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2020 Commencement Address: Dr. John Longo, Upper School English Teacher

August 11, 2020

After holding 24 individual diploma conferment ceremonies in May for the Class of 2020, we were able to bring the collective class together on Saturday, August 8, 2020, for the 55th Commencement Exercises while following health and safety guidelines.

Nicole Goyette: The Class of 2020 invited Dr. John Longo to speak to them today. The teacher of both World Literature and Composition for freshmen and Senior Seminar: Topics in Literature, Dr. Longo is one of the few Upper School faculty members who has personally experienced the four-year growth of these students in both academic maturity and identity formation. Dr. Longo’s infusion of humor into his lessons and student-teacher interactions was authentically cherished by these students. Additionally, within this class is an exceptionally accomplished group of thespians. Dr. Longo not only took keen interest in the theatrical exploits of this group over the years, but his shared passion for the stage was something these students looked forward to conversing with him about. As Leggatt asserted, Dr. Longo is “a fan favorite.”

Dr. Longo: Good morning, students, congratulations, and I hope so far you are having an interesting Apocalypse. The words “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” have been thrown around quite a bit lately, perhaps understandably – plague, economic collapse, the feeling that familiar touchpoints of our lives have come undone and scattered like thistle in the wind, a sense of things falling apart. No doubt it’s a dramatic word, maybe overly dramatic, but maybe not, depending on where and how you’re situated right now. I actually think “apocalypse” is a pretty good word for what we have been going through the last several months, though not primarily in the popular sense that the end times are upon us. Let me explain, and forgive a brief excursus into pedantry.

The word “apocalypse” is Greek and is familiar in English because it’s the Greek title of the last book in the Christian Bible, which is a prophetic book written about 64 A. D. by John of Patmos. The original Catholic translations of the Bible into English kept the Greek word, calling the final book of the New Testament simply, The Apocalypse, but the proper English translation of apocalypse is the word “revelation,” and most translations of the Bible from the King James version on title this book The Book of Revelation. This is apt because this biblical book is a vision of things revealed—that is, unveiled, to the prophet, and what he sees, what he envisions, is not only the imminent collapse of the first century Roman Empire but the coming of God’s kingdom, a vision of a new and redeemed world to replace the old, what he calls the New Jerusalem. Apocalypse, then, is revelation, unveiling, the sudden seeing of what could not be seen before, and it’s primarily in this sense that I’d like to suggest that the current moment has been and continues to be apocalyptic, because the past several months have allowed us to see, if not for the first time then certainly with sharper focus, things somewhat hidden, not seen clearly before. The last five or six months have been a time, for many in our country, of clarified vision.

Now, there is much that the pandemic, its attendant economic disruptions, and the moral outrage occasioned by the killing of George Floyd, has revealed to us about ourselves. Much of this continues to be the subject of ongoing discussion and debate, and I don’t intend to delve deeply into particulars here. Instead, I want to focus on something really basic that our current situation has cast into the foreground, and I want to suggest what this may mean for you in the years ahead.

For me, the single most important truth that the last six months have thrown at us with harsh clarity is the simple fact that things change. Well, yes, of course. Duh! We didn’t need a pandemic to tell us that we live in a world of constant transformation. Change is the air we breathe, the waters we swim in. Capitalism, in one theorist’s famous phrase, is a never ceasing process of “creative destruction.” Living in our 21st century, technologically sophisticated world means riding the wave of innovation and change, not only in technology but in our social conditions and even our mores and beliefs. We’ve come to accept, even glory in the fact that tomorrow, or at least the day after, will look different, and hopefully better, from today. We take for granted the notion that we live in what our mission statement, somewhat euphemistically, calls a “dynamic world,” one that requires the ability to innovate, to problem solve, to adjust creatively and ingeniously to the unceasing and rapid churn of progress. CSS prides itself on the notion that it graduates students with the skills needed not only to survive in this world but to thrive in it, armed with the critical thinking and analytical skills that will let you become agents in shaping that dynamic future, that will allow you not only to ride the tiger wherever it takes us but to help direct its path. You are change warriors!

That we regard this world of dynamic change as a constant, a dependable given, is something of a paradox. More importantly, this dynamism itself rests upon the existence of more foundational arrangements, things that, in their turn, we assume to be sturdy and resilient, like the existence of markets underwritten by the rule of law; a robust, rule-bound system of commerce; the ability of citizens to engage in voluntary transactions and associations with a certain expectation of safety and security. We assume the stability of these arrangements, just as we take for granted, at least most of the time, that we are moving forward, that technological and social change is
not random but largely purposeful, directed towards some better future, even if only a future of greater material convenience.

The current crisis has revealed that none of these things, the surface dynamism of innovation and creativity, the underlying arrangements that support it, or, for that matter, the persistent problems that continue to bedevil us on our journey, are immutable. Much that remained hidden and taken for granted a year ago has revealed itself, at least at this moment in our history, to be scandalously fragile and contingent, and in many cases—like the economic and social conditions of those suddenly revealed as “essential” workers—not particularly pretty to look at.

I don’t have to tell you, graduates, that some of the things that you long took for granted as the dependable touchstones of your progress through school a year ago suddenly seem anything but. The expected rites of passage of your senior year, the college experience you have expected and worked towards for so long—so much has revealed itself as fragile. More disturbing still, the pandemic has acted as a kind of bracing diagnostic test of our social, economic, and political wellness, and paraded our weaknesses before our eyes. I am sure you can all fill in the list of particulars.

For the clarity of that revelation, we should be grateful. We cannot fix what we cannot or will not see. Equally hopeful, current events show us that the unsolved problems we face are also less stable and immune to change, perhaps somewhat less intractable, than they appear. Personally, recent events give me some hope that at some moment in the future, the veil of denial will finally be rent and society will decide that school shootings and endemic gun violence are simply unacceptable, and worth the cost of their demise, in the same way that we appear to be deciding, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the broad societal embrace of Black Lives Matter, that deeply embedded practices of racial injustice are no longer tolerable. That the apparently intractable, deeply rooted problems of racism suddenly seem within reach of the most substantial change since the passage of the Voting Rights Act almost sixty years ago, is an amazing thing, despite the horror that shocked so many of us out of complicity, our denial and our learned helplessness. Positive change may be long in coming, its path forward hard to chart with precision, but the current moment teaches us that work towards justice is meaningful. Seemingly unsolvable problems like global warming or the economic inequities mapped out in the path of Covid-19’s progress through our country, are solvable if we work to solve them. If you work to solve them.

At certain moments in our history, moments of crisis like the Great Depression or the social upheavals of the late 1960’s, the vision of The New Jerusalem, of a better, redeemed world, has beckoned to Americans through the dust of seeming collapse. Out of those crises came important steps forward in racial and economic justice. Today, students, is such a time.

So, class of 2020, I sincerely wish, as you move beyond CSS, that you indeed find the means to realize the goals you set for yourselves over the last four years, that you thrive and achieve all your professional and personal goals and dreams. I encourage you to cherish the things and the people you love and nurture them—they are more fragile, more transient than you realize.

But I also encourage you to embrace the spirit of idealism and service that your parents and teachers have also nurtured in you. Today, more than ever, you are called to take your responsibilities as citizens seriously; to join your efforts to those of other Americans who see in this moment an historic opportunity for significant, meaningful change and a rededication to our society’s health and well-being. Volunteer your time to a righteous cause of your choosing. Register to vote, and vote. Whatever your political leanings, whatever larger cause speaks to your heart, do what makes sense to you to help our country and our world—but do it.

Just before his recent death, the civil rights giant John Lewis penned a final appeal to your generation. Referencing the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis reminded us that, “each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build … a nation and world society at peace with itself.” There is plenty of building that needs to be done. You are just the people to do it. Thank you.