When in the opening days of our sophomore year the returning students of the mighty fine class of 2009 gathered together for the first time, my father, who was then our class dean, asked us why you can never step into the same river twice.
Thinking ourselves to be as clever and quick as any well-trained Deerfield students, we eagerly called down the slant of the Small Aud that you can never step into the same river twice because, of course, river water flows. As soon as you’ve stepped out of and back into the shallows, a new influx of water has washed the old on and away.
We were partly right. The Deerfield that we stepped into as freshmen is not the same as the one we are stepping out of, unbelievably for the last time, today. We are the last class to have stepped from Mr. Widmer’s student body into Dr. Curtis’. We stepped out of the Mods into the Koch Center. The Imagine Deerfield campaign urges us to be worthy of our future, now, as well as of our heritage, and, yes, the river itself has even overflowed its banks a few times, so that we needed only to step onto the lower level to step into the river.
But my father then complicated the question with a story about fishing in Montana. When the only way to access a particularly lovely pool was to cross a raging river, he and his two friends had to bounce from one bank to the other on the very tips of their wading boots at what was apparently the shallowest stretch of the river for miles and miles around. It was hardly shallow, though, and with water rushing forward just below his chin, my father could only hope that his toes would find their way back to the gravel between bounces, before the rapids swept him uncontrollably away downstream. He was terrified. But he made it across, and the exhilaration of success made the cross back to the car at the end of the day much easier. The water he stepped into the second time was certainly new and different, but the main reason that he felt more confident crossing the river the second time was that he was different than he had been before. So, he told us, you can never step into the same river twice because by the second step not only the river, but more significantly you yourself, will have changed.
In relaying that adventure, Mr. Kapteyn urged us to reflect on the change that would mark our lives in our sophomore year. Unlike freshmen who must spend their first year discovering Deerfield, and juniors and seniors who already begin looking forward to discover the futures that we are now entering, sophomores can, while basking in the glory of knowing the ropes of a school that finally feels absolutely their own, discover themselves.
Certainly I don’t think it is any surprise to anyone that we changed over the course of our sophomore year or that we’ve changed over the course of our four or three or two or one year or years at Deerfield, that the people we were when we began our freshmen or sophomore or junior or senior year are different than the people we are now. Regardless of what those changes are specifically, for me it is not that they happened that is remarkable but that Deerfield has so persistently and passionately encouraged us to make them happen and to recognize that they have happened. I love Deerfield for many, many reasons, but I have found the profound self-awareness that Deerfield cultivates in its students to be one of its most glorious strengths.
Life as a Deerfield student involves, indeed inspires, constant self-reflection and self-evaluation. To start with, Deerfield delivers us comments along with our grades three times a year whose eloquence always seem to me more fit for an essay than a report card. We have to thank for them a faculty of devoted teachers who spend days and nights and nights assessing our progress so that we might improve upon it. But their helpful insights do not end at the doors of our academic classrooms when we head off for lunch, or for sports, or for dance (!). Be it Mr. Morsman’s periodic reminders to pick up our napkins in the Dining Hall, or Mr. Emerson’s to keep our bikes off the grass (or other people’s bikes, depending on which you ride), or the perennial advice to “Look to the Hills,” Deerfield is always prompting us to quickly or quietly or quite deeply ponder the way we live and the way we are.
When Dr. Baker asked that all those involved with community service stand at school meeting and notice the excitingly large number of other people standing, for instance, or when Dr. Curtis does encourage us to look to the hills, the action of looking outward inevitably precedes an inward gaze as our sight returns in from the outside. We see the community of our school and then we see ourselves within that community.
And we don’t only look at ourselves. I’ve always marveled at the willingness and eagerness of Deerfield students to describe and discuss and debate themselves within the context of any element of Deerfield life that comes into question on a prospective student’s tour, at a sit down table, in a task force meeting, on a hall. So many of the conversations I’ve witnessed or been a part of might have continued indefinitely if not for the existence of time and busy schedules, but we who talk and talk and talk don’t talk just to hear ourselves or to hear about ourselves; we talk because we all care very much about the school we are defining and delineating and delving into through our talk. Defining Deerfield in part defines us, since we are part of Deerfield.
Just as our teachers mean for their comments to transcend static description and suggest to us how our work in their classes can improve, I think all of our observations and reflections and definitions are simply the foundation that Deerfield teaches us to lay before the work of improving what we see and say begins.
You merely have to arrive onto this green campus to see that everything here either is, or is in the process of becoming, the best that it can be. Deerfield’s quads and gardens are as pristinely poetic as any Deerfield term paper or calculus test. And all of our facilities – from the new track, up through the Koch Center, past the library and the Black Box and the gym, down to the Lower Levels, not to mention all the other beautiful buildings in between – are outfitted as well as they can possibly be with every resource that could possibly advance our educations, and when that is not well enough, Deerfield generously updates them, as with the Koch Center or the squash courts or the new Greer to come. Just by witnessing our gardeners garden, let alone our teachers teach, we learn the ethic that drives all of us to constantly work at becoming the best we can be.
With a population of people, too, whom the Admissions Office and Mr. Taylor have chosen meticulously from pools of qualified students and teachers from around the world, Deerfield is a kind of ideal microcosm of the world. Mr. Boyden could hardly have chosen a better environment for the creation of such an ideal than this one within the borders of a New England boarding school whose relatively small size and high standard of excellence make the particular preenings necessary for infinite improvement all the more possible and probable (and they’ve already happened (to quote a speaker we heard earlier in the year)) and they keep happening.
From the beds to the books, the friends to the food, the study to the sport, Deerfield’s ethic of never-ending betterment permeates the whole life that this campus provides, and the river flows always forward. Change happens and Deerfield’s standard of excellence doesn’t rest but rather rises higher and higher with each influx of spring snowmelt. Something can always be better. The housing lottery? The curriculum? The advising program? The greenness of our bleeding or the greenness of our light bulbs? My calculation of derivatives and integrals and right Riemann sums.
We continue to self-reflect and self-evaluate. We’ve learned and we’ve learned how to learn and it was a teacher, of course – Mr. Palmer – who paused English class one day to notice not the pages in front of us, but, in true Modernist style, to notice ourselves in the act of noticing the pages. He hoped we’d consider for a moment the way our readings over the course of the year had imparted a sense of language that sharpened and polished the way we use words ourselves. In high school perhaps the material we read is not really as essential as the development of an awareness in our tongues that translates directly to an awareness of our minds. Perhaps the historic or algebraic or linguistic facts we’ve memorized are not as essential as the analytical skills that we’ve learned to understand them and that we will continue to employ no matter what we are learning in the future.
Sitting at that table high in the Main School Building overlooking the lawn on which we are now gathered, I felt a surge of awe for the deftness with which this school and its faculty teach young people how to be aware of themselves, how to better themselves, and how to appreciate the changes that they affect and observe in themselves. When young people who have been so educated leave Deerfield, how thoughtful and responsible they must become in the wider world.
And no matter how the water changes or how they change, those students would probably cross that river in Montana again and again and again, fishing poles held high above their heads, while the current rushed on and away below. For even though it was that current that did eventually sweep Daddy away one sudden winter night and that current that would soon sweep Deerfield away one ceremonious spring day, Deerfield has taught us the awareness necessary to recognize and adapt to such shattering change in the water of our world. Water has the power to flood us away with the flows but it also has the power to buoy us above them; immersed in the water that once carried my father and has until now carried Deerfield, I feel held up by it, and I hope you all do too. I trust that we’ll bounce fearlessly across it on our toes.