Talk delivered in Upper School Chapel on May 8, 2019
Let me begin by saying it is an honor to stand before you today. I’ll also add that I’m just a little bit nervous, and I’m quite certain I would be better off had I taken Mr. Jump’s public speaking course. Still, I am inspired by the courage so many of you seniors have demonstrated, as you’ve stood here throughout the year to deliver important messages and talks to your peers.
Most of you probably don’t know this, but Reverend Edwards and I grew up just down the street from one another. Her older brother Erik was one of my closest friends when I was younger, and you could always find the two of us fishing somewhere when the weather was warm enough, usually on a pond or the river, in pursuit of largemouth and smallmouth bass. And Whitney, let me just say it is pretty special that the two of us eventually found our way back to Richmond and ended up here at St. Christopher’s together.
As I stand here in this wonderful chapel, I also can’t help but think about my dad, a retired Episcopal minister who stood in front of his congregation at Grace and Holy Trinity Church for thirty-eight years (right next to the current Landmark Theater). When I committed to giving this chapel talk, I made sure to let him know right away. And while he can’t be here today, his first reaction was, “If you are speaking in chapel, you must tell the boys two funny stories from your younger days.” And so, I will. Dad first likes to tell of a time when I was around six years old. While driving somewhere together, I apparently turned to him and declared in a very earnest voice, “Dad, I’ve decided what I want to be when I grow up.” Surprised, he responded, “Oh, what is that?” I then said, “I want to be a clergyman like you.” He smiled and replied, “That’s great!” But I wasn’t finished. I then added, “There is only one problem.” “What is that?” my father asked. I simply replied, “I don’t really like to go to church on Sundays.” To this day, that remains one of his favorite stories.
The other story is from about the same time. We were living on Leonard Parkway, not far from the Grove Avenue Pharmacy. Interestingly, our house also was just across the alley from that of my good friend, Coach O’Ferrall. And, Ren, it means a lot to me that we too ended up here together at St. Christopher’s too. Anyway, a bishop from England was visiting our church, and Dad had brought him home for lunch. When they came through the door, my father announced, “Hill, Bishop Marshall is here!” Apparently, my reply, in the form of a shout, echoed from my room upstairs, “Who cares!” Dad says that the bishop thought it was hilarious, but he and my mom may have been a bit embarrassed. Looking back, I guess there were some early signs that the ministry wasn’t for me.
But I’m not here to go on and on about my childhood as a PK (short for preacher’s kid). Instead, I am here to speak in particular to you seniors. I was fortunate to teach and coach many of you. And it seems like just the other day you were middle schoolers, doing the Dance of the Little Old Men in Spanish, working on World War II timelines in history class, selling snacks at recess, checking out interesting new books from the library, or adding to the fabric of middle school life in countless other ways. I remember our soccer season where we came just short of our goal to have every player on the team score. I remember basketball season when Jimmy Starnes would regularly amaze me, and opposing coaches, with his acrobatic finishes during Thursday night games. And I can’t help but remember the day when Alexander Levengood and my son Alex clashed heads at recess while playing in separate games of touch football; one of you, I can’t remember who, came into my room to reassuringly report the news saying: “when their heads hit each other, it was really loud.” I truly hope you all have a number of fond and amusing memories of your time in Wilton Hall. Your former teachers certainly do.
Seniors, you will graduate in a little over two weeks. Summer will be a welcome opportunity to catch your breath, but before long, you’ll be off to colleges and universities across the country. As you prepare to set out, I have five pieces of advice that I hope will prove useful. At the very least, I hope one or two of them will resonate with you.
My first piece of advice is to be open to trying new interests, or, perhaps, rediscovering old ones. As a fifth grader, I took guitar lessons, just around the corner, in fact, next to the 7-Eleven on Libbie at a place called Don Warner Music. It was there that my teacher introduced me to the Grateful Dead as I struggled to learn “Friend of the Devil.” My early guitar career was short lived, and shortly after playing “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by John Denver in front of my 6th-grade music class, I quit playing. Nevertheless, when I got to college, I picked up the guitar again and really enjoyed it. Having always enjoyed art in school, I also took a really fun art class in college. I even took an architectural history class while at Davidson. Finally, I joined the Club Lacrosse team. While I hadn’t played during high school, I had always enjoyed the sport since my Lower School days at St. Christopher’s. College gave me a chance to play on a team with a really good group of guys. All of these things made my time in college richer, and I am glad I was open to each of these opportunities.
This leads me to my second piece of advice. At first, you may feel like you have loads of free time when you get to college. You might even set out to fill that time with everything you can. My oldest son Will tells of two classmates from his first year in college. One of them was involved in everything. He was on the debate team, he took a full course load, and then some, and he joined a number of other groups and clubs. He also rarely slept. Will said it seemed like this guy was always on the go and struggled to keep up with his crazy schedule. On the flip side, Will knew another guy who rarely did more than study, eat, and sleep. In doing so, he missed numerous chances to get involved in the community and meet new people. While you may not get it perfect, my second piece of advice is to seek balance. Find the middle ground, and focus your efforts there fully.
I also know just how lucky you all feel to be heading to so many terrific institutions. These schools admitted you because they believed you would make them better. My third piece of advice is really a challenge that you do just that. Ask yourselves how you can make these schools better. Then do what you can to make the schools grateful for your presence on campus. There are numerous ways you might do this. Among other things, you might start a new organization. You could also take on an important leadership role, in student government perhaps. You might decide to assist other students through the school’s writing center or similar resource efforts. Or you simply might help someone who is dealing with a difficult situation. No matter how you go about it, make a difference and aim to leave the school a better place than when you got there.
A fourth piece of advice is a big one. It is that you need to be willing to ask for help. Early on, you might simply need to know little things like “Where do I go to pick up packages?” or “Where is the cheapest food off campus?” The latter is actually worth asking. I still remember learning that the Golden Corral near Davidson had an unlimited food bar for around $4.00; I think they lost money on me. On a more serious note, at some point, you will likely require more significant assistance, whether it be help in facing specific academic challenges (like the BC Calculus class that tortured me in my first year), social situations (maybe with a roommate issue), or even health-related issues (both physical and mental). Remember that your schools all have resources in place to help you, but they can’t read your minds. You have to know when and how to reach out for that assistance. I am absolutely convinced that one of the best things you can do for yourself while away from your support networks here at home is to know when to ask for help.
Finally, I want to conclude with one last piece of advice. It actually is one that comes from the father of my good friend and colleague, Mr. Chewning. His father was a math teacher too. In fact, he was also a legend at Collegiate. According to Mr. Chewning, his father always used to tell him “remember who you are” when Mr. Chewning was leaving the house in the evening. What profound words of wisdom: Remember who you are. College can be a magical place where meaningful and powerful personal growth can occur. But it can also be a place where you will encounter difficult obstacles and influences. As you navigate your time there, you will be well-served to heed the words of Mr. Chewning’s father. Remember who you are. Don’t forget your own sense of self-worth and the things for which you stand. Act accordingly. Value and hold dear your integrity and character. And remember that you will always have a place to call home here at St. Christopher’s. I wish you all the very best.