May 26, 2018 – Brewster Academy graduated 113 students during its Commencement Exercises on Saturday, May 26. Following the processional of faculty and graduates, The Rev. Gina M. Finocchiaro offered the invocation. Head of School Dr. Craig Gemmell then welcomed everyone to the ceremony, beginning: “We are here to celebrate a wonderful group of walking, talking, smiling, thinking, loving adolescent transformations in this ceremony. Each of these transformations is wearing a gown.
“Why did these gowned students transform? First, because their parents had the wisdom and courage to share them with us – and to partner with us.
“Why did these gowned students transform? They transformed because their teachers cared for them ferociously – like proxy parents. The level of devotion to students I witnessed this year is unprecedented over my long 30 years working in independent schools.
“Why did these gowned students transform? They transformed because of the particular narrative that emerged from their journey. An amazing group of lifers came in the fall of 2014 – they were cute little freshmen. My relationship with Brewster started when theirs’ did. In October of their first fall together here at school, I was that mysterious, nervous guy who was interviewing to work at Brewster, a place that has become our shared home.
“And since their first fall, more wonderful kids were sprinkled into the mix. Until finally, this fall, a great collection of postgraduates joined them for what proved to be a remarkable year in so many ways.
“What are their distinguishing stripes? They are immensely mature, perhaps mature beyond their years. And they are equally kind to each other and to the broader community – including me.
“As most of you are probably painfully aware, they lost a devoted member of their class on the first morning of school on of all days September 11. Lucas Wheeler passed away in his sleep that morning, and we grieved together. I, as head of school, simply didn’t know what was going to happen to this group and to the rest of the school for that matter during those surreal weeks that followed. But here’s what happened: they led. They really did. In their suffering, they led. In the midst of grief, they grew up. They helped others grow up. They helped this school to be better. I do think the ripples of their leadership will forever change the culture of this place.
“The class of 2018 surely found teachers in all sorts of places. through the course of this unusual year. Teachers everywhere. I could name so many names. But I’m inclined to focus on a tribe of teachers who are sitting among us who might just have taught them the lesson of greatest value.
“Since the first days after Lucas’ passing, they have been here, among us, helping us. They are Lucas’ family – his parents, Deb and Andrew and brother Eli as well as a devoted collection of the broader Wheeler clan. And they are here today – sitting somewhere together, embodying a singular space. All the while they’ve been helping us – can you believe that? Helping us like good writing – they’ve been showing and not telling. They showed us that the work is not to hide in grief – but to build loving community through it. To open their homes to students. To show up at freezing hockey games. To help build a memorial to their son. To literally forge memory into bronze. To give life to a spirit. To let the spirit exist despite the pain. By being here today, they continue to teach us a simple yet elusive truth: love and loss are two faces of the same act.
“The act of connecting deeply with others. On behalf of all you have taught and on behalf of the school you have shaped, I thank you. Enough from me. Let’s hear from some students,” Gemmell concluded.
Valedictory remarks were then delivered by Duidui Yue from Yantai, Shandong, China, and the salutatorian was Zaha Khalid Abdullah Mohammed Al Zaabi from Muscat, Oman. Polakrit Karkhai from Kanchanaburi, Thailand, received an appointment to the U.S. Military West Point. Karen Boykin-Towns delivered the commencement address. Boykin-Towns is the vice chair of the NAACP and vice president of Corporate Affairs for Pfizer Innovative Health as well as a Brewster trustee and parent of Trinity ’19 and Jasmine ’13.
In remarks profuse in reminding students not to take their lives and their privilege for granted, Boykin-Towns urged the soon-to-be graduates “to look around, pay attention, be fully present in the moment, and don’t take it for granted because we never know when our story may twist, turn, or come to an end.” She then veered into the essence of her remarks, weaving the generational saga of the recent movie Avengers: Infinity Wars as example.
“Much like us here in the real universe – generations change, powers evolve, and challenges increase as we all wait to see what happens to the universe. … Generation Z, it’s your turn at the throne. … This generation will easily be larger and more privileged … and it has changed the game quite a bit.”
She continued, “I believe that it is the natural order of things for older generations to eventually give up the throne to the new. For newer threats and challenges, you are to use the powers of evolution, creativity, humanity, and technology to take over this world so we continue to thrive as a nation. …
“You may not know it now but you have a privilege that many others your age may not know. There are many who do not know what it is to have a support system like Brewster, a close family and/or really good friends. Some of you may know people who don’t have the generational inheritance of family stories (however torturous you may sometimes find them) and the benefit of meaningful human connections. Be mindful and grateful for all of your gifts, power, and privilege, even if you are still uncertain about details. Just Trust. …
“So, graduates, here we are, moments before you transform into Brewster alums. The universe is reeling in unrest. Volcanoes are erupting, sinkholes are spontaneously opening up all around us, water is becoming scarce around the world, bees are disappearing, wildlife is threatened by our overabundance of everything and the speed of technology poses a serious threat to our life as we know it. You have in your arsenal the unique intellect of your generation and the undeniable ability to change our course. Whether you were born with it, earned it, developed it or created it, your power is unique to your experiences and your experiences will determine how you use it.”
She urged graduates to remember this quote from a wise X-Man, named Colossus: “‘Four or five moments – that’s all it takes to become a hero. Everyone thinks it’s a full-time job. Wake up a hero. Brush your teeth a hero. Go to work a hero. Not true. Over a lifetime there are only a few moments that really matter. Moments when you’re offered a choice to make a sacrifice, conquer a flaw, save a friend, spare an enemy. In these moments everything else falls away.’ … During your time here at Brewster I’m sure you’ve made some sacrifices and conquered some flaws with untold tales of heroism, bravery, and excellence. But you made it.
“So today is one of those moments. Enjoy it. Because today YOU are our heroes! Congratulations
Class of 2018!”
The HOWL Chorus, along with friends from the senior class, then offered an interlude, John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads.
Next the Wheeler family came onto the stage to assist with the awarding of diplomas, and Eli Wheeler presented each graduate with a bronze pendant, inscribed with Lucas’ favorite quotes, crafted by his mother Deb, a bronze artist.
After closing remarks and the benediction, the graduates recessed off of Brown Field and into congratulatory embraces with proud family, friends, and faculty.