Thursday, August 07, 2014

Baccalaureate Address 2014: Neil Jacobs '69

Deerfield guests and friends, Dr. Curtis, Members of the Faculty, Class of 2015 and, in particular, to the Great Class of 2014, thank you for inviting me to speak today. It was an unexpected honor-one that I shall not forget.

I also want to acknowledge the members of my family who are here – My Mother, who first dropped me off at Deerfield 48 years ago. Thank you Mom for making my bed before you left for home that day. My wife, who 45 years ago, attended the first Deerfield prom, unfortunately, not with me, but as the date of another boy. It is a long story, but everything worked out. Thank you Debby for letting me spend this wonderful school year at Deerfield. Finally, I’d like to recognize my three sons none of whom attended Deerfield. What could you have possibly been thinking? Shame on you.

Great Class of 2014, you cannot possibly look at me today and envision who or what I was at age 18. Yet I sat in your place–perhaps even your pew 45 years ago. As you will experience, the past often repeats itself. And so with the benefit of 45 years of life after Deerfield, I would like to speak about my past in order to illuminate some Deerfield lessons that I believe you will find important in your future.

I returned to Deerfield this year to repay a debt–a special debt that could not be repaid in any currency other than teaching. Looking back, no institution has had more impact on the trajectory of my life than Deerfield. Mr. Boyden’s band of senior faculty recognized that they were at Deerfield not just to teach subjects, but also to teach habits, and the small disciplines that would later become a student’s character. This still happens today. There are faculty here, who have laid the foundation for the person you will become. You can identify whom these faculty are for you–they are the teachers you cannot bear to disappoint.

The teacher I could not disappoint was Mr. Sullivan whose portrait hangs in the lobby outside the dining hall. I suspect few, if any of you, have noticed it there. Mr. Sullivan’s 43 year Deerfield career is summarized under his portrait in a single word. Above his dates of service, it simply says “Master.”

In my day, schoolboys took a special delight in rumors, a student characteristic, I have noted, not changed by co-education. Some boys claimed Mr. Sullivan had been a professional fighter. Others said he had laid track for the railroad before being saved by Mr. Boyden, the saint of second chances. None of us knew Mr. Sullivan’s real story, and we did not dare ask.

Mr. Sullivan did not seek the approval of students. He did not want to be our friend. He liked to keep us off balance. Yet, we suspected he was devoted to us.

I had no idea why he took an interest in a short, undistinguished sophomore new boy, who was completely unfamiliar with boarding school and had a hard time fitting in. Now, I realize he had a calling and a gift. His gift was that he could read boys. He knew when someone needed help. His calling was to give it.

This year at Deerfield, I have observed faculty who, like Mr. Sullivan, made their highest priority care and concern for students. These teachers’ thoughts, their voices, their lessons are part of you. Now leaving this place, having immeasurably benefited from the care and kindness of these teachers, remember that you too must repay your debt.

During the 15 minutes between the end of lunch and the first afternoon class, most boys checked their mailboxes. Mr. Sullivan, enjoying a cigarette and coffee sitting nearby in the school store, caught me cutting the mailroom line. He gruffly summoned me to his table. “Jacobs, come here and have a seat.” I sat. We did not speak. He finished his coffee. I watched the time before class and the opportunity to get my mail disappear. Then he dismissed me, telling me he had enjoyed our visit and inviting me to join him the next day at the same time. The following day I returned. I sat. He finished his coffee, and, once again, I was denied the opportunity to get my mail. He kept inviting me back…again and again.

Mr. Sullivan never said anything about cutting the line, but I immediately took his point. Corners were not to be cut. Character began with small things. Small expectations had to be met because later in life, small expectations would grow into larger ones. Learning to do what was required taught us who and what we were. We were expected to develop an inclination to do the right thing–an inclination that would manifest itself later in life when we were really being tested.

Each of you has been regularly exposed to these same lessons. Mr. Boyden’s genius was to understand the importance of ritual and habit in developing character. Mr. Boyden recognized the qualities of a school necessary to develop virtue in its graduates.

This was and is the importance of the intricate minuet of sit down meals–a dance of manners, respect, cooperation, sharing, patience and gratitude. This was and is the importance of attending school meeting, thereby reaffirming your duty to participate in your community, not because school meeting is necessarily entertaining or even what you may consider the best use of your time, but, rather because often it is neither. Instead, attendance is a duty, an obligation to something greater than yourself. Obligations to the community, this one and the ones to come, must be performed because without the community, you do not exist.

These rituals and traditions and many others build brick by brick the internal edifice that becomes your character. If you are like me, you are largely unaware that this building of character has been taking place. Later in life when the stakes are high–you will make good choices if you remember the lessons of Deerfield. Honesty, respect, concern for others are meant to shine in the Deerfield night sky. Use these stars to navigate.

Mr. Sullivan taught Algebra II on the second floor of the main school building in a class room which faced the hills. More than math, he taught us the effect of time on place by exhorting us to watch the hills in the fall become engulfed by flames red, orange and yellow, burn out in winter only to be reborn in the spring.

My aptitude for math was not high. Near the end of the spring term, Mr. Sullivan asked me to stay after class. Seated at his desk, he looked up, “Jacobs”, he said,” I have a proposition for you. I will give you a grade of 85 if you promise never to embarrass me by taking another math course again. “Life is short.” He said, “Do what you enjoy.” I did not hesitate. I agreed and never took a math course again.

Mr. Sullivan often repeated that observation: life is short. Do what you enjoy. He spoke in a similar vein at my first class meeting. He told the assembled sophomore class to enjoy all that Deerfield had to offer because one of us would be dead by the time the class graduated from college. He proved to be right in this prediction.

Take this lesson to heart as soon as you can. Appreciating the shortness of life is liberating. This appreciation will free you from living your life to please others. Time is your most valuable commodity. Don’t let others take it from you. Please yourself. Take some risks. You have been given the opportunity to be special. Take advantage of that opportunity.

I never had the courage or the words to thank Mr. Sullivan. His manner did not invite intimacy. As a poor substitute, at the end of my senior year, I donated a book of poetry to the library bearing a tribute to Mr. Sullivan in my best fourth year Latin. This thin volume of poetry remains on the library shelves today. Under library rules, to stay on the shelves, a book must be taken out at least once each decade. I have made arrangements with some of the people in this room to see that this happens long after I am gone.

All of you have your own “Mr. Sullivans”–faculty, coaches, administrators, dorm residents, co- curricular leaders, who have known you and cared for you and taught you.  

Mr. Sullivan was gone before I had the maturity or ability to tell him what he had meant to me. Don’t make the same mistake. While you can, thank those within this church and outside its walls who have taken the time to get to know you and care for you. Remember that you were loved at this school.

I have now paid my debt, go forth and pay yours.

Great class of 2014, I salute you.