Commencement 2023: Welcome from Head of School Allison Gaines Pell P’23, P’25

June 22, 2023

Welcome all. It’s such a pleasure and privilege to see all of you here this morning on such an important day. A week ago, I stood over in the pavilion across the field and watched our Pre-K students transition into kindergarten. And here we are exactly one week later celebrating this beautiful group of people who are embarking on their own rite of passage. As they say, the days are long and the years are short – and here we are. Seeing you all assembled here today brings me great joy.

Thank you first to the team of people who have worked hard to make today possible, including Matthew Boyd, Keith Estey, Dana Watkins, Senior Dean Adam Ferbert and the whole senior team, the Strategic Communications team, and Dave Schiano and Wheeler Broadcasting. Thank you to the faculty and staff who have advised, counseled and taught these incredible students before you today, whether this year or in the past that they have been with us. These past few years have not been easy, and the creativity and resilience of our professional community in the face of it all have been nothing short of extraordinary. Thank you to our trustees, whose support helped us to make hard decisions over these years on behalf of our students. Appreciation and acknowledgment to the Narragansett and Wampanoag Tribes on whose land we gather today, and to Mary Colman Wheeler for the vision to bring the Wheeler Farm and the Wheeler School into existence. Thank you to our parents and guardians who have been with us all along the journey of the class of 2023. And on that note, soon-to-be graduates, make sure you spend a lot of time heaping loads of thanks on them today even as they celebrate you. They made this possible.

Before we begin, I ask that we silence our phones and our thoughts and be present here for our graduates during this important moment.

This is a special graduation for me, and don’t worry, I promise all of you that this will not be too cringy. However, I could not escape the fact that I am here as a parent in the class of 2023 and head of school this year, and I decided to lean into it, so I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence of a moment from my own parenting life that I think has relevance for us as parents and guardians, for our graduating children, and for Wheeler.

I vividly remember when we dropped Miles off at summer camp for the first time. We drove up the dirt road in Vermont, dropped the duffel bag that was bigger than Miles’ small body, set up (or tried to!) a mosquito net in his three-sided cabin, and looked straight in the eyes of the very young counselor who would watch over our boy for three weeks in the middle of the woods. We walked away. I held it together for a few minutes, and then when we got in the car, I lost it. We have those moments as parents, right? Class of 2023 – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – the moments when the adults around you get all emotional or cringy or weepy. Spoiler alert: one of those moments might be today.

You think it is because we will miss you. And yes, that’s part of it, for sure. But, dear class of 2023, 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 get mad at you, you drive us crazy, we love you insanely. We worry about what will happen when you are away from us; we feel excited for what you will do when you are away from us. We raise you to be independent, and then all of a sudden, you are!

It is also because just like you, we are full whole people, complete with our own histories, flaws, strengths experiences. Moments like these remind us of all the things we did well and much less well along the way, all the things we did or regret doing or regret not doing. When we send you off, we do so with the hope that all of that has been enough for you so that you can fly, be your whole self, sing your own song.
All of that while was happening while I was looking in the eyes of said young counselor in the woods! So, it’s both a miracle and mundane when 21 long days later, we drove up that same road and find a dirty, smiling, confident person filled with things that have happened and memories made – lake swims and bon fires and struggles and nighttime loneliness, injuries, hard hikes, new friends, loud singing. All at once, I felt that same rush of emotions as we scooped him up again, relieved to have him back and filled with pride and love and joy.

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, aspirations. We opened and watched you walk through those front doors on Hope Street into experiences, setbacks, achievements, friendships, difficulty, new relationships – some which thrive and others that do not. We send 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. And 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.

But, enough about us.

Now, class of 2023, I will put on my head of school hat and start off today’s ceremonies with a thought for you. I learned recently of something called the Kuramoto model, which is technically a mathematical model for understanding complex systems. Think of when you are in the audience of a great show, and the applause starts in a chaotic pattern but soon syncs up to a steady clapping beat, when crickets are chirping at different increments and then suddenly together, when fireflies at night begin to light their lights at the same moment. As it turns out, even members of a chorus when singing at length together can have their heart rates sync up. Scientists have studied this and the key in nature is this – their synchronicity is not about innate rhythms. Rather, it seems to have something to do with the way that people (in our case) tune into one another and turn towards one another; it’s about the way they listen. I’d like to imagine that over these years, that’s what you’ve done together. Across the screens of COVID, the reunited months we’ve finally sustained, the time together in class pouring over poetry or primary documents, conquering a calculus test or a chemistry lab, scoring or slightly missing a basket, laughing in your homes or late at night on the phone, over Feed The Cheeks, Starbucks, the Cafe, Bajas, or in the art studio, practicing the play, in Morgan, in the elevator room, in the DIB Labor at the Farm. I like to think of this as you, our graduating class of 2023. You have synced up; and so, profoundly, you are not alone. Soon, you will go your separate ways, but you will always have each other, and you will have this heartbeat. You can seek each other out and it will return. It will come back to you and it will be here for you. Keep these people close. Go sing your own song, use – as Mary C Wheeler guided us – those “school-given powers” for good use in the world, and keep Wheeler in your heart.

And now, let us begin the 134th commencement for this class of 2023.