2019 Baccalaureate: a Time for Reflection

2019 Baccalaureate: a Time for Reflection

TA held its Bicentennial Baccalaureate ceremony for the Class of 2019 on Sunday, June 9, at the First Congregational Church. There was abundant sunshine for the graduates and a palpable feeling of excitement and emotions in the church. Science faculty member Derek Burkins was this year’s presenter of the Baccalaureate address. Below is his speech to the graduates.


2019 Baccalaureate Address by Derek Burkins

Good evening and welcome:  parents, grandparents, family members, friends; colleagues and members of the board; and most of all welcome to the Thetford Academy graduating class of 2019!

Four years ago, I returned to teaching high school after more than ten years as a full-time parent (and musician, but we’ll get to that later). This class is especially meaningful to me since they were the first group of students I taught when I arrived here at TA and have since had the pleasure of getting to know over the last four years.

I can remember very specifically that first group in ninth grade science class: Abby, Carter, William Bosco, Seth, Maeve, Gabe Gaetz, Gabe Geller, Haley, Reagynne, Alden, AJ, ET, and Henry. In my memory, we had a great time and, for me, it was an easy return to teaching. Since then, there are a few students I have actually had in five different courses. Some students only in one or two, and some of you I have unfortunately never had the chance to teach. 

However, one of the best aspects of TA is that the community is close knit and strong enough that even not having had you in class, I have a good sense of who you are and what you are headed off to do in your life. I see you in the hallways and you say “hello,” I hear about successes and challenges, both officially through our assembly announcements celebrating achievements and through the grapevine of student chatter.  Even never having had you in class, I still feel connected to you through our wider community.

One of the very first impressions I had of TA was how amazingly polite and generally *nice* all of you were, both to each other and to everyone else at school. When my own family came to visit campus for the first time, students said “hello,” doors were held for us, and they stopped and chatted if we had a question, and even if we didn’t, just checked in on us anyway.  It was one of the reasons we specifically decided to move to Thetford and have our own children attend TA. 

This sense of community extended to the classroom as well.  I felt welcomed and appreciated as a teacher and this is truly the *only* school in which I have taught where students regularly still say “thank you” when they leave at the end of a class. Even after four years here, I regularly marvel at that small daily kindness.

In the last four years, I have seen you all have tremendous successes in so many different areas. I have enjoyed cheering at soccer and basketball games, baseball, and softball games when they happen and are at home (and the fields are dry), and track meets near and far (not to mention all the state championships in multiple sports earned over this time). 

There have been musicals and plays that are so good that people go multiple times to see them (and you are winning awards and accolades), and each semester music and arts nights that show how deep the talent of this group of graduates really goes, from singing and playing musical instruments; to drawing, painting, and sculpting; to cooking amazing food (many recipes which I have taken for my own use); designing and building beautiful projects in the Design Tech classes (some of you could just go directly into wood working and do very well, I am constantly amazed at the things you build). 

You have had academic success both through the strength of your efforts as well as the magnitude of your achievements. You have organized and participated in multiple and ongoing community service projects, both for your local communities and for the global community with the Mr. TA pageant and ODW. You have laughed, you have cried, you have been serious and you have been silly. There have been amazing things to see, and a few things that I will never be able to unsee.

It has been a pleasure to watch you learn and grow, achieve your successes, and to be a part of your everyday lives here at TA. You have helped each other grow as individuals and I feel like you have helped me learn to be a better teacher and a better person as well.

What advice would I like to impart to all of you? That is a great question and one I have spent weeks walking and thinking about.  It was a wonderful honor for you to choose me as your speaker this evening, and this was something I took very seriously. As I look back on the last thirty years since I graduated from high school there are a few things that stand out as touchstones that guide who I am and how I try to live my life. I’d like to start with one that works on a both a personal and a professional level and one that I have only recently started to fully embrace.

Our school counselor Rebecca Walter sent me a link to a talk about “Unconditional Positive Regard,” and I thought it sounded interesting, so I watched the talk and came away with two revelations. The first was that the speaker mentioned how she had learned this philosophy when she was a student teacher from her mentor. It turns out that her mentor just happens to be the bass player in my band and I never really knew he was an educator, so clearly we needed to talk more. Secondly, was the philosophy itself and its short guiding mantra that I have kept on my laptop screen over the last couple of years ready to read when I needed a reminder. It goes like this:

I care about you, you have value.

You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me,

and nothing’s going to change my mind.

The moment I saw those words I realized that, yes, *this* is how we should strive to regard those around us, not only as teachers and students, but as parents and children, brothers and sisters, neighbors and strangers, those from within our community and those from without, and probably most of all, *by* ourselves *for* ourselves. These words were truly a revelation for me and I realized that I had much to do to live up to the ideals inherent in this philosophy.  But, since then I have looked back on that phrase almost daily and reflected on how I have been doing.

There are certainly days when I have interactions that strain my abilities to strive toward this philosophy. However, it remains a goal because I deeply believe that we all, each and every one of us in this room, have specific and valuable skills, experiences, emotions, and value to add to our wider community.  Maybe not every day or in every situation, but it is there and we should all work to uncover, support, and foster that “unique worth” (as the TA mission statement says) in everyone starting by simply caring for each other and caring for our community. 

I see these values in the Thetford Academy community and it is both why myself and my family loves living here and why I have so much respect and care so deeply about all of you, because you genuinely respect and care for each other. And that is special to have in this day and age.

So, as my first suggested piece of advice, as you go out into the wider world and expand your personal and professional relationships, take this ideal of finding the value in everyone you meet and use it to help strengthen your own community, wherever that ends up being. Whether here in the Upper Valley, or much farther away in places you have yet to see. Either way, we will be here to support you if you stay and be ready to welcome you home when you return.

As I mentioned before, it was thirty years ago this month that I graduated from high school, a school in “Upstate” New York in a town that was only a bit larger than Thetford. And I make that comparison because my town had one stop light, though it was just one that blinked and only had one red light. Still, we had an actual stop light. Looking back, I remember one very specific detail about that night. 

I remember a close high school friend coming up to me with a huge collection of helium balloons after the ceremony and while standing there holding those balloons I spotted my own mother across the field and walked over to hug her. When I saw the look on her face I promptly proceeded to burst into tears.

For the first time I realized how very proud she was of me and also how much of her own time, energy, and emotions she had sacrificed getting me safely to that place. Of course, it was at that very moment that a photographer for the local paper decided to come up and take my photo. So, the next day’s paper had a front page photo of me holding a giant bouquet of balloons and my tear-streaked face. But, overall I looked pretty happy.

What is very strange, and slightly disconcerting, to me is that now I remember almost nothing else about high school. Just recently I spent two months trying desperately to remember the name of my high school chemistry teacher and just could not do it. Finally, one morning it popped into my head, Mr. Kavanaugh and I am still trying to remember my Physics teacher’s name. 

And this gets to my second piece of advice.  Memory is tremendously imperfect; the brain works in mysterious ways and it is not always obvious what you are going to remember in the future.  As a matter of fact, ten years from now, you may have forgotten much of your time here at TA, twenty years from now, even more will be gone, and thirty years on, there will be bits and pieces left, most likely the most intense and emotional parts.  However, this does *not* mean that your time here was not meaningful, or special, or useful, just that memory is imperfect and we do not always get to choose what we remember best.

Earlier I mentioned I would get back to music, and this is where I can bring some of my experience as a musician to bear.  I thought about making a list of meaningful songs to quote. . . from songs that fire me up in the morning when I am driving up the hill to school to songs that have words or phrases that speak to me and how to approach life.  However, I quickly went down the rabbit hole of the musical landscape and could not narrow it down, or I found out that for some of the songs I really didn’t know the words. 

For example, given the chance, I will sing the song “Africa” by Toto at the top of my lungs (and I am so, so glad this song has come back around and is on the radio again), but after looking up the words, I have no idea what I have been singing all this time, it is not the right words at all!  Or, when I am tired and need to get going in the morning, I’ll put Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on at full blast as we drive up the hill to school.  The best part is since we only live a couple miles from school, we arrive at TA in full air guitar mode mid-song and I am so ready to begin the day.  However, with a chorus that includes the inspirational lyrics of:

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to that feeling
Streetlights, people
Ohohohhhhhhhhhh

I did not think it best to try and pull major life lessons out of this song, though I was thrilled to hear the dance remix version played at the senior prom this year.

So, what songs do mean the very most to me, and at my most humble I have to say, my own songs. While I am truly inspired by other people’s writing, I have always said that if you understand what I am saying in my songs, then you deeply understand who I am and what I believe in. So, I would like to go back to the start of this second round of advice, the imperfection of memory and how it relates to my own song called “Snapshots.”

I wrote this song both as a way to remember some special moments in my own life, but also as an exaltation for everyone to take some time to slow down and enjoy those moments. At the time, I was a full-time parent and spent my days with my own two sons, doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do every day, where ever we wanted to go, usually somewhere outside. 

However, even with all that time together, it still seemed to be passing by too quickly (and I am guessing all your parents are sitting here feeling that same way right now, and maybe you are too). I wanted to record those moments as “Snapshots” in my memory so I could both enjoy them in the moment and have them to remember in the future. It was the idea that to make this happen, I had to acknowledge that special moment, savor and enjoy it, and save it for later. So, the song is made up of three vignettes and a chorus, I will read one moment for you now along with the chorus:

Hey there my love, won’t you take a walk with me

The sun is finally shining and there’s something you should see
Our boys on the hill, backlit by the sun
So much taller than they once were and faster as they run
Down to the river with the water summer-low
They search through the gravel for the perfect rocks to throw
They skip across the surface as each boy breaks a smile
We can’t stay here forever, but we can stay awhile
These are the pictures I carry in my mind
Snapshots of instants I just won’t leave behind
As we go together through the ravages of time
Gather all the snapshots my love you can find.

It was a beautiful day on the Winooski river and we were skipping stones on the water, which is something I love to do.  Nothing more to that moment, but still something special to me and in that instant I realized how perfect I felt and how happy the three of us were and that the day would end eventually and we would never have that particular moment in that particular place together again. But, knowing this, I sat back and took it all in and lived fully in the moment and that made it special to me and special to my brain and its memories and I have that day to think back on now as something remembered and valued.

So, I encourage you, this week, now, to look back on your special and meaningful moments and reflect on them, savor them, and record those moments and experiences as snapshots to your mind.  Share those with your friends and family and other loved ones. Say thank you to everyone that was part of those moments. And, as you move forward into the future, remember to be on the lookout for those instants and take the time to stop and savor them, live them fully in the moment, and keep them for later.  Memory is imperfect, but we can practice making it better and keep those moments to share as stories. So, as I say at the end of this song, and I’ll paraphrase a bit for all of you:

As you make each other laugh
It’s clear how much you’ve grown
Now it’s time you head out and find some snapshots of your own.

I think you are all going to do amazing things and I wish you all the very best. My sincere and heartfelt congratulations to the Thetford Academy graduating class of 2019. Thank you everyone for listening, now go be awesome.