talking about some changes that have happened at Hewitt, but there are have been constancies, too, as ineluctable as the changes. Whenever I think about those constancies, I think about the seal of the City of Paris, a small sailing ship, and above it the motto Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, which means “tossed about but never sinking." 

You know where I’m going with this—to our own small sailing ship and our own motto, By Faith and Courage. I have thought about Faith and Courage since I first saw those words unfurled above the image of our ship, I will never forget it, and I bet you will always carry it with you, too. As you go forth today, we know and we know that you know that you will at times be tossed about by the tides and waves of your own lives. No one escapes them. 

But here’s what you will always have—you will be the captain of your own ship, but you will also have a crew and you will count on each other; you will know your port of embarkation and you will be able to navigate by the stars and instruments of your own training and choice; you will travel on, buoyed by your faith in the pleasure of the voyage and the worlds you will know and by the courage of your own immense strength. 

Today, Hewitt is your port of embarkation, and on your journeys, we know that you will never, ever sink. We love you very much! Congratulations!