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Baccalaureate: Words of Wisdom from a McDonogh Icon

Laddie Levy ‘63, who is retiring on July 1 after 47 years of service to McDonogh School, offered wisdom and parting advice to graduating seniors during his Baccalaureate address on June 9. Citing the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Shakespeare, he encouraged the students to embrace challenges and transform them into unexpected opportunities. In closing, he referred to Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” saying, “Follow knowledge like a sinking star, as you strive, and seek, and find - and never yield.“

Levy’s full remarks can be read below:

Welcome to everyone, but especially the families and members of the class of 2017.

I will try not to speak too long. I know many of you, in the front rows particularly, would probably prefer a simple Text or Tweet or Snapchat; well, maybe not a Tweet.

And I know that it is said that while many of us remember being at graduation, few remember anything said there. And I suppose that means for Baccalaureate even fewer will even remember there was one.

But I do think there is some small chance that at least some small corner of this audience will remember at least some small part of what I have to say because, as members of my senior speech class, they’re on the lookout for slip-ups.

I’m also sure they are already enjoying a jolly sense of payback as they, what, grade my work today. Their final assignment this spring, their final challenge, was for each of them to write and deliver their own graduation senior speech.

Well, now I’m giving my senior speech.

And this is a very odd perspective for me indeed because for each and every one of the last forty-six years I have been, at this event, an usher. An usher.

Of course, what I told my seniors was that I was giving them a wonderful opportunity, this singular opportunity for them to reflect upon their experiences at McDonogh. Well, at least at first, most just saw it as a challenge, perhaps even an onerous challenge, one they are now laughing I have been given myself.

So, thank you, Charlie, for this singular opportunity.

And I do see it as an opportunity. In the same way as a few of my students finally did, eventually thanking me for the opportunity to gather their thoughts, to reflect on them, and to share their reflections.

And I think I’d like that to be my theme here today, to implore the class of 2017 to accept – no – to embrace your sometimes onerous challenges and transform them into unexpected opportunities.

For me, just like you, McDonogh has presented one “opportunity” after another.

I returned to McDonogh to teach in 1970 to an immediate “opportunity.” The only position available here to an English teacher was to direct the Drama program. Well, I had been in a play – A play. One play. And that was in second grade.

I don’t know how well I did directing the Drama program at McDonogh, and luckily there’s not one person left here to confirm or deny what I might claim I did (AND I WAS GREAT), but I do know that what started as a daunting challenge ended up being an opportunity, an opportunity for me to gain knowledge and experience of a sort that has ever since informed my teaching of plays and, especially of course, Shakespeare.

Without that challenge, I would not have had that opportunity.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” always comes to mind for me at graduation. One reason is Jonathon Jackson’s memorable recitation of it at his McDonogh graduation in 1989. The other reason is Ulysses’s own words, words that speak to me of challenge and opportunity.

In Tennyson’s take on the Ulysses saga, he envisions Ulysses returning home after decades of war and tortuous travel. But immediately after his arrival he determines to leave again; he desperately seeks, and needs, new challenges, new opportunities.

Ulysses’s ending is but a new beginning. For him, graduation is commencement.

Ulysses says, “I cannot rest from travel.”

He speaks of his “desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

He says to his mariners: “You and I are old” but that, despite everything they have been through, they are still “strong in will / To” – and he says this in the most compelling, most regular line of iambic pentameter in the poem – “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

These are things I would like of the class of 2017 as you face your challenges, transform them into opportunities, and embark on your next journey: to follow knowledge like a sinking star; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So . . . what challenges have this class already turned into opportunities – and successes?

  • National championships – in lacrosse and squash and debate
  • National competitors – in track and soccer and wrestling
  • in riding – and rugby and riflery and robotics and rock climbing
  • League championships – in lots of sports, sometimes playing on two teams in one season
  • Local championships – in a film festival, in a cardboard boat race, in intramural tennis
  • You’ve built – surfboards, an escape room, a Rave, a TSA checkpoint, Slimeyard Slimes
  • A terrific Senior Art Thesis, Senior Follies, April Fools
  • You’ve made music – everywhere: from the Horn Theatre to the Brass Eagle, from the Stewart Recital and Drowsy Chaperone to Founder’s Day and Valentine’s Day
  • Written and published a new literary magazine, a newspaper, a yearbook, a comic book
  • Studied and traveled – in India, England, Switzerland, Spain, and the Island School.
  • Outside of school – worked as a DJ, a model, a professional juggler, a life-saving lifeguard, a videographer of skateboarders, a volunteer firefighter, an EMT
  • You did some weird stuff: filmed from drones, sang opera (and Lady Gaga?), been hypnotized, made beef jerky, solved the Rubik’s cube with your feet, had a Skip Day
  • You’ve had the first service dog and are the last, or at least last for a while, members of a number of families with rich histories of past McDonogh alumni, some stretching back three generations

As you heard in the second reading, from Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
. . . And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

Many of you members of the Class of 2017 have already taken the tide at the flood; for you, continue to do so. For those of you who haven’t yet, learn to read the tides, learn to recognize your opportunities.

I wish the Class of 2017 all the best on all your future journeys.

Continue to embrace your challenges – you are sure to have plenty of them, and many will be onerous.

Transform them into opportunities – many of them will surprise and amaze you, and will shape you into the person you become.

Follow knowledge like a sinking star, as you strive, and seek, and find - and never yield.