Commencement 2020 Welcome & Speaker Introduction

June 12, 2020

Welcome and Speaker Introduction by Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

Welcome, all. It’s such a pleasure to see each of you here this morning on such an important day.  While this was not what we envisioned in September, I will tell you that standing up here with you in this way today brings me more joy than I might have allowed myself to hope for. Our central goal for those of us who planned this event was to give you a moment of genuine, safe, deserved celebration and recognition, and to send you off in Wheeler style and with a heavy dollop of Wheeler love. Before I begin our 2020 Commencement with the invocation, I want to share some thank yous and some words. Thank you to the team of people who made this possible, including Matthew Boyd, Kelly Clifton ’02, Natasha Ramirez, Keith Estey, Nicole Sisson Peters, Dana Watkins, Amy Singer ’89, Sean Kelly ’02, Judy Diaz, and Kathy McKenna. Thank you to the anonymous grandparent for the beautiful masks. I know they will be momentos we will hold on to forever. Thank you to Kristin Sprague, the 18 Wheelers, Colin Nagle ’07, and the Handbells groups for the musical performances. This team started a few months ago to make this the best possible day imaginable, and they have not rested since that moment. Thank you to the faculty, in all divisions, who have accompanied this class to this moment. Thank you to the administrators, and staff for your hard work on behalf of this group of graduates, including our Health and Wellness, Maintenance, Technology, Business, Food Service, Farm, College Counseling, Advancement, Unity and Diversity, Aerie, Communications, Enrollment, our Division Assistants. While we miss the many who are not able to be here today due to space and safety restrictions, they are all here in spirit and the full recording of this event will be available this weekend for you to enjoy with them. Of course, thank you to our parents and guardians here today who have been with us all along the journey of these amazing members of the class of 2020. If you are graduating today, please take this moment to turn to them to thank them.

Before we begin, I also want to acknowledge that we sit together today on the land of the Narragansett and Wampanoag Tribes.

None of us could have imagined the moment in history that we would be living through today, and preparing for today I wrote and rewrote drafts of these remarks more times than I can count simply because of how much I want to say to you. But we don’t have all day. Mostly, I want to acknowledge the moment we are in as a community and as a nation to say simply this: it is possible to have and to hold grief and joy at once. We mourn so many lost now and over the centuries, and we can also celebrate and amplify you in true joy and appreciation for all that you are: a group of 92 young people, full of voice, and about to enter adulthood and the responsibilities of higher-level study and the world of citizenship, family, meaningful life and work.

Woman in graduation regalia speaking at a podium.

Last spring, I asked to become an Advisor to this class for their senior year, after Ms. St. Onge’s departure from Wheeler. While I cannot claim to be a replacement for Ms. St. Onge, I was eager to get to know more students well.  At your Class of 2020 Junior retreat, we heard you speak about the ways you looked up to past senior classes, and how you wanted to be models for younger students, and also that you wanted to be more cohesive. And then, from the first days of this school year, I could tell you would make good on your commitment. I was delighted that when you came to my house in September to kick off your senior year, you didn’t stay in the front of the house in the “formal entertainment areas,” but came into the kitchen, sat at my table, played with my dog, hung out in the yard, talked with me about social media and the world. I have since then even been able to become “mom” to the official senior fish, Swim Shady. During the senior retreat, you shared a series of moments that showed your love for one another, across friend groups, and walks of life. By that fireside, there was laughter and many tears, and you became closer. Over these past few months, your voices have become more focused, not only as a group but individually. Your senior projects, just completed, give a sense of who you are, from creating a Girls in STEM Manual to a study of Cherokee Language, to a Recipe Book to preserve and pass down family recipes, to Tracking Migration through Food, to developing mutual aid through community gardens, to a documentary about crazy ideas and inventions, to learning to code and make nautical knots and wood furniture. Some of your projects changed entirely due to the world’s circumstances, some of you stepped in to help your families’ businesses, took on a new job in a changed world, worked with the elderly, created art for healing, protest or for the simple act of wonder. While this represents just a snapshot of your time at Wheeler, this variety teaches us about who you are, about the array of commitments, views, interests,  and identities you hold. We are so proud of who you are.

And, just as you think the work is over, as you know from your time at Wheeler, we will continue to ask more of you. Just as we ask more of ourselves, set ourselves up for a new decade of promise, of commitment, of fortitude, of being answerable for the powers that we have, we ask this of you as well.

The 1920s are often referred to as the Roaring 20s – they were named retroactively due to the many cultural, financial, and social changes, unrest, turmoil, and advances of that time. I invite you to use this graduation year of yours, and the unique circumstances and timing of this graduation as a launchpad. Let’s make the 2020s roar. I ask you to think about how you will roar with your words, your actions, your lives.

Roar by making discoveries and inventions that heal and promote

… with the way you’ve learned to research, establish and support your argument

… by giving voice to the voiceless

… by making policies that bring people together and provide protection, advocacy, safety and shelter for those in need

Roar being a first responder in your life for your loved ones or for all of those who require it

…. By leading out front or from within an organization

… by making art that provokes and challenges and heals

… by leading change for social justice and racial equity

Roar by preserving the planet’s resources – human and environmental

… by finding the balance in your advocacy of policy, practice and protest  for yourself and others that matches your convictions

… by bringing radical forgiveness and kindness and peace to your family

… by taking care of your elders

… by giving when needed and being gracious enough to accept help when you need it, too

Roar by being vulnerable, by asking questions, by showing empathy.

…By being curious in your connections with people and seeking to connect with and live alongside those who are different from you

… by being completely, unwaveringly, brilliantly, yourself.

May you each, in every possible way, use your life to roar.

I want you to know today that we have missed you terribly these past few months, regardless of the many connections through screens. We have missed seeing you, the events, the laughter in the hallways, the triumphant performances, the many lasts. So, I ask all of us right now to take a moment to think. Take in the day, the love and support right now from all corners of this Wheeler Farm that Mary Wheeler envisioned for us so many years ago. I want you to consider all of your years of memories with this community at Wheeler. Think about the ways that the people here today, your Wheeler faculty and staff, your friends, and even more, your families, have supported you. The late nights, the tears and laughter, big successes, first steps, big setbacks, all of it. Close your eyes. Take it in.

We want to thank you for being part of Wheeler’s journey, our history, and our legacy and now, our future. Your efforts, your support, your feedback, your voices, make us who we are. Please stay part of us, hold us in your hearts, hold us accountable, and continue to make us – and more importantly yourselves – proud.

Thank you.

And now, an invocation by poet Daphne Kligma

On this day, we pray for tender compassion on all the [young people], whose … souls, … fresh from the light, shine in our midst with … brightness.

May we honor them deeply, learn from them truly, respecting the deep wisdom they carry. Make us wise in our nurturing of them, generous in our loving, unending in our compassion, expansive with our wisdom, kind with our intelligence, and graceful with our hearts. Let us give to them and receive from them, and let it be known among us that they are neither our projects or our possessions, but messengers of light, illuminations of love.


Now, I have the great pleasure of introducing today’s Commencement Speaker, the Honorable Edward Clifton.

We couldn’t possibly have imagined a more powerful speaker for this moment, someone whose life has been committed to health care, to justice, to empowerment, and community service. I will share his impressive biography with you in a moment, but the honest truth is that this invitation was inspired in a moment this winter as he addressed our Upper School in person. I watched him look across the room, visibly moved by the many faces our Upper School at Wheeler before he went on to share a few powerful words. I was left wanting to hear more. And it will not surprise you to know that a person of this level of humility took days (and some amount of convincing) to say yes to our request, all the way back in February, that he be with us today. He speaks to us as a Wheeler alumni parent of Wheeler’s Alumni Engagement Director Kelly Clifton (Class of ‘02) and to his son Michael Clifton, (Class of ‘98). He is a former Trustee and a lifelong devotee to purpose and progress.

Judge Clifton received his Juris Doctor from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1975.  Prior to law school, he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Psychology, following his active duty service from 1966-1968, in the United States Army.

Upon graduation from UCLA, Judge Clifton was named a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow in the national fellowship program designed to identify and place attorneys dedicated to providing legal services to the poor in communities throughout the country.  As a Reggie Fellow, in 1975 Judge Clifton was assigned to Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc., in Providence, Rhode Island where he began his career as an attorney.  He later joined the Public Defender’s office for the State of Rhode Island as a staff attorney until 1978, when he entered the private practice of law.  From 1978 until 1985 Judge Clifton was a partner in private practice at Stone, Clifton, and Clifton.  He left that practice in 1985 when he was appointed City Solicitor for the City of Providence where he served until 1991.  After returning to the private practice of law, Judge Clifton was appointed to the Rhode Island District Court in February 1993.  He served on that court until his appointment to the Rhode Island Superior Court in September 1994.

From 1998 until 2015, Judge Clifton was a member of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Permanent Committee on Women & Minorities. He was a Distinguished Jurist in Residence faculty member at Roger Williams University School of Law from September 2015 until 2018.

Judge Clifton became a member and then President of the Board of Directors of the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts in 2007. Judge Clifton was one of the original incorporators and then Chairman of the Thurgood Marshall Law Society of Rhode Island, Inc., an organization that promotes diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Extensively engaged in the community since he became a Providence resident, in 2007 Judge Clifton became a founding member of the Black Philanthropy Initiative (currently Black Philanthropy Bannister Fund) a field of interest fund established at the Rhode Island Foundation for the needs and aspirations of Black people in Rhode Island.  In 2018 Judge Clifton became a member of the Board of Directors of  The Center for Reconciliation, a faith-based, non-profit organization founded by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.  His Board affiliations and leadership are numerous, including the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, Rhode Island Legal Services, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Notably, he also served on the Board of Directors at the Wheeler School for seven years and was the first recipient of the Wheeler School Community Spirit Award in 2003, the 2018 Champions for Justice Award from Roger Williams University School of Law, the Equal Justice Award from Rhode Island Legal Services, the Distinguished Service Award in 2014 from the National Center for State Courts, among others!

Clearly, we are in the presence of greatness, and on behalf of all of us here at Wheeler, thank you for hearing the call and agreeing to share some of your wisdom with us today.  Please join me in welcoming Judge Clifton.

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