Each year a member of the faculty who is particularly special to the senior class is invited to give an address at graduation and introduce the Salutatorian and Valedictorian. The Class of 2017’s faculty speaker was Mr. Berndt, and this year Mr. Peterson was invited to speak to the Class of 2018.
“Be Nobody: Faculty Address at Commencement 2018”
by Mr. Peterson, 12th Grade Teacher
I’ve been with the Class of 2018 from the messy beginning, since 2014, when we would trudge together from my cramped, shared classroom in Building 2, where we had history class next to barbaric little fifth and sixth graders, across the blacktop parking lot, over the foursquare courts and onto a wobbly plank of wood, and up the stairs to the slippery deck of the portable classrooms, where we would track our muddy footprints inside to talk about Homer in a dark room with one, filthy microfiber cloth and the message permanently written on the whiteboard “if it is 10:00, please tell Mr. Sercer.” I have been a teacher of the Class of 2018 every year, and taught them at least one class every year: Classical Literature and Ancient History in 9th grade, Rhetoric in 10th grade, Modern Philosophy in 11th grade, and Classical Philosophy in 12th grade. “Much have [we] seen and known” together: Sophocles and Socrates, Alcibiades and Aquinas, the Funeral Oration and the Gettysburg Address, cities-in-speech and effectual-truths, best regimes and the founding of the American republic. I have made you read and think and study, perhaps even, as Tennyson says, to “drink delight of battle with [your] peers,” when you, together, make it through another one of my tests, where I give you questions like, “Explain the role of acquisition in household management and the difference between natural and unnatural acquisition, and describe the bad effects of unnatural acquisition.” Come to think of it: that’s an important one to keep thinking about after you graduate. But perhaps I have also led you to “drink delight” in your own insights and what you yourselves have come to possess of our great moral, intellectual, and political tradition, and what you have come to know for yourselves of the highest things, even if it is only that you know yourselves and you know that you know nothing.
I want to give the Class of 2018 some advice. For the last year it has been all about you and your choices: Who are you and where are you from?; Where are you going, and What are you going to do?; What are you going to do with your lives, Class of 2018?; and What are you going to be? I’m sorry to tell you that it will still be like this for a long time. These are important questions: you need to be someone, and you need to be from somewhere, and you need to be going somewhere, and you need to be doing something. Even the great adventurer Odysseus, that man-of-many-ways, that great seeker-of-wisdom who traveled far and wide and learned of many minds and manners, told Polyphemos from his ship as he was escaping, “Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”
My advice to you is, no matter who you are and what you do, as much as possible, be Nobody.
Maybe don’t be a sacker of cities. But you do, sometimes, need to do something and be somebody. But my advice to you is, no matter who you are and what you do, as much as possible, be Nobody. When Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was “Nobody” (in Greek, outis, and in the conditional form meh tis), and defeated him with a trick of his mind (in Greek, metis), he was not lying to him but rather revealing a deep truth that I too want you to know: insofar as we are mind, insofar as we know something, we are anonymous, we are no one, Nobody. When Odysseus traveled far from home and learned of “cities of men and manners, climates, councils, [and] governments,” as Tennyson puts it, he was not Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, whose home is in rocky Ithaca; he was Nobody. His knowledge did not belong to him and to his particular experiences, but transcended those, became universal. The truth does not belong to anyone and is not fragmented into separate experiences—there is no special Ithacan truth or Greek truth or sacker-of-cities truth—but rather it is through experience that we transcend what is particular to our own lives, to where we come from, and who we are and what we do: it is through all the particularity of our unique experiences that we come to understand the universal truths. As Tennyson wrote, for Odysseus’ sake, “I am a part of all that I have met. Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and forever when I move.” We cannot dwell always in this world, this world of the understanding, and as we proceed further and further in our search for wisdom in this life, we come to see how much more there is to know. And yet, in the truest sense, that untraveled world is the real world; it doesn’t exist in the way that this podium or this microphone exists, and yet it is more real than anything that exists. I hope that I have at least introduced you to that world, the really real world, the world of the mind, wherein live those great thinkers and founders we spent so much time with when we were together, and I hope that you sometimes go there where you, too, can be Nobody.
The Class of 2018 is, as a whole, quiet and thoughtful, sincere, mindful of what is right and honorable, not brash, not arrogant, but generous, honest, and kind. They are the first class to have done all of high school at Founders, and they have learned much in those four years, but they were special people before they came to us, for they and their parents were willing to take a chance on a new school. I would not say that they have “one equal temper of heroic hearts,” but there is a shared spirit and common understanding among them for having shared in a noble endeavor together. Individually, they are, as Tennyson had Odysseus describe Telemachus, “centred in the sphere of common duties” and “decent not to fail in offices of tenderness”; they are all morally and intellectually excellent young people whom we can be proud to send out into the world. But they are not just Telemachuses. They are a bunch of Nobodies. And I mean that in the best way.