Head of School Peter Nilsson
Class of 2020, students, faculty, and staff,
Parents, aunts, uncles, and friends,
From Irbid to Aqaba, California to Shanghai.
We are glad to have you here, though this place where we are is a virtual location and not a physical location.
And it is good to see you gathered together, though what I may see is a tally on a live streaming dashboard, not faces in a crowd.
And, it is wonderful to speak with you today, though my speaking is digitally transmitted, not my actual voice, but a projection of where I am to where you are.
While this is not the form that Commencement has taken in the past, it is a form that is nonetheless an extraordinary experience. And I’d like to break down, for a moment, what this event is, and what the spring term has been, and then share a little more about surviving and thriving in these unusual times.
When schools closed around the world, school leaders knew that recreating physical classes online would be a mistake. Taking class at home through a screen is an entirely different experience than taking class in person at school. But every door closed is another door opened. The format of class shifted, and so the way that our teachers taught shifted. The work of being a student also shifted.
Classes became longer, but less frequent. Student work became more independent. The amount of material that teachers could introduce decreased, but the ways in which that material could be engaged diversified and grew more reflective as it stretched over time.
Delivering an excellent experience — one that stands out — means recognizing the relationship between the form of an experience and its content. How school happens — the content of school — must evolve to embrace the new format of school.
And so it is for a commencement ceremony.
When we are forced to change the experience of Commencement, if we simply try to recreate on a screen what existed in person, then we do both the in-person experience of Commencement and the format of a screen injustice, for neither was designed for the other.
But, if we understand the heart of the experience, and if we understand the opportunities of the new format, then we can create something novel, unique, and excellent.
What is it about Commencement that we cherish?
Being together with our families and friends
The feeling of closure and transition
The signifier of the cap and gown
The opportunity to celebrate and say goodbye
And when we are forced to have a commencement socially distanced, and therefore mediated through screens instead of together and in person — while we lose something, what do we gain?
A wider range of locations
The addition of music throughout
The opportunity to visually compose and edit the experience
The participation of people who might not otherwise be able to participate
The ability to introduce a wider stylistic landscape
If we were to host a virtual Commencement solely at a podium with a banner behind us, it would seek to stuff the majesty of the moment, of the Commencement Lawn, into a two-dimensional screen. But if we take advantage of the medium that we are in, then, while we lose some of the majesty of the setting, we gain some of the possibilities of the new medium.
We cannot and should not recreate the past when the world is shifting around us. But we should recognize what the past stands for and what its values teach us — togetherness with family, closure and transition — and we should let those be our guides while we combine them with something new.
It is now broadly understood that this class, the class of 2020, is going to be a class of innovators, of resilient, creative leaders, because if you can get through this, you can get through anything. Because out of the losses of what you had come to expect, you have created something new, and sought and found unity and expression.
What has this looked like? A docu-series later, a virtual prom, an online arts showcase, and a dozen other initiatives that built a sense of unity, you have begun finding, already, what it means to create in a new format.
But I’d like to take this moment, and this belief that you are and will be more creative and resilient — I’d like to take this a step further, and deconstruct why and how we can all continue to do this in our lives, and can continue to reshape the future in new ways.
If, as leadership theorists have projected for decades now, the world truly is going to be more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — and this current pandemic is evidence that it may be — then we need a leadership approach — like what we are seeing now — that acknowledges and adapts to this.
Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes one such approach using the language of what he calls anti-fragility, being anti fragile.
Something that is fragile, when acted upon by stress, breaks down. Something that is robust, when acted upon by stress, holds its shape and form. Something that is antifragile, when acted upon by stress, grows stronger.
A candle, for example, when you blow on it, goes out. It is fragile. But a fire, when you blow on it, grows stronger. It is antifragile. How is it, in times like this that we can be less like a candle and more like a fire?
Deconstructing the image helps make it clear.
Our breath cools a flame, which is why a candle blows out. But our breath is also full of oxygen, so, while blowing on a fire cools the flame closest to us, the oxygen feeds the rest of the fire, which grows hotter like a furnace, and then returns its heat to the part that was cooled, strengthening it further.
A fire is antifragile because it is connected in a system. It shares its resources. And, a fire takes advantage of the fact that our cool, blowing breath stresses the fire in some ways, but feeds it in others. Its interconnections make it stronger.
How can we be like this fire? How are we like this fire?
To say this global pandemic is putting stress on us is putting it lightly. But like the fire, we are more connected than ever before, and if we are pushed into our connected digital medium, then let us harness that, and this is how we can continue to be resilient, to be antifragile.
We are doing this right now. You did this, in creating a docu-series while physically distanced, and a prom, and participating in a symposium that brought experts from around the world.
And this is not only how we as a school, but also how you as students, can be made stronger not only now, but in the future. You are connected, connected richly across social networks, across time zones, across your shared identity as the class of 2020 from King’s Academy. This unites you, connects you, and gives you strength.
And if you recognize the opportunity in the challenges around you, then, in this more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, you will grow stronger.
So yes, you are the class that has faced a challenge and novelty unlike any one before, and it has come with loss, and that loss has been worth mourning, but you are already emerging from it stronger, and the opportunity to grow stronger yet depends on your adaptability, your antifragility:
- Stay connected, to each other and to us.
- Embrace this rapidly changing world, even while you hold fast to your values
- Seek out the opportunities of the changing formats of our lives
These may be your guides to growing resilient. These, you have already shown. May you continue to do so in your lives to come, for you may have the most significant opportunity to explore and understand what an integrated life means, and what global citizenship means, than any class before you.
And let this event, this celebration of connectedness built around your Commencement, your new beginning, let this event be the first step in embracing the understanding that in a new medium, comes a new opportunity.
Congratulations on your Commencement.
Mabrook, Class of 2020.