Jun 11

Roeper Commencement Address – 2018

When I meet with prospective Roeper families for the very first time, I share with them that we will be visiting classrooms during their tour. I ask them to pay particular attention to the relationships that exist between teachers and students and between students with each other.  That is what I will ask of you today.

It is the power of these relationships that will become clear to you as you witness today’s unique graduation ceremony. Originally, George Roeper would stand here and tell a story about each graduate, over time that practice has transformed into graduates selecting an adult in our community to speak on their behalf – testament to the deep and powerful relationships that we form over a student’s journey through our school. It is this total investment in the academic, social, emotional, and ethical development of our students that makes us so successful and so connected to celebrations like today.

Whether you have been at Roeper for two years or you are a “lifer,” you know that our faculty provides the inspiring energy and deep dedication that makes for meaningful personal development and an incredibly rich academic program. As George Roeper told us, in this school “students find teachers who respect them as individuals, where they are able to make mistakes and learn from them, and where they search for the unknown and the unseen.” To my colleagues – thank you for your deep dedication, your love of teaching and learning, and your thoughtful commitment to our students.

Family members, you are your child’s first teachers. You are there for the first steps, the first words, and the first day of school. A milestone like today is only possible because of the care and nurture you provide. Todayas we celebrate their journey to this moment we note a shift in time, today’s class is the last group of Roeper students to be born in the 20thcentury.

Think about that for a moment. Back in 1999, this group of family and friends was celebrating the arrival of today’s graduates. Time moves quickly and celebrations like today are those amazing moments that we hold closely.Thank you for sharing your children with us, and for the opportunity to be a part of your child’s story!

The class of 2018 has spent a great deal of time talking about, teaching, and trying to understand the work our founders put into The Roeper Philosophy.  It is a reflective effort that many students who have spent long periods of time at our school consider as they prepare to leave our campus and head into post-secondary life.  This guiding document, as I hope they have discovered, is more than aspirational guidance from thoughtful educators. As Annemarie Roeper reminded us it is not merely a way to understand how we guide our school, but it is a philosophy of life.

The Roeper Philosophy is a writing expressing hope, respect for human dignity, and the understanding that because we are constantly learning, we need to ready ourselves for change.

While we think of them with reverence, our founders were not mythical beings, and so their writings are neither intended to be scripture, nor words shaped into the form of a weapon. They were human beings, with human frailties, successes, and dreams.  They experienced the hardship of prejudice, what it meant to be a religious refugee, and the challenge that comes with learning from the difficult times that come from war and hatred.  They had a love for children, a respect for thinking and learning, and a commitment to inclusion.

The 1981 Philosophy that we have become so deeply connected to was a document written as George and Annemarie were completing their tenure at the school.  As they prepared for retirement and their move to California, they wrote this version as guidance for when they would not be present. While there were many earlier versions of the philosophy, the 1981 edition has been embraced as the aspirational summary of their thoughts and ideas.

In subsequent years, new iterations of the document have been constructed, Core Tenets have been formed, and an Educational Statement of Purpose has been written as a way to re-affirm the founders’ vision.  We can see through this work of our community our continued commitment to our founders’ values and the knowledge that the Philosophy is a living document that continues to challenge us to prepare for the unknown future.

As I think about that unknown future I think about what I hope you will take away from our time together.

George once described our work by sharing what he hoped our outcomes might be, “Let us talk about our tasks. We prepare our youngsters for college. This is a matter of course.  But I consider preparation for college as half of our job.  We also want to help our students to be amply prepared for this world in a social and human sense. We want our youth to have values, to understand their values, and to help them uphold their values…”

This past winter our graduates reminded me in a light-hearted way of their commitment to one such value – integrity. As I watched a small group at work shoveling snow from my driveway at midnight last winter they shared with me the reminder – “you called the snow day, we said if you did that -we would dig you out.”

“David, A deal is a deal.”

Given their clear sense of commitment to keeping their word, I would ask our soon to be alums about their Roeper bargain – what can we say is your responsibility to the deal you have struck for being a Roeperian?

Baby Boomers in the room will recognize the term “countercultural” with a sense of nostalgia and memories of the days in their youth when people stood in opposition to the social norms of the day.  Perhaps you have a picture in your mind of long haired Woodstock-types, or tie-dyed clothing and beads, bell bottoms, peace signs, or slogans on placards telling us to make love not war. It was a time that challenged the expectations and norms of the culture and caused our elders to regard our choices with horror and disapproval – in the ‘60s and ‘70’s the concept of being counterculture suggested that young people didn’t share the values of the prevailing adult culture.

As my father often reminded me, the irony of youth, is that its possessors eventually become their parents, as one generation replaces another.

When we look at our modern sources of information and see culture projected in the media, online, and in day to day interaction it feels strangely distorted—reflecting the more sordid, gossip filled aspects of our collective values and aspirations.  What we once thought of as journalism and news is now a collection of opinion pieces without substance, research or the need for fact—we live in a paradoxical time where countercultural beliefs seem like something we might long to embrace.

In the era of “fake news”, “alternative facts” or “truthiness” the distance between opinion and truth has been blurred for the sake of personal gain and profit. The Roeper philosophy has always called on you to examine all sides of an argument, consider multiple points of view, and try to reach a point of understanding.  This is a goal designed to garner empathy, and understanding, not misinformation and deception. If honest behavior is counterculture, then you must be counterculture – that is our deal.

Annemarie Roeper talked in detail about the self-actualization of the individual and the interdependent nature we have with the community – this balance is foundational to the Philosophy. Your personal journey of growth, development, and wisdom connects hand in hand with your responsibility to others in the community.  Self-actualization is about growth; it is not the same thing as selfishness – lionizing the individual at the expense of the needs of a community is not Roeperian. If care for the needs of others is counterculture, then you must be counterculture – that is our deal.

Vulgarity, violence, and winning at all cost fill our media screens.  Politicians, athletes, and game designers seem to be playing to our most base attitudes.  We see gatherings championing hate, racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance rising openly from the dark hidden edges of our society.  When civility, fair play, and restorative justice are counterculture – you must be counterculture – that is our deal.

The Consumption of material goods, the consumption of resources, the consumption of our health and wellbeing permeate the day to day goals of our people.  If care for the environment, care for our health, and care for our fellow human beings is counterculture – you must be counterculture – that is our deal.

In a few short hours, you will begin your life as a Roeper Alum; the allure of tribalism, isolationism, and exclusion will be a powerful pull outside these walls. We have given you the opportunity to see what is possible, to practice using your voice, to stand for justice, and to learn how to advocate for yourself.  These are not the tools of a cynic.

George Roeper’s hero Teddy Roosevelt wrote,

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many people who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.

This is a moment to pause and stand in the light: George Roeper understood that in a democratic society, good schools must reflect the highest aspirations of a culture.  As he wrote and Karen Roeper reminded us at last night’s Junior/Senior Dinner,

“Power tries to force people to be intolerant of other beliefs, to be intolerant of contrary opinions.  It is human to ponder, to question everything as to its truth and validity and to judge matters with honesty and an open mind.  It is the beauty of democracy which makes use of that which is human: to raise issues, to discuss, to argue, to debate.  I hope you leave this school with a mission. Beware of the enemies of humanism. Try to defend this school and its philosophy as a fortress of humanism. Do not only defend it, but fight for it.”  

Graduates, today you are the newest ambassadors for this cause.

If we are unhappy with the character of our culture, we have work to do to be countercultural. If, in the garden of good and evil, flowers and weeds coexist, we have work to do so that more flowers can bloom.

My friends, you are correct, a deal is a deal – you have successfully completed your work at our School, it’s your turn to be the alums who shape their future by living this philosophy.  It’s your turn, as George implored you, to be the protectors of humanism.

You are gifted, you are prepared, and you are able, and so I hope you will take to heart a lesson that I have always held close. It comes from the wisdom of the philosopher and writer Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “When I was young I admired the clever people – Now that I am older, I admire kind people.”

With all that days like today celebrate, with all the opportunity these years have afforded you, with all that you will do in the years to come – please…as Roeperians…be kind.


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