Thank you Fr. Croghan, Mr. Labbat, and the board of trustees. Thank you Dr. Tocchet and all of the teachers and staff that make this school such a special place. I’m particularly indebted to Fr. Gibbons and Mr. DiMichele who I worked with extensively to write this speech. And last but not least, I owe a special thank you to all of you, the class of 2016. You are such an incredible, dynamic group of guys, and I’m so honored to have been able to have spent these past four years with you. It’s a real gift to speak on your behalf.
When I was first told that I would have the opportunity to address you all today, Dr. Tocchet instructed me to “write something original”, and assured me that “no one has ever fallen completely flat on his face.” Fr. Gibbons, it seemed, was assigned the role of bad cop: “Andrew,” he said, “I’m a little concerned.”
Well, with the administration’s faith in my creativity, I’ll begin with a parable:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"”
As some might recognize, I’ve already broken Dr. Tocchet’s first request, since the fish story isn’t original—in fact, it’s taken from a commencement address given by David Foster Wallace entitled “This is Water”. The speech holds a special significance for me, because it was the first thing I read for homework as a Regian for Mr. Mullins’s freshman English class so many months ago.
Back then, I think I lacked the maturity and critical reading skills to grapple with the ideas presented, and I made little of the speech. That was back when I used Microsoft Office like an “amateur”, didn’t know that being meticulous and drawing a good free body diagram could solve all of my problems, and thought that a pickle dish in literature was nothing more than just that—a pickle dish.
Last week, almost four years later, I returned to “This is Water”, hoping it would give me some place to start amidst all I hoped to say. As I sat at my desk, staring at a blank Word document, double spaced and set to Times New Roman size 12, with my name and advisement written dutifully into the upper left corner of the page, I came to feel as if the passage of time had helped me to understand slightly better what Foster Wallace puts forward: the struggle of the young fish is one of perspective.
The writing process that evening bordered on the surreal; there I sat, hoping to perform a ritual that had become so commonplace over the past four years—that is, converting blank, Regis Style Sheet-governed space into content late into the night—for what may well be my last time. This time though, I didn’t feel stressed; in fact, I felt almost serene. Disconnected from the pressure of due dates and other assignments, I saw my task for what it really was: an opportunity to express why these past four years have meant so much to me.
I think that moment solidified a transition that we’ve all undergone over our time here at Regis—maturation from young fish into their wiser, older peers. Gone are my days of wishing that my commute was just a bit quicker, that James Joyce’s prose was just a bit easier to follow, that Mr. Quinn’s reading assignments were just a bit shorter. These days, I find myself constantly imploring my underclassmen friends not to wish even those little things away, to be cognizant and appreciative of their every second swimming through the water that is Regis.
How did that transition happen? How did I begin as a freshman, intimidated by this place to the point of feeling as if I didn’t belong, and end as a senior, departing each evening only after Mr. Mullins would kick me out at 5pm? Was it the architecture? The Lower Gym Smell? Stockholm Syndrome?
In a search for answers, I first turned towards the stack of notebooks from years past sitting next to my desk. I pawed through historical anecdotes that Fr. Bender had prefaced with his classic “You don’t need to write this down, but…”, math quizzes that had started strong but ended with Ms. Kiernan’s “See Me”, and Spanish texts annotated with the eminently quotable lines of Dr. Gomez. I came up short: clearly, what was so special about Regis transcended all we learned in the classroom. I had to dig deeper.
What had made me come to so love learning at this unique institution wasn’t just what we were learning, but how we were doing it. What was so special about Regis, I began to realize, was the environment.
The Regis environment was one where “learning how to think” meant realizing that we could think in so many different ways. Diving into the poetry anthology with Mr. Vode—a moment of silence for those who “didn’t read it?”, “Drumming with Jesus” in the chapel on Friday mornings, and analyzing Batman movies and Lana Del Rey music videos in American Studies all were equally valid and exciting methods of intellectual exploration.
The Regis environment was one where my character couldn’t just be condensed to the “smart kid” archetype, as had always been my experience prior. Everyone here was so smart; it made it clear how reductionist such a simple assessment was in the first place—we were smart, yes, but we were also comedians and artists, good listeners and great friends, excellent athletes, leaders. Suddenly, I had classmates who were so different than I was, and yet still we were drawn together by the shared characteristics that made us Regians.
But most importantly, the Regis environment was one that was guided by an idea: generosity. It was with that idea in mind that Fr. Lane began our academic year with an invocation that will continue to haunt me for years: “Here, gentlemen, is our prayer for you, as you begin your first year at Regis or your fourth, that when you have run the course of whatever days God’s providence will afford you, we can say that of you too: he was a good man, the kindest man I knew,” he said, speaking to the memory of Matthew Leonard, a Regian killed on September 11th, 2001. “This is the greatness to which we call you,” he continued. “Gentlemen, this is the greatness to aspire to.” It was as those words sunk in that I really came to love that idea, that mission so central to our identity. Regis was a place where learning had more than just intellectual value.
We so often throw around the phrase “men for others” that, from an outsider’s perspective, it could be easy to think that we’ve become inured to its meaning. But of course that’s not true: the implications of our school’s mission are at the heart of everything we do here, a constant aspect of daily life. When I think about the role that force has played in our education, I’m drawn back to reflect on an experience one morning early this fall.
“You’re Andrew?” a tall, tired looking woman asked me.
“Yes ma’am.” I was standing in the threshold of my classroom at Saint Ann’s in East Harlem, where I helped work with the eighth grade for Tuesday morning service, conversing with the mother of one of my students.
“Thinking college next year?” she asked. I nodded, prepared to recite the schools on my list as had become routine in conversations with adults over the past few months.
But then: “Good for you,” she said heartily, gripping my shoulder. Suddenly I realized that she wasn’t asking where I was thinking of going to college, but if I was thinking of going to college at all. “I really hope Jaylin can too someday.”
The interaction has stuck with me: for my students, college was a dream, not an expectation. It was a moment where I was once again a young fish; though Regis was only a neighborhood to the south, my experiences and those that my students had had were vastly different, and sometimes it was easy to forget. After all, they were just middle schoolers, with the same hilarious temperaments of any other eighth graders I’d known.
Conversations like these were jarring, but I came to appreciate them precisely because they had a way of shaking me. Jaylin’s mother seemed to be pointing to all the opportunities I’d received and reminding me that “this is water”.
Just the week prior, Chiara, another one of my students, had put me in a similar situation. “Andrew, did you see the presidential debate last night?” she had asked.
I explained that I had been following the election closely, even trying to predict the results of primaries down to the percentage point for a class called CSPI. In our ensuing conversation, she explained that she had yet to decide on a favorite candidate.
“What issue is most important to you?” I had asked in response, trying to echo my teachers back on 84th Street.
“Immigration,” she replied quickly. “Depending on who wins, my family might get kicked out of America, and I really like it here.” It wasn’t a political statement; it was a profoundly simple, human one. We so often debated the pros and cons of different policies in the controlled environments of Regis classrooms, Hearn tournaments, and countless conversations over lunch and in the hall that I’d often catch myself slipping into the trance of feeling as if we were discussing the course of an immaterial world steered by the hypothetical. Yet beyond the walls that sheltered our penchants for over-intellectualizing, in the real world, choices had consequences—of course they did. Jaylin and Chiara demonstrated to me that our conversations weren’t just educational in a theoretical way: their implications mattered outside of Regis. This is water.
The neighborhood surrounding our high school may have been radically different from the one surrounding Saint Ann’s, but on that day, as I wrapped up my conversation with Jaylin’s mother and began to teach, I felt extremely close to the more ephemeral, intangible aspect of Regis: its mission as a Jesuit institution. If my interactions with Jaylin, Chiara, and my other students demonstrated anything, it was that the world faced big problems—and those big problems demanded big solutions. One of greatest lessons I’ve learned here is to strive for the magis in “being a man for others”—two commonly echoed mantras in Jesuit education, juxtaposed next to each other, that translate roughly, at least for me, as “dream big in making the world a better place”.
That idea, I think, is what really defines the Regis environment. In his palanca to me when I first attended Quest as a sophomore, my brother wrote something that I will never forget. “Andrew,” he implored, “never lose sight of the fact that in giving you a scholarship, Regis passed on to you both an obligation and an opportunity.” The obligation and the opportunity are one in the same: a chance, a burden, to use the skills Regis teaches to change the world for the better. He continued: “Don’t squander the opportunity. Don’t fall short of meeting the obligation.”
I feel so lucky to have been able to swim through Regis, to grow from a young fish into a slightly older, hopefully a bit wiser fish. As we move out into new places, I hope we can continue to stay cognizant of how incredible our opportunities are and strive to meet that obligation. Jaylin’s mother reminded me that the chance to go to college and all the other gifts we’ve received don’t come free. Our job now, as I see it, is just beginning: to leave the comforting hypothetical of our discussions and put our ideas and skills to the service of others, to work towards solving those big issues we love to talk about.
As I ponder upholding that burden, I’m comforted by the fact that we don’t have to meet it alone. For no matter how far we may go from Regis, I know our paths will inevitably cross again. “If you are what you should be,” I recall Fr. Lane explaining in a homily one morning, quoting St. Catherine of Siena, “you will set the whole world ablaze.” That line, as I see it, applies just as much to us in the collective sense as it does in the individual: if we, as a class, are what we should be, then we, together, will set the world ablaze. If ours is really the hero’s part, we’ll run across each other in the paths our lives take. Solving those big problems will demand that we work together, as we have over our four years here; if there’s one thing that I learned from freshman Computer Technology, besides the difference between RAM and ROM, it’s that I’ll need to count on Nathan Duarte again if I ever want to code a functional website. To be daring despite dark skies, ready to give without counting the cost is, after all, a high standard. But over these years, you gentlemen have pushed me to have higher standards for myself, and I look forward to having you continue to do so. To risk again striking fear into the hearts of those who “didn’t read it?”, I return to the poetry anthology to close with TS Elliot: “In my end is my beginning.” This chapter of our lives may now be coming to a close, but with it our larger task commences: now.
Gentlemen, this is water. Your opportunities are great, your potential greater still. As Regis graduates, let’s dream big in being men for others. Let’s attack those seemingly intractable problems with noble hearts and unshakable resolve. As we depart from this place for broader waters, I wish you way more than luck.
Gentlemen, God bless you.