The following entry is the Baccalaureate Sermon given on May 28, 2016 in St. Andrew’s Chapel by Headmaster Byron Hulsey to the graduating Woodberry Class of 2016 and their families.
Your graduation day from Woodberry Forest. 126 classes have gone before you, but this is your day and your moment. May 28, 2016: you have planned for this, hungered for this, perhaps dreaded this or been excited for this. If you are at all like me, you find time to be one of the strangest, most befuddling forces in all of life. We can’t see it, but we sure do feel it. It goes too slow, and then it pours out way too quickly. I understand that Thompson Brock has had an app on his phone since his third form year that counted down the days to graduation. The only thing that surprises me about that is that it wasn’t Teddy Garner! Time creeps by, and then rushes forward way too fast. Most of us would like for this morning, these last few hours, to last a little longer, but time won’t stand still. For those of us on the faculty and for me as headmaster, today is bittersweet. I’ll miss your class, and I will miss each of you, even those chance encounters with the likes of Bo Sheridan on the steps on Anderson Hall. But if we get consumed with spending too much time reflecting on what was or was not, the good times and the challenging times, investing too much time worrying about what might happen or too much time hoping for what will never be, we will run the risk of missing the precious moments that make up our lives.
Even if we miss too many moments, the good news this morning is that Woodberry Forest is and will always be a constant force in our lives, one that has long stood the test of time, and will continue to remain a rock of continuity in a changing world that can leave us feeling bewildered and bemused. Here you learned the rigor and the discipline necessary to reach for a life of consequence and meaning. Here you developed friendships that will last you a lifetime, and here you established relationships with teachers and coaches that might well be the foundation for your future dreams and aspirations. And most importantly, here you grew in stature and character, more and more sure that a life of integrity and character, honor and purpose, will stand the test of time and set you apart from those without principles and beliefs.
I graduated from college long, long ago in 1990 and in that year Tim O’Brien published a novel based on his own experiences that he entitled The Things They Carried. It’s a book that may be familiar to you, and details the kaleidoscopic, nightmarish experiences of fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. O’Brien emphasizes the wide variety of provisions, supplies, and pieces of equipment that an infantryman carried while humping it in Southeast Asia: canteens, can openers, pocket knives, dog tags, mosquito repellent, cigarettes, packets of Kool-Aid, C-rations, toothbrushes, comic books, love letters from sweethearts at home, M-60s and M-16s, slingshots and brass knuckles, safety pins, razor blades, fingernail clippers and ponchos. One of O’Brien’s characters carried his girlfriend’s panty hose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. Other men carried bibles and diaries.
I’ve been thinking of all you’ve carried in your years at the school: laundry that you learned how to do on your own and hauled from Community Street to C-Dorm, backpacks, blue blazers, calculators, pens, pencils, scooters, hats, books, milkshakes from the Fir Tree, Beats and endless bags of Oreos if you’re Michael Davenport, laptops and, at least in the last two years, phones that beep and buzz, a strap from the Dick Gym, and, at least until this year, a tray in the Reynolds Family Dining Room, some of you carried demerits rather routinely, even the “Dirty Thirty,” others of you carried Arthur before bestowing him upon a group of fifth formers earlier this week. You’ve carried your fair share here, just as the legions of alumni who’ve gone before.
O’Brien’s image of the things they carried is far more than the merely physical. For him and for the men in Vietnam the things they carried are freighted with the emotional heaviness of vicious combat in a world far, far from home. They carried guilt and shame, love and redemption, fear and loathing, hope and despair. Above all they carried memories, and so it is for you, too. Here at Woodberry you’ve sacrificed much to be here. Through the rigor that is and always has been the Woodberry way, you’ve developed grit and persistence, patience and follow-through, care and commitment, honor and integrity, character and an enduring self-confidence buttressed by the knowledge that you have made it. Along the way, of course, each of you and the class as a whole, has endured loss and disappointment. You’ve seen friends come and go. You’ve struggled to understand how and why, you’ve had your doubts about this place and about yourselves. But time and time again, whenever there was a chance for this class to fray and splinter, you instead made the call to grow stronger, both individually and collectively, and for that indomitable spirit, I salute each of you, and I salute the class of 2016.
People and place shape us and generate the memories that bind us all together, but we are ultimately formed for the good we’re called to advance after we leave. I want to call on you to remain humble and hungry always, and I challenge you this morning to avoid a mistake that I’ve seen plague too many Woodberry alumni. It’s true that here we are one and in our Woodberry family we know what this place means and what it does to make boys into men and make good men even better. But don’t expect the rest of the world to care that you went to Woodberry Forest. I’ve seen too many alumni expect too much in life just because they graduated from Woodberry. I went to college with guys who occasionally acted as if they expected the Woodberry aura to matter to those on the outside far more than it does. Please, gentlemen, don’t make that same mistake. Know deep in your gut that the truths of this place will hold you in good stead for the rest of your lives, but, at the same time, avoid the temptation to project yourselves with hubris or arrogance on men and women who in the end just don’t care that much that you went to Woodberry. Instead, wear your experience here lightly on the outside. Be curious, inquisitive, tender-hearted, and open-minded on the path that lies ahead. Have confidence in your ability to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you’re settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential. Remember the counsel of Warren Buffett, who advises us all to “hang out with people who are better than you, and you cannot help but improve.” Stay rooted to the story of Jesus after the Transfiguration: be not afraid, and come down quietly from the mountain-top that has been this extraordinary experience without lording it in any way over those who just don’t know and just don’t care.
While I hope that you’ll wear your journey here lightly on the outside, I trust that you’ll allow the Woodberry experience to burrow deep inside you for the rest of your lives. On numerous occasions this spring I’ve been reminded that the place means so very much to so many Tiger faithful. At reunion weekend I met and visited with misty-eyed men who spoke emotionally about who they’d become here, what they learned here, how they suffered here, and how they came, far from the comfort of their homes, to embrace the responsibility and the opportunity to reach for a great life full of meaning and fulfillment. Just a couple of weeks ago at a Woodberry reception in Richmond, two non-alumni parents whose son graduated over ten years ago told me how hard it was for them to turn left out of the entrance and bid farewell to the campus one final time after commencement. And just two nights ago, as I wandered the campus and the senior dorms, I came upon groups of you just hanging out, soaking up the few remaining hours you have together. I came upon a fantastic, late-night game of poker in Griffin House, and the ease, comfort, and sheer bliss in the room captured for me the essence of brotherhood that is at the core of who we are.
Not long ago I was visiting with a headmaster friend of mine from a Catholic boys’ school outside of Boston. He mentioned that one of his early board chairs believed that there is a dynamic and interactive relationship between the ethical, social, and spiritual values of justice, mercy, and grace. Justice, he said, is when we get what we deserve. Mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve. And grace is when we get what we don’t deserve. There is no disputing the fact that justice and the clear line and acting on high standards matter here at Woodberry. And while that justice may be plain and may be clear, it hurts us and rattles us and jars us; at the end of the day, however, our commitment to moral integrity and high standards generates the brotherhood, and it’s not the brotherhood that produces the high standards and devotion to moral integrity that constitute the Woodberry way.
Mercy is another matter entirely. While it may not be etched into the Blue Book or the enrollment contract, and while it may vary situation to situation and person to person, we know that it exists, and I daresay every alumnus alive today would be able to tell you about a time that he was the beneficiary of mercy, a time that he did not get what he deserved.
For me it is grace that is the synthesis between the two. I like the interpretation of grace as being when we get what we don’t deserve, and for me this is wrapped up in the parable of the prodigal son that Caleb read this morning. Justice and mercy are woven into the daily culture of life at Woodberry, but on the cusp of your graduation, it is grace that I hope embodies this place for you in the years that lie ahead.
Part of us will always be the prodigal son, the one who leaves home with ambitious dreams about hitting the big one and making it on our own. At various times in your life you will likely find yourselves on the greasy pole, searching for a toe-hold and yearning for material success. And no matter how successful you may become, or how frustrated or disappointed, I hope and I pray that for you, just as it has been for me, Woodberry is a place of undeserved grace which calls us home and reminds us that we are known, challenged, and loved, that here we are one and here we are welcome and here we are the beneficiaries of an abiding grace that we did not deserve, but instead exists as a gift from God and the faculty and alumni who have shaped this place for 127 years. Amen.