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Leaving Class Ceremony speaks of new “openings” and everyday heroes

Robert Walker delivered the valedictory address at this year’s Leaving Ceremony on Wednesday, May 23. Here’s a complete transcript of his speech. (Scroll to bottom for the video of his speech.) As well, one of the highlights is our resident poet laureate Julian Bauld’s poetry, crafted annually for the boys. Following Walker’s speech is Bauld’s poem “Opening.” Enjoy: 

Robert Walker, Valedictory Address, Class of 2017, Leaving Class Ceremony

Valedictorian Robert Walker refines notion of what it means to "be special."

Valedictorian Robert Walker refines notion of what it means to “be special.”

Friends, faculty, administration, and families. I am honoured and thrilled to stand before you today and represent the Leaving Class of 2017.

Before I begin, I’d like to thank the platform party, which includes Mr. Matt Johnson, Mr. Russell Higgins, Dr. Julia Kinnear, Ms. Chantal Kenny, and Principal Sam McKinney. I’d also like to take a moment to thank both Ms. Kenny and Principal McKinney in particular. Ms. Kenny is retiring from UCC this year, having worked for 30 years as teacher, head of the French department, and head of admissions. Her service to this school has been enormous, and has proven how much she cares about helping students; thank you so much, Ms. Kenny, we wish you the very best going forward. Principal McKinney is finishing his first of what I’m sure will be many successful years at Upper Canada College; he has already contributed a tremendous amount to our UCC community. On behalf of the Class of 2017, thank you.

Well guys, we made it. We’re done. We survived. All the work, all the stress, is over. And like sailors returning from sea, we sit here today. Through maelstroms of tests and Internal Assesments, through the raging tempest of Extended Essay week, and through the final hurricane of IB exams, we have landed safely on the shore, victorious…  and reasonably sane. Congratulations, we made it.

When I polled the Class of 2017 to gather some thoughts on our collective UCC experience, a word used in many responses was “brotherhood.” Although the word “brotherhood” has become so ubiquitous in the UCC vocabulary that it now verges on cliché, it is undeniable that

Brotherhood is a vital feature of this school. I invite you to shift your gaze towards the Leaving Class. Take a moment to notice the feeling of brotherhood and connection in this gymnasium. Look at the boys who played together every recess in the Prep when they were herded outside; look at the boys who acted together in a school play or performed together in a band;  look at the boys who roomed together in boarding or who hid together in a game of manhunt at Norval; look at the boys who attended classes together, who laughed at their feeling of dread when the teacher handed out a test or an assignment. Brotherhood is the bedrock upon which our UCC experience is built. And all our memories from the past three or five or even 13 years manifest themselves in this singular and powerful feeling.

As we reflect on our time at the College, I believe that there are two gifts we can take with us: friends and heroes.

Everyone in this room has friends. Even the most socially-awkward groups of people — of which I am a proud member — have friends. And we have all experienced the process of making a friend, that weird encounter with another person where neither of you really knows anything about the other and yet you gradually form a connection. And unless you made a friend solely to fill your Rolodex, the friends we’ve made at UCC are for all-seasons, people who have your back in the good times and the bad, ensuring that you never walk alone.

Everyone in this room also has heroes. “Hero” is a no-nonsense term that is used cautiously as a label. In the media, it often describes someone who has given their life in an act of valour, or who at least has saved a large group of people from harm. And, quite frankly, the idea of being a “hero” is intimidating. Such acts of selflessness seem so massive and consequential that it feels like only a special few can achieve the “hero” status that on a visceral level we all kind of want. But, I’d like to suggest that heroism is more common than we think, and is a vital component of this institution.

For starters, we, the Class of 2017, have been given two common heroes: teachers and families.

We have had incredible teachers at this school, teachers who genuinely care, teachers who have connected with us, gone the extra mile with us, and whom we look up to with admiration and respect. Imagine UCC without our extraordinary teachers. Imagine the Oval, where last fall our football team won their fourth consecutive CISAA title; imagine the arena, where we cheered on our hockey team at Winterfest; imagine the halls, where our debate and Model UN teams practiced and won international championships; imagine the auditoriums where actors, musicians, artists and cinematographers created art of the highest calibre. All would be empty without teachers, coaching, encouraging, inspiring us inside and out of the classroom. On behalf of the Class of 2017, thank you.

Our families are also heroes. Our families have given us immeasurable love and kindness, supported our time at this school, encouraged our passions. We cannot repay them for their support. We certainly cannot repay them for tuition. Thank you to our families.

One aspect of family support we don’t really talk enough about is helping us through what can be a really tough school. UCC is tough because there is so much talent, so many guys who are great at what they do and I think we’ve all felt discouraged at one point or another. I know that I’ve been in tears with my parents, wondering if I’d ever be special among such a phenomenal group of people; I know others who have felt the same way. Our families have helped us through that.

On the topic of being special, some of you may remember a high school commencement address that went viral a few years ago, where the principal told his students, “You are not special,” a statement that seems to come right from a lecture from Mr. Hutton. In reflecting on this statement, we confront a disconcerting truth. It is true: we are not special. We are not the center of our universe, nor our world, nor our communities. As the Class of 2017, we are just one more group of students who will pass through this institution. In this year alone there are 3,400 other Canadian graduating classes. However, what matters, and what this place has taught us, is that we can be special to each other, that the relationships we form, the bonds we build, the memories we make, are special to each of us. Therefore, the statement, “You are not special” needs revision. Instead it should be, “We are not special, but we can be special to others.”

Heroes are people who are special to others. And we, the Class of 2017, have had the opportunity at UCC to observe heroes and feel the effects of heroism. The students who showed a friend going through a rough time that they had his back and were always willing to talk; that is heroic. The band president who held weekly sectionals to rehearse directly with only a few musicians, helping support their playing; that is heroic. The Heads of Houses and Prefects who reached out to younger students, encouraging them to get involved and push their boundaries; that is heroic. The students who answered panicked questions in the Class of 2017 Facebook group, or who helped explain a problem to a classmate; that is heroic. The difficulty in trying to name such acts of heroism is that they often go unnoticed except by those directly involved. However, from our experience at UCC, I think that we all know the wonderful feeling of being on the receiving end of such acts of heroism.

It’s easy at UCC to get overwhelmed by accomplishment and success, especially among such a remarkable group of people. However, we should always remember the things that define who we are as people. In his biography, Warren Buffett discussed the difference between outer and inner scorecards. Outer scorecards reflect things for which we are externally recognized, like awards, medals and other accolades. Inner scorecards reflect our internal achievements — things that are important to us like friends, values, way of living, virtually anything we do that may not earn us a prize. High school inevitably emphasizes outer scorecards. Just look at our school motto “palmam qui meruit ferat” or “Let he who merits the palm bear it.” What we should remember is that inner scorecards are equally if not more significant as outer scorecards. The unpublicized and unglamorous heroic acts are what define us and make us special and important.

The cumulative effect of small heroic acts in our communities can outmatch the big ones. Let’s get mathematical. If each Leaving Class member performs a small heroic act for 10 people in the next year, then we, as the Class of 2017, will have impacted 1,580 people. Then, if each of those people — inspired by our actions — impacts 10 other people, then we have impacted 15,800 people. Putting this in a way many UCC parents can understand, it’s a generosity pyramid scheme. Small heroes have a big influence.

UCC has given us the tools to be special; that is, to be special to others. So be special. Give to others in tiny meaningful ways. Take what we have learned from observing acts of heroism and go be someone’s hero.

As we walk out of these doors and become Old Boys, let us remember our time here. Let us remember our roots and the gifts we have been given. Let us be grateful. And above all, let us be proud. We made it guys. We made it. This is the end, and yet also maybe, just maybe, the start of something very special. Thank you.

Julian Bauld address to the Leaving Class:

Mr. McKinney, thank you for the opportunity to bring poetry to this occasion. It is an honour.

Gentlemen, you have probably given some thought to your experience at the College these past few days and perhaps thought about walking through these doors, for the first time as an Old Boy, into a new part of your life. My colleague, Blair Sharpe, spoke to you last night about how doors open and close, and how you can’t always tell where life will lead you. It was a comfort to know that we were thinking about you in the same way and with the same metaphor.

“Openings” is the subject of the poem I’ve written for you today. Your life will lead you to many places, some expected, some unknown, and being open to experience will be one of life’s greatest challenges, but also one of its greatest gifts.

Also, there is mention of a character named Odysseus in the poem. Some of you already know him, and if ever in doubt of how to proceed in this life, return to Homer who has already figured it out for all of us.

Opening

There is no opening without faith.
A mother sees it on the face
Of her newborn, soft and warm,
And holds him in her arms,
Each never really changing,
The open world now arranging
Behind them both
what will happen
and what won’t.

Earth’s possessions open too,
The harvest moon, the cardinal’s tune;
Other pieces follow soon,
A tulip’s flare, an empty room
And trembling May to easy June.

Odysseus took his crew to sea
and didn’t know what he would find
but opened sail upon the waves,
Entered dim and stony caves,
to find out what there was beyond
duty and a family bond.
Wayward, lost, but never broken,
He thought of Ithaka and opened
The bright port in his mind,
And saw the low island
that sent him on his way,
where love waited,
where love would stay.

Windows, top buttons, kitchen drawers,
Camera shutters, convenience stores,
Ovens, Oysters,
Drawbridges, cloisters,
A brass band, a father’s hand,
All these mean to open
and trace the pattern
of seed to flower,
of feathers to flight,
of minute to hour,
no opening not a beginning,
no unfolding ever slight.

In our quiet we may hear knocking
on the door that hangs
so heavy on its hinges
deep within
and if we pull the handle,
a breeze will cover us
and the opening will glitter
on our own dark sea,
the waters bottomless, uncharted,
and faithful to the place we started.