Embracing Tradition and Change at Commencement

June 22, 2023

Wheeler’s 134th Commencement started as the ceremony always does: with a long, smiling line of faculty and graduates processing behind a bagpiper through Wheeler Farm and into a large tent crowded with families and friends. Over more than a century of ceremonies and diplomas, there are some moments that never change from year-to-year, but what those moments represent to each graduate who walks into the tent and across the stage–and to their loved ones cheering them on from the crowd–is what makes every Commencement both personal and magical.

Head of School Allison Gaines Pell P’23, P’25

In her welcoming remarks, Head of School Allison Gaines Pell P’23, P’25 shared that it was an especially special ceremony for her, because she was attending both as head of school and as a parent of one of the graduates. She reflected on the first time she dropped her son, Miles Pell ’23, off at summer camp, and how difficult it was to say goodbye. “You think it is because we will miss you,” she told the Class of 2023. “And yes, that’s part of it, for sure. But it’s so much more than that. We become emotional in those moments because there is so much else we feel. From the moment you enter our lives, we walk around with a piece of our hearts outside of our body. We worry for you, become annoyed by you, and feel immense pride in who you are and what you do…We raise you to be independent, and then all of a sudden, you are!

“When your parents or guardians dropped you off in nursery or pre-k, or 6th grade or 9th grade at Wheeler, we all did so with all of that very same jumble of emotions, hopes, fears, and aspirations,” AGP continued. “We opened and watched you walk through those front doors on Hope Street into experiences, setbacks, achievements, friendships, difficulty, and new relationships–some which thrive and others that do not. We sent you into amazing and more than a few challenging days. And then we see you there–here–looking beautiful, educated, accomplished, and confident, and maybe a little dirtier and wiser from life in the world, and more wholly and profoundly yourselves. You’ve done it. And we scoop you up with pride and joy and love. So know when we grab you today, it is with all of those things, and with the deep knowledge that you’ve done it, that you can do it, and that we will be here rooting for you along the way.”

Board of Trustees President Alisia St. Florian ’86

As they prepared to begin making their way beyond Wheeler, Board of Trustees President Alisia St. Florian ’86 offered the graduates a simple and straightforward tool that they could start using right away. “This advice is as follows: set a few guiding principles for yourself. Each of you will need to decide what those are. They should be concrete, doable and something you can practice everyday,” she said. “For me, one of my most important guiding principles is this: once you put a commitment in your calendar, you do not cancel it under any circumstances absent a true emergency. What this principle means to me is that I strive to be dependable. That may not sound like a lofty goal, but if you stick to this principle with fidelity it means people can count on you to show up when you say you will.…No excuses allowed. And by excuses I mean things you tell yourself to justify not doing what you agreed to do. In sum, practicing this principle shows me that I can rely on myself.

“None of this, of course, happens immediately or overnight,” she continued. “That is the beauty of setting a guiding principle. Once you have decided upon it, you work everyday to adhere to it. Some days you succeed, and many days you will fail, but the principle always remains. The principle does not diminish when it is not achieved. It does not disappear when you take a break from it. Rather it serves as a reminder that you are always striving toward something, whatever that may be. And when you are striving you are living with purpose and optimism.”

Senior Class Co-President Vikram Shankar ’23

One of the two student speakers, Senior Class Co-President Vikram Shankar ’23, spoke of his own optimism four years ago, when he envisioned his ideal high school experience and wrote it down on a Post-it note. ”Four years of fun with friends, getting better at my passions, and please, Vikram, cut your hair before freshman year,” he humorously recounted. “I was a shy kid coming from a small middle school in Massachusetts, and I knew the transition to high school was going to be tough, but I was determined to find my place here in this new school. I took each day as it came and tried to make the most of it, especially that first year. Some days I’d be too nervous to talk to someone new, and on others, I’d try to say hello to everyone I saw.

“As I look back on this Post-It note, I smile and try to think about the person I was then as I wrote it. I think about all the students and teachers I’ve met along the ride, the places I’ve been to (shoutout to Portugal and Jazz), and the experiences I will carry with me for a lifetime. Each year, I got closer to more of you, and whether I knew you all the way back in JV soccer freshman year or if we have grown closer as seniors, I’m glad to have known each and every one of you.”

Senior Class Co-President Audrey Lee ’23

Vikram’s fellow Senior Class Co-President, Audrey Lee ’23, also spoke about coming to Wheeler, and her initial concerns about the enormous change that would come with it. “But being here has taught me to create and embrace change and uncertainty instead of turning my back to it,” she shared. “Now, I know what you’re all thinking: ‘not another speech about how the pandemic made us stronger as a community.’ I think we can all agree that we’ve heard the phrases ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘new normal’ far too many times these past 3 years. With or without a global pandemic, high school IS an unprecedented time, but the Class of 2023 has embraced it all. We’ve faced external changes: a new schedule, online school, favorite teachers leaving, welcoming new students, joining a new sports league, and saying goodbye to many old traditions, but instead of only living in the past, we moved forward. We created change. As a class, we have not been afraid to do things differently than our peers and are not afraid to speak up about what we believe needs changing. We’ve created new traditions, new clubs, new friendships, and new history.

“And we’ve changed as individuals,” she continued. “We’ve allowed ourselves to explore and be okay not knowing exactly who we are and who we want to be. We’ve learned our passions and powers and found the people and places that truly make us happy. We became comfortable stepping outside our comfort zones…Most importantly we’ve changed because of each other. We are constantly unlocking new parts of ourselves thanks to the people around us. We all offer something unique to the class that we might not even realize we’re contributing. I’ve come to appreciate that I never know what I’ll learn or discover about you all, even after spending the past four years with you; how I’ve learned something incredibly specific from each and every one of you; and how even if we tried, we couldn’t put Wheeler students in boxes, especially not the Class of 2023.”

Director of the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism for the City of Providence Joe Wilson, Jr.

The Commencement’s keynote speaker, Director of the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism for the City of Providence Joe Wilson, Jr., spoke about change and the importance of connecting with and learning from others, too. Throughout his educational and professional journey, he told the graduates, he has always been driven by his passion for acting. “Having the courage to pursue this passion has given me the permission to wonder, wander, ponder, question, and ultimately demand more of myself and others. But how we deal with these challenges will be an additional, and I think most important, component of our life test,” he said. “Can we face adversity with thoughtfulness, patience? Will we have the courage to listen to the tough advice? To listen thoughtfully to opposing views? Will we be persons committed to building community, through collaboration and cooperation? Will compassion and empathy be central forces that guide and influence our relationships with our fellow human beings? Will we be the keepers of a creed that our individual wholeness and happiness is directly related to the oneness of mankind? Allow me to be an old man for a minute, and have an ‘I believe the children are our future moment,’ but I am deeply moved by speaking to you today, because I am reminded of me, a few years ago, on my high school graduation day. You are a reflection of my own hope, my dreams, my excitement for what the future holds.

“I am grateful for being in the arts because it’s given me permission to be a creative, imaginative thinker, and has allowed me to develop my ability to make decisions that fill my life with love, peace, and the pursuit of truth. And that has brought me to the position I hold now,” he continued. “But I got news for you. We all have that creative capacity and spirit if we allow it to have a place in our lives. My life as an artist has prepared me for this new challenge in unique ways. I have learned that my life as an artist was and is about service to others. But I have also been taught the power of staying open to change. Stay in the moment. Interrogate. Stay curious. And do so by one of the pillars that the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism holds true: live your life with radical joy. Lead with your brilliant minds, but more importantly with an open, gracious heart. Wheeler has instilled in you these values, processes, techniques and knowledge that will guide you well into the future.”

A bit later, after the presentation of diplomas, the 82 graduates sang “Take Up the Song” and Wheeler’s alma mater, “Arise All Joyously,” one last time together.

Congratulations to the Class of 2023 and their families!

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