A strong sense of purpose, the importance of staying true to oneself, and the value of asking the right questions characterized commencement exercises for the Class of 2015, held on June 9 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
The three student commencement speakers – Louisa Grenham ’15, Giovanna Molina ’15, and Bisa McDuffie-Thurmond ’15 – spoke with a wisdom that seemed to be far beyond their age – a wisdom earned through their experiences as Brooklyn Friends School students. They each recounted their class’s journey at BFS and their amazing growth, individually and collectively. Jacob Swindell-Sakoor ’15 conducted the Upper School’s String Ensemble in Bach’s “Sleepers Wake,” reinforcing the depth of talent and creative expression in the student body.
The usually reserved Upper School Head Bob Bowman brought chuckles and smiles when he let the seniors in on a secret. “There’s an amazing benefit to teaching,” he confessed. “We learn from our students all the time.” He then elaborated on three key lessons the Class of 2015 in taught him.
“First, I learned about the power of resilience, the power to recover from difficulty. Second, you taught me what it means to have empathy, the ability to understand the predicaments of others. It was truly remarkable to witness your love for each other – on our sports teams, on our stage, in our hallways, and in our classrooms I saw you sticking together and supporting each other.
“Finally, you taught me the lesson of the necessity of joy. I saw laughter, cajoling, and silliness everywhere. There is no school if there is no joy, and you folks brought the joy. It is powerful and it is necessary.”
At the students’ behest, this year’s commencement nonetheless had a more muted tone than in recent years. The celebrating, hugs, laughter and tears were abundant but they were tempered with repeated acknowledgements that all is not right with the world, and with continued calls for action. Head of School Dr. Larry Weiss struck a somber note when he placed the class in a global context and spoke of our shared duties to continue pursuing peace, justice and progress around the world.
The seniors selected straight-talking Upper School Math Teacher Zenzile Keith to be their faculty speaker. She ardently discussed the challenges the graduating class faced this year, both within the school, in New York City, and across the nation. Commending the seniors for persevering through such troubling times, she urged them to continue remaining impassioned about speaking truth to power throughout the rest of their lives.
She also spoke about the importance of always striving to achieve ethical and moral ideals. “BFS aspires to the high goals in its mission statement, but sometimes we all fall short. I caution you not to let the events of this year cloud your entire experience,” she said. “I charge you with finding your voice, and with finding empathy with your fellow beings…I charge you with being great.”
The George Fox Distinguished Alumna Award was presented to Commencement Speaker D. Crystal Byndloss, Ph.D., from the class of 1987. “In many ways I credit BFS with setting the foundation for my future education and my life,” she told the graduating class. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she then went on to Harvard where she earned her doctorate in sociology. Since that time her career has focused on ways to help high performing, low income students gain access to high quality education, in some ways following in her own footsteps.
“Many academically qualified students are unaware of their opportunities. So many students lack like the information, social networks, the encouragement at home and at school and sometimes the confidence to apply to the colleges that you apply to,” she pointedly told the seniors. “I know firsthand that encouraging students to reach high and guiding them through the process can change lives. Brooklyn Friends did that for me.”
Crystal urged the students to keep up the Quaker practice of silent reflection as they move forward into their adult lives. “Reserve time for your own private warning beacon, to gather your thoughts, remind yourself of what you’re working for.
“When I steer away from my calling I become restless and feel as if I’m not using my life purposefully. Be sure to take time to reflect.” She stressed that such reflection is especially important during times of change, like graduating high school. “Don’t let fear of change paralyze you. Change is necessary, and the up side of it is, change can open the door to new, great things. Have faith that your wings are ready for flight, and go for it.”
In their own words…
commencement speakers Louisa Grenham ’15, Bisa McDuffie-Thurmond ’15 and Giovanna Molina ’15
“One of the problems with going to a school that educates you on the issues of the world and the systems in place is that you fully realize how terrible the world truly is. I’m extremely grateful that I know about these issues, but sometimes you can feel cynical, and angry and helpless to the multitudes of injustices around the world. And you can so easily lose hope. But when I look at the Class of 2015 I see an abundance of hope. And it’s not hope out of ignorance of the world, or assumptions that everything will fix itself. It’s the hope that comes with knowing there’s always more that can be done. That there’s more than what’s in front of you. Knowing that things can be better and that change is gradual but possible. This hope is very rare, and the responsibility that comes with it is huge. It’s the individual responsibility of always asking for more, and for better, no matter where you are. This group of people is not afraid to do that.”
– Louisa Grenham
“Like all other young adults, all other people, we have been faced with the temptation to be filled with resentment, exasperation, and a desire to give up. Sometimes, difficulty is only met with quitting. Stewards are not allowed this luxury. Here in this community we met difficulty and adversity of any kind with an effort to understand, compassion, and love. For individuals such as these, who have been distinguished by their intellectualism and intelligence, there is the grave temptation to follow a painless and familiar path. This path is laden with guarantees of individual achievement and financial success, so lavishly spread before people like us, who have enjoyed the privilege of a great education. This path however, is not the road that the Cass of 2015 has defined for itself. Like it or not, we inhabit a community, a country, a world, that needs stewards.”
– Bisa McDuffie-Thurmond
“It’s a strange feeling to stand before you, because I don’t feel that it’s really my place to be giving advice. The future is just as uncertain for me as it is for everyone else in this room. The one thing I’ll say, that’s taken me a long time to understand, is that advancement in life does not depend on knowing all the answers. It depends on embracing what occurs. If you know me, I like to make plans and organize things to ensure that they go the “right” way, or rather my way. I will forever be an avid list maker and email writer. I always try to improve things, whether it be my life, the school, or even corporations. While I will always love crafting strongly worded emails, I’ve realized that some of the best things that have happened to me have been unplanned. Now just because great things can happen when they’re not planned, that doesn’t mean one should just sit around waiting for them to happen.”
– Giovanna Molina
The Class of 2015
Jonathan Bach *
Thomas Chamberlain *
Griffin Edwards *
Louisa Grenham *
Hannah Hemmerly *
Aoife Henchy *
Maya Kaul *
Bisa McDuffie-Thurmond *
Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond *
Giovanna Molina *
Jesse Slade-D’Addona *
Adam Wells *
* Signifies students who entered BFS in 1st grade or earlier