On Thursday, May 25, seniors, their parents, and the rest of the Burroughs community gathered in Haertter Hall for the annual Senior Assembly. Speakers included senior class president Patrick Whiteford '23 and senior class sponsor John Pierson (Theatre, Speech & Dance). Mr. Abbott closed the assembly by sharing fond memories of the Class of 2023, both his own and those of other faculty members.
After assembly, seniors and their parents gathered for a short reception hosted by the Alumni Association.
Patrick's and Mr. Pierson's remarks are below.
Patrick Whiteford's Remarks
Hey everybody! It's good to be back here one last time. My first time sitting in those assembly seats was actually 6th grade, at the John Burroughs School Class of 2023 orientation. I remember Mr. Abbott giving us an exciting speech about the incredible experiences that lay ahead and then, issuing a challenge. He told us to exit the auditorium and go speak to five future classmates before leaving. I spoke to one. I stood there awkwardly in the lobby, desperately wishing I could overcome my fears and spark a conversation, but I wasn't ready. The only reason I spoke to anyone is because Mason Minkin walked up to me, extended his hand, and introduced himself with a fake name. And y'know, maybe that's when I decided this was the place for me. But still, that was my first failure at Burroughs, and certainly not my last, as anyone who was around for the month that I played C reserve squash in junior year can attest. And now, I'm here. We're all here. And I have the pleasure and privilege of speaking not to one but all of you.
When I was younger, I was terrified of this moment. Not just because we were closing a chapter of our life, leaving this place behind, but because I was scared of losing all of you: all the people in our class that I liked even more than I was willing to admit. It felt like we'd graduate, drift apart, and you'd all exit my life, for good. Now, standing before you five years later, about a foot taller and somehow basically the same weight, I'm not scared in the slightest. Because, I refuse. I'm not gonna lose you. I know. I feel it in my bones. We've made friendships that will last a lifetime. You have no idea how much you all inspire me, how much I admire your passion, your bravery, your creativity, your athleticism, your intelligence, your humor, your kindness. I've seen you grow, I've seen you succeed, and yes, I've seen you fail, but I've also seen you pick each other up and come back with more determination than ever. You make me laugh every day, you help me feel better about myself, to strive to be better, and you make it easier for me to wake up every morning. I have so much hope and faith in our futures, in the achievements that lie ahead, in the good I know you all have the capability to bring to the world. All this to say, I have found my people, in a way that is more profoundly fulfilling than I could ever have imagined when I first laid eyes on this class, and it brings me so much joy to see the people you've become and the people you've found.
And that doesn't end today. Now I'm not encouraging you to live in the past. Moving on is a very good thing to do. And we are saying goodbye to this place, to the classes and commons that we grew up in, to outdoor lunches, and spirit week, and JBS dash, and that puddle that always forms in between the Main and STAR buildings, but we are intertwined. Think back to your 7th or 9th grade self. No one you meet from here on out will ever truly know the person you were. But we do. We were there for all the phases, for all the crushes, for all the fascinating hair choices, and yes, you were there for mine. We saw each other develop from childhood to adulthood, and more than that, we caused that development. The fact that I can deliver this speech without fainting and peeing my pants is a gift that you have given me, a gift that you gave just by talking to me, by supporting my earliest shenanigans, by showing me that I don't need to compromise who I am with you. Think about that. Think about the fundamental ability to communicate, the ability to like the person you are. That's the kind of impact we've had on each other. And we're certainly not perfect. We've hurt each other. Sometimes it's hilarious, like when I quit the wrestling PE unit because I was too scared of hurting my head only to get a concussion playing basketball because I couldn't handle a gentle push from Akil Dickerson, and sometimes it just hurts. But it's a nice thought that all the kindness we've shown, every effort to include, to listen, to understand, none of it went to waste; all of it is engraved into the people we've become today, and those etchings will last forever.
I read my 7th grade Drey Land letter recently, and it was like 80% about how I didn't really have friends. I was kinda alone. But now, I just — I know that as long as you guys are out there, I'll never be alone. We are intertwined. And as long as I breathe, as long as any of us breathe, no matter how alone you feel, none of you will ever truly be alone. I think all of us have had our fair share of truly tough times this year—there has been a lot going on—but I can genuinely say that no matter how bad it was, I always knew I had people who were there for me. And I cannot begin to express how comforting that feeling is. Knowing that there are people out there that really genuinely care about you, as people do for every single one of you. That is precisely when a group of people becomes a community, and all the communities I've been a part of, from that 7th grade Latin cult to the Forest Park Defenders, have helped me realize how not alone I am.
And so, my advice to all of you is to hold onto that. Don't let anyone here be a regret, a friendship you always wish you made or kept, but that was lost to time. Life is too short to leave meaningful words unsaid. A while ago, I was lying in bed at 1:30 am and thought, "Hey, Sam is awesome. I should text Sam and tell him he's awesome." And then, I did it. And yeah, that's weird. That's a very weird thing to do. But saying that kind of stuff, it's also … beautiful and kind. And a life lived for beauty and kindness and weirdness is a life very well lived. So I would like to thank Kate and Kendall for being terrific chiefs of staff and Nyla for covering for me through my congressional absences. To thank Sylvia for always bringing a quiet joke to Latin class and Maddy for responding with loud, joyous laughter. To thank Esther for keeping the energy up during those long, exhausting musical practices, and Maisie for reigning us in when there was a bit too much energy in the dance studio. And there are so many more of you that I need to personally appreciate and so many ways that I hope we can all let people know what they mean to us. Who cares if you're not super close? That is the kind of honesty that brings good into the world and brings people closer together. And you never know. I went to school with Varun for four years before I discovered he was a pyromaniac, absolutely cracked at Fortnite, and genuinely one of the funniest people I've ever met.
This year, I've really tried a true form of absolute honesty and openness, tried to ignore the social expectations that drive us apart, and it's helped me develop new and deeper friendships than I've ever had in my entire life. I hope that is something that we can all take with us after this place is long gone. That when we're struck with a memory of the shocking betrayal of a senior Assassin kill, or reminded of late-night dinners as you walk by Canes, or you just feel an aching because you haven't talked to someone in too long, you share it. You share the joy, the nostalgia, the grief. We are intertwined, and I think that's something worth keeping as we branch out even further. So please, text, call, swipe up on a story, dm me on Twitter, send me a letter via carrier pigeon, pay a troll to toss me some riddles, kidnap my daughter, and force me to go on an action hero revenge spree. It doesn't matter how you stay connected. I just—I've realized as I've gotten older that other people, no matter how flawed they are, have been and will always be the best part of my life. So, take care of yourselves.
To the younger classes, you will get exactly where you need to be, just like all of us. Enjoy each other along the way. To all my teachers: my mom was a teacher. I've seen what she's sacrificed. I know what all of you sacrifice every single day. And I know why you do it. So please believe me when I say that there are genuinely no words to express how profoundly grateful I am to all of you. And to the Class of 2023: I've talked a lot about the past and the future today, so I would like to end on the present. Right now, let's take a moment and just breathe it in. All of us, together, enjoying these last fleeting seconds of high school before it's gone forever. And there it goes. There it goes. You all look so cool right now. Real hip to the jive. I'm proud of us. Thank you for giving me the chance to know you and for giving me the chance to care. I love you.
John Pierson's Remarks
Good morning to you all, but especially to you, the John Burroughs class of 2023. I am honored by the opportunity to speak to you today.
I know it was only a slim majority of you who wanted me to do this. In my role as class sponsor, I was there, of course, to see the votes being counted, so unlike the others who come to this lectern on this day, I get to know exactly what my approval rating is. It’s solid. Not fantastic. Better than either of our last two presidents. But when you get a win in life, it’s best not to overthink it. Take it. Move on.
But, while I am grateful for the honor. This is also a daunting proposition. Standing before you, I am keenly aware — as I have been every day that I have sat beside you in class — that most of you are much, much smarter than I am.
All I’ve ever really had to offer any of you has been experience. I’ve read the book once or twice before you have. I’ve done a few more things. I’ve just lived a little longer. All I’ve ever had on any of you was age.
And, in truth, I have lately begun to feel that age pretty profoundly.
Now, I’m not old. But for the purposes of this speech, I’m considering myself old enough to hang my hat on the whole “wisdom of your elders” thing. I know that by even alluding to the idea, I’m prompting Mr. Nicholas to give me that look. There it is. The silent judgment that older guys give to younger guys who are talking about how old and wise they are. It says, “Son, you have no idea…”
So, I’m not old-old. But as Mr. Abbott mentioned, this is my third time speaking to a graduating class. That means, by any calculation, I’m plenty old. It should also mean that I’m getting better at this, but it actually, it’s more challenging than ever. Because, as more than one of my incredibly supportive colleagues asked me when they heard I would be speaking today: “So, do you have, like, any material left?”
Well, maybe the third time really is the charm.
(Anyway, that’s what I typed into Chat GPT. Let’s see how it turned out.)
The thing is, I like three. It is a magic number. Three items arranged on a shelf creates an image that is visually pleasing. It’s the magic of a center and two edges, a balance that relaxes us without us even knowing why. Any of you who has ever acted for me or written in my Playwriting class has likely heard me speak to the magic of carefully constructed repetition, how lines that contain lists of ideas, each of which is related to that which came before or after and each of which builds on the other, and how when those lists come in threes, there is a cadence, a rhythm of speech that magically fits the mouths of actors and worms it way into the ears of an audience. And all of you who have sat in one of my English classes know well that I believe a good essay is as simple as making the three parts. Once you figure out how to create your beginning, your middle, and your end, you’ve got it.
I believe in the three-act structure. It’s not just for the obvious: the structuring of plays and movies and episodes of a series. It’s also there in a novel, or a good joke, or the well-told story of the funny thing that happened to you the other day. There are three acts to a party you attend, three acts to the life you live, and if you’re really paying attention, if you’re really truly present and invested, you’ll see that there are really three miniature acts to each and every magical moment.
And there are three acts to a career.
This is my third act.
It’s just starting. And I hope it’s a long one. But it is the third.
The structure is there. Act One was ending the first time I spoke at a senior assembly. And then, I felt the obligation to entertain the class of 2001. In 2007, however, I was solidly in the middle of Act Two, so that time, I felt obliged and more slightly qualified to advise the seniors. Now that Act Three is here, I’m really feeling no obligations at all. It’s one of the great benefits of making it to the third act. You can really just start saying exactly what you think.
And this is when Mr. Abbott starts feeling anxious. Uh oh, he really doesn’t have any material left, and he just said he’s going to start saying what he actually thinks. Oh, god, no.
Okay, sure: it could go off the rails pretty quickly.
But think about this, Mr. Abbott: Anxiety and excitement are very close cousins. It might seem like you’re worried about what’s coming, but it could just be that you’re really looking forward to it.
It will likely make you feel better to know that I do feel a sense of obligation. In fact, the class of 2023 is quite special to me. It feels, for lack of a better way of saying it, structurally appropriate for me to speak to you today. For, that’s right, three reasons:
First off: When I came to Burroughs, I intended on staying for three years. 2023 marks the end of my third decade here.
Secondly: Sitting on this stage, about to graduate, is the first student I have taught who is the child of a former student.
And finally: The spring of 2001, the first time seniors asked me to speak, was the close of the first year I ever taught English to seniors. 2023 — you are the last Burroughs class that will have had me for an English teacher.
So you are special to me. You are marking the start of the third act of my Burroughs career. And now, with elementary school and Burroughs behind you, you are allowing me to help send you off to college to begin Act Three of your formal education. And I am so glad to have the opportunity, because you are a graduating class to whom I owe an apology, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, and of whom I need to ask an enormous favor.
And I will try to roll all three things into one with a pretty straightforward story.
I wasn’t sure I should share this story. For starters, I am – perhaps to the surprise of many of you – an intensely private person. Though it might not seem like it, I am extraordinarily careful about what I share with others. Also, this is an anecdote that has the potential to seem like an incredible bummer, or even worse, for someone who has spent decades as a performer, it could seem just plain hacky, the worst sin in show business. But over the course of the last month, I reached out to several of you now sitting on this stage about whether or not I should tell this story. And I hope you all understand that my asking your advice is, perhaps, the most sincere compliment I could give you. And the thoughtfulness with which you responded to me is, I hope you also know, a pretty incredible gift. Several of you said to me something along the lines of “I think you could probably pull it off.” Which is, admittedly, a little tepid as far as support goes, but like I said before, a win is a win — just take it and move on. But one of you, in particular, sought me out later, after what I understood to be some private time to think about it, and you said to me, “I really think you ought to share this. Because many of us have already had tough moments like this in our lives. And all of us will eventually. And it would be really helpful to be reminded that we’re not alone. To see that others have had to get back up shows us that we can do it, too.” I’m not sure I could say it any better. And when a student asks a teacher to do that, to offer a model of what they should strive to do themselves. Well, that’s just asking a teacher to teach. I can’t not do that.
So, I’ll tell you, pretty simply, that a year ago, with never a bad physical and with no warning signs, I had a heart attack. It’s probably more accurate to say I had a couple of them. My parents gave me so many gifts. From them, I received love; they gave me food, shelter, and college. They passed on to me a strong work ethic and a clear moral compass. Unfortunately, as part of what Jon Krakauer in Into The Wild calls “the inescapable prison of your genes,” I also inherited arteries that clog worse than a Drey Land toilet. It seems that I’d been hiking and biking and going about my lifelong penchant for manual labor with one particular artery, which I’ve since learned is called, much to my wife’s great joy, “the widow maker” that was 98% blocked. Though well trained in wilderness first aid, I don’t have advanced knowledge of coronary medicine, but I was still able to understand that 2% blood flow is somewhat less than ideal.
To cut to the chase and to pull the nose up on what could be a mood on too rapid a downward flight path, I’m fine. A simple procedure, some medicine, and saying farewell to bacon, and I’m as good as new. But a year ago, I wasn’t so sure. When what was likely the first attack hit me, I was actually on the job, hiking in the backcountry of Leo Drey’s Pioneer Forest. I was setting out the flags for the class of 2026’s Trek day. (You’re welcome.) And as I sat there by the banks of Big Creek, not knowing exactly what was wrong with me but also very certain that for one of the first times in my life, my body seemed to be failing me, I had some thoughts, which will give you some likely unsurprising insight into how my mind works. I simultaneously thought: This might be it. The prospect that this might be it is extraordinarily irritating. And, if this is it, I bet they’ll name something after me. Probably just a bench in the quad or something, but remember: a win is a win, right?
That day would have been, to any sensible person, a, you know, warning. But like so many American men of a certain age, I did what had always worked perfectly well in the past. I simply ignored what my body was telling me (I didn’t have time for this, anyways) and relied on sheer force of will to make my body do what I wanted it to. Denial is a proud Pierson family tradition: we brought it over from the old country, and it’s right there in our family coat of arms. I know that many of you have tried denial for yourself. But please let my age and my experience count for something: it doesn’t work. At a certain point, when “management” just won’t listen, the “workers” will go out on strike. About a week and a half later, almost exactly a year ago, I went down hard, and it was off to the hospital for a little tune-up.
This truly brought the curtain down on Act Two. And the transition turned out to be pretty rough. As I said, the physical tune-up worked great. My literal heart was put back in great shape, and I almost immediately felt better than ever. But for the figurative heart, the place where the soul is, things were quite a bit more difficult. Reckoning with mortality — wrapping my mind around no longer being the man I once was – coming to grips with the fact that I now apparently think it’s okay to say out loud in large, public settings phrases like “the man I once was” ... This non-physical part of the recovery is still very much a work in progress.
And this leads to my apology. Seniors: you got some pretty bad teaching from me this year, and for that, I’m sorry. Too much of my bandwidth on too many days was taken up with coming to grips with this whole new third-act thing. And your patience with me is what leads to my statement of gratitude. You didn’t know it at the time, but every day you were helping me get back the upper hand in this boxing match with myself. And for that, I thank you.
I don’t know if I entirely agree with the old saying that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But I am now a firm believer that what doesn’t kill you always gives you a pretty good story to tell. And it gives you a perspective that you just can’t get any other way.
For the past year, I’ve been asking myself one big question: If last spring had been my last spring, what would I have left behind? What exactly have I done for the world with my first two acts? Did I accomplish any of the things I was so certain I would when I was 18 years old? The answer that came to me on far too many days and nights was: no.
But today, I have a different answer. I have accomplished something.
I never really intended on being a teacher. But it turns out that’s what I am. And here’s where we get to the favor I have to ask. And, truth be told, I was soft-selling it before. It’s not really a favor. More accurately, it’s a demand. What a teacher has to show for their life’s work is only as good as what their students will go on to accomplish. So: Tag, you’re it.
And for those of you who have been thinking, my god, he’s just talking about himself — when is he going to start talking about us? Well, this is the moment. And it’s not as fun as you thought it was going to be. Because now it’s just, like, a lot of pressure.
Yes. Yes, it is. You have to go do something.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but there are a lot of things in the world that aren’t quite working right now. And, well, you need to now go out there and do something.
Off the top of my head, here are just a few suggestions for ways to stop diddling around and start getting on with fixing some things. I’ll start with some pretty easy ones:
Stop talking about mindfulness. Just be mindful.
Stop blaming the current state of affairs on older generations. It’s tempting, I know. And fun. And there’s a pretty logical argument to be made for doing so. But it’s wasting time. It’s taking your eye off the ball. I know because we all spent a lot of time doing the same with our parents, and it didn’t end up helping.
Stop dismissing what’s good because it’s not perfect. Take the win whenever you can get it, and move on to the next fight. Your heroes will disappoint you, but rather than dwell on their failings, redefine what being a hero really is.
Make sure the house has a roof on it before you spend all of your time scrubbing at a spot on the carpet. The problem you want to solve might not always be the one that most needs immediate solving.
And all of this means you’re going to have to keep more than one idea in your head at a time. The people who disagree with you, they have reasons why they do. Sure, they might be stupid. But as often as not, their reasons might be that they just don’t understand your reasons. And misunderstanding almost always leads to fear, and if you don’t know where fear leads, then you just haven’t been paying attention in History class. If you’re going to change the minds of people on the other side of your argument (which is what you’re going to have to do if we are ever to move forward), understanding those reasons is the necessary first step. And that’s not fun. It definitely feels better to demolish the other side. Because they have memes and tweets and rants that they think are funny and true and courageous, which you believe are simply despicable. Remember, they also find despicable the memes and tweets and rants that you believe are actually funny and true and courageous. And in the end, exactly zero minds are changed. You’re going to leave here to head into your next act, and you’re probably going to go looking for your people. Sticking with your people provides great comfort. But the real accomplishment will be in discovering how to make ever larger the group that is our people.
It is, I think, our only way forward. And, for better or worse, it’s the path you have to find. This is for you to accomplish. And remember, my accomplishment in life is what you will accomplish. So the pressure is on. This is the challenge: you have to do this.
I know I’m asking a lot. And I want to be as helpful as possible. So, I’ll ask you to remember something you all encountered at some point in Burroughs career. It’s really the only other concrete thing that I brought to this school and that I will leave behind.
The Wall at Drey Land. It’s a problem you all encountered. And though it’s a made-up problem, I hope that now with some age and experience under your belt, whether it be just a few months for some of you in this room or several years for those of you on this stage, I hope you can look back on it now as not just a silly “bonding” exercise, but rather as a metaphorical challenge that actually laid out the best advice there is to guide you through the challenge that’s before you.
Getting over that wall safely was something that no one individual could accomplish alone. But it was also a feat that the group could not accomplish without the work of each and every individual.
The harnesses that helped you accomplish it safely were not at all comfortable, but they prevented you from dropping anyone, from causing true pain. Discomfort and pain are not the same thing. Pain, whether physical or otherwise, is something you must strive to avoid. But in the interest of that greater good, you are often going to need to be uncomfortable.
When you made your plan for how to solve the problem, you were forced to have some difficult conversations. Everyone loves to talk about their strengths, about what they have to offer the group. Very few of us like to talk about our weaknesses, about what we need from the group. But the goal can’t be accomplished without knowing what those needs are. Avoiding difficult conversations won’t help you meet the challenges ahead. Finding ways to productively have those difficult conversations is the only way forward.
And in making that plan to get over the wall, you had to realize that every idea needs to be heard, not just the ideas that are spoken by the loudest voices. But you also learned that not every idea is a good one. And sometimes, it’s your idea that’s the bad one.
Making that plan was a challenge. Having those difficult conversations, leaning into that discomfort, making your idea heard. It was hard. But it was so important. You have to plan for the challenge that lies ahead. But you also learned that sometimes, perhaps every time, that plan won’t end up working the way you thought it would. And there’s the final, perhaps most important guiding principle for the future. When a plan fails, you don’t give up. In the words of the great playwright Samuel Beckett, as it says on the postcard that I have kept tacked up next to my desk as a reminder for myself for the past 30 years, “No matter, fail again. Fail better.” You flex, you regroup. Failure is just experience, and experience is the ultimate teacher. So, you take into account what your experience has taught you, and you try It again.
The experience of the last year has certainly taught me that all does not go as planned. But without that disruption of my plan, I might never have realized just what my true accomplishment is.
It’s you. And the challenge of the future is yours. You simply must live the best life you can. And in doing so, you simply must make better the lives of as many others as possible. This is what you have to do. Please. You just have to do this for me.
And I know this challenge might make you feel anxious. But remember: anxiety and excitement are cousins. It might just be that you’re actually excited about getting started. For what it’s worth, I’m excited for you. You might be worried, but I’ve got a little more experience than you, and I think: you’re going to be okay.
And, because of you, I might just be okay, too.
And for that, I say thank you.
Thank you all very much.