Each year, the Wilton High School graduating class selects a member of the WHS faculty and staff community to address the crowd as the featured Graduation Speaker. The Class of 2021 chose English teacher Dr. Kristina Harvey. She was introduced by Student Executive Board Vice President Thomas Petrillo.
I didn’t want to kill the trees, so I wrote the speech on my phone. So, Hey everyone, I hope you guys are as hyped as I am! So I just wanted to say you all made a great, great choice with this teacher. She brings an energy that lights up any room. She’s incredibly smart. And she cares about all of us. She’s an awesome teacher.
Now in forensics this year, Mr. Hunter and his students caught her red-handed in a murder case, but we forgive her for killing Mr. Hoyt because she’s just so likable.
Her epic presence is not limited to the classroom. This queen is a fiery, determined and loving adviser, a great friend, and someone I am so happy to have in my life. She changes lives every day with her wisdom and her warmth. She works tirelessly to make our school the best and most loving place that it can be. And I alone cannot thank her enough for that, but I think that we can. She is an English teacher, she leads the exec board and she is your favorite 5-foot fighting machine. Give it up for Dr. Harvey! [APPLAUSE]
Dr. Kristina Harvey
Well, just for the record, it’s 5-[foot] 2-[inches], just saying. [LAUGHTER]
Thank you, Thomas, that was just an amazing, amazing introduction. And I cannot believe we’re standing here. I just am so filled with love for this class. You guys are just incredible. So, thank you for this moment, to share this last adventure with you.
When I was asked to speak to you, I searched for the right metaphor to frame this class, the right message. The last lesson to teach this class. I eventually realized why I was struggling, I actually realized it this morning, when I was talking to Mrs. Bray. It would be condescending of me to give you platitudes — ‘Embrace the uncertainty, be courageous, et cetera, et cetera.’
What I realized is that this class is really unique. All the lessons I want to teach you, you have already lived. There is no metaphor for the truly original or unique.
We don’t have the adjectives or metaphors yet for this year. You are creating them. So this is essentially a love letter to this class.
As you well know, no other graduating class has experienced quite the challenges that you have. No class has had to grapple with and come to terms with the reality of uncertainty like you have. No class has truly learned to appreciate the ordinary moments like you have.
Parents, families, guests, let me provide you with a window into what this class is made of. Let’s go back for a brief moment, to March of 2020. We were moving with the usual hyper-speed of a high school. Days marked with ringing bells; slamming locker doors; hallway laughter; bellowing announcements; sweet scents from culinary on cookie Fridays; the roar of school bus engines; raucus class discussions; feet pounding up and down the stairs; doors rebounding off the walls; shouts; singing; instruments tuning in the orchestra room; preschoolers clapping on the playground; the voices of hall monitors, custodians, teachers, administrators, guidance, counselors, support staff, students, parents, visitors; laughter in the senior and junior lots; cheers from athletic fields; applause from the theaters; voices calling, “Hurry up, don’t be late,” “Don’t miss your bus,” “Run, don’t be tardy,” “Hurry on to the field, into the classroom, onto the stage.” “I wish I had time to have dinner with my family, I wish I had time to hang out with my friends, I’m going to be up all night doing my homework, I just want a break!”
Well, and then we had March 11.
When the announcement came that the high school would be shut down, I thought I could hear a collective cheer from the students all the way to my house in Westport. I mean, honestly, right? We didn’t know then that a two-week lockdown would continue to the end of the school year through the summer and into this school year.
Suddenly, it was as if we were free-floating in space on the dark side of the moon, cut off from everything familiar. The topography and landscape of our lives changed in an instant. The time landmarks that we took for granted that had provided structure to our days — alarm clocks, school bells — disappeared. Our lives were suddenly blanketed with a muting silence. We were separated, distant, so much silence and uncertainty. And this is not a quiet class. I’m just going to tell the people who are here.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were given a reset button. We were given a chance to reassess what is truly important, who is truly important; to discover the miracle of the ordinary. There was so much we did not know about the virus, about our futures. But in the stillness, in slowing down the busyness of our lives, we learned how to care for each other. We learned that love is stronger than anything else that life throws at us — that love can help us through.
For the first time, all of us, all of us, everyone here, no matter the age, were aware that we were experiencing something together. We were experiencing the uncertainty together and we had to lean on each other from a distance and learn a new way of staying connected; of how to stay still, when all you wanted to do was to run into your future, like you were supposed to.
And through it all, you taught us patience, courage, love. I mean it, I want to look at every single one of you. You were amazing this year.
Okay, well, you practiced a lot of patience this year, especially when we ventured back into the classroom. Think back to September. At first, the classrooms were silent except for the notifications of students in the waiting room of the Zoom class. We had to deal with dropped wifi, frozen screens, that awkward interrupting of voices after uncomfortable pauses, the glitches of Schoology. But we figured it out.
You were endlessly patient with me. These were some of the expressions that I heard very kindly: “Dr. Harvey you’re muted.” “Dr. Harvey, we can’t see you.” “Dr. Harvey did you know, you can use your mouse to move the screen?” Right? [LAUGHS] And this is the one that was my favorite. You always said, “Dr. Harvey, let me help you.” Because, dear God, I needed your help.
We longed for these ordinary, recognizable moments. You wore your masks. You tolerated the sneeze guards, definitely tolerated them, but you longed to sit in the jungle to hang out with your friends.
You had to do one of the hardest acts imaginable for a teenager: to sit still, so that others could be safe. To be patient.
You also taught us what it means to be courageous. In your indefatigable courage to face unimaginable loss, unprecedented challenges, unfathomable uncertainty, you learned at a young age that each moment is precious. It took courage to love in all of the darkness we just went through.
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, says it better than I ever could. In her poem, “One Wild and Precious Life” [“The Summer Day”], she writes:
I don’t know [exactly] what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?
Tell me, what is it that you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
You, Class of 2021, you learned the true meaning of having one wild and precious life. When I was afraid, I looked at you and I took the strength from your courage. Life threw every obstacle at you, and yet the more barriers in place, the harder you worked to connect. You stood up when most people would’ve given up. You reached out, you loved even harder, you taught us what it means to be brave.
And last, but definitely not least, love.
You taught us about love. You are what love looks like. This class, everybody here has heart, and they wear it on their sleeves.
This great world kept spinning, moving us incrementally forward towards a realization that no matter the challenges we face, love is what transcends distance, space, time. It’s what carries the memories of our loved ones into this present moment. It’s what helps us reach across a separation of six feet so that we can hold fast to one another. [Tears up] (I’m not going to cry. I’m just going to have a sip of water for a second. Okay? Regrouping here.)
Love is the foundation of this class and the lesson of this class. Despite the loss, despite the silence, despite the worry and uncertainty, you refuse to be undone.
So before I finish (I’m almost finished. I promise), Class of 2021, I want you to take a moment and look around, look at your teachers who care so much that they lost sleep, worrying about how to make it right for you, how to make it better for you, how to make it good for you, how to be strong for you. Look at the administrators who had to make excruciatingly painful decisions in a world with no playbook. And who reassured us, when I know they too were awake at three in the morning, worrying about you, worrying about all of us. Look at our custodians, who I know are over there, who kept our school running, clean, safe, putting their own lives in the same fate as ours. Look at your parents, your guardians, your family members. They had never experienced this either. They were afraid and worried, but they did everything in their power to get you here today.
And most importantly, look at each other. You will see the greatest lesson of all. Love wins. Let’s hear — okay, this is the last thing I’m ever going to ask you to do, ready? So let’s hear in your voices, the amount of gratitude and love you have for all of those and all of you who have been on this journey together. When I count to three — okay, are you paying attention? Okay. Again, when I count to three, I want you to say, “We love you!” at the top of your lungs, with all of your feelings that you have pent up since March of 2020. Are you ready? What? I’m sorry. Okay. One, two, three…
[CROWD SHOUTS: “WE LOVE YOU!”]
That is what love looks like and sounds like, right? [APPLAUSE] They deserve that, this most awesome class.
So what have you taught us? How to forgive ourselves. To be patient through a time in which history was unrolling under our feet, when everything was so new, we did not have perspective yet. You taught us how to treasure the ordinary — what is here, right now, this moment. You taught us that the one certainty in this world is the courage in your hearts, to love steadily and with compassion.
So, it is time to unmute your voices and step into the certainty that no matter what life throws in your path, you will persevere with patience, courage, and love. This world is a better place with all of you in it. Go out and shine. Let your voices ring. Life is good. Go live it. Class of 2021, it has been a privilege to share this precious life with you. Congratulations, I love you so much. [APPLAUSE]