After a year like no other, the Emma Willard School Class of 2021 celebrated the slightly-modified tradition of Baccalaureate on Saturday, June 5. Although the entire EMployee and parent community could not gather in one place due to COVID protocols, students had the opportunity to share a final moment together with faculty and staff during Baccalaureate, saving the Commencement ceremony for family members.
At the intimate Baccalaureate gathering, Class of 2022 President Rowan L. shared her reflections on the fearless leadership the Class of 2021 has shown over their years together. “In light of the emotional rollercoaster you were all thrown on last March, your determination and unwavering optimism kept the school community afloat this past year,” Rowan shared. “It is one thing to note the legacy your class has left with Emma Willard history, but you’ve left an even more special mark on the hearts of your fellow classmates.”
As parent speaker, Natalie Merchant shared a powerful message, both in spoken word and in song. Looking back on her own daughter Lucia’s journey through her school years, Ms. Merchant recalled her incremental growth, like watching a caterpillar emerge from its cocoon. To the Class of 2021, she said, “On every ledge of the climb, in your struggle to advance, through all the tears of frustration and the pride of reaching every new height…we have consoled, encouraged and watched with amazement. Today, we pause together to sit and marvel at what you have done and who you have become. We also take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped push and pulled you up to this peak.” Acknowledging the leadership, dedication, sacrifice, and resourcefulness of the Emma Willard School faculty and staff during this unprecedented time, Ms. Merchant conveyed a profound sense of gratitude. She ended her remarks by singing Spring and Fall, a song she wrote featuring the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Class of 2021 speaker Natasha W.’s remarkable journey from Singapore and Malaysia to Emma Willard School highlights her own academic growth, as well as the compassion and profound love for humanity that has made her a leader among her peers. Noting that this day marked the 425th since she’d last seen her family, Natasha shared, “Some days I feel angry at the world for putting this distance between me and the people I love the most. However, the one thing that got me through all the hurt, was you. Class of 2021, you have shown me that unconditional love and support can be found beyond blood. You have shown me that family isn’t just what you’re born into; family is built with respect, love, and kindness.” Although crying has become a natural part of life over the past months, Natasha shares that now the crying is not because she feels lonely, but rather because “it’s nearly impossible to say goodbye to the people, places, and memories that make me feel at home.”
As they leave the comfort of home on Mount Ida to go on to greater things, the Class of 2021 selected History Department Chair Katie Holt, PhD, to give their Baccalaureate address. In pondering lessons from the past year, Dr. Holt noted that she was sustained by her family and the Emma Willard community. However, she encouraged the community to look beyond the comfort of our own networks. “As we face uncertain times, I am all for us creating voluntary associations, whatever ideology brings us to them, and doing the very hard work of providing care for those in our families, mutual aid networks, congregations, or pods.[...] But I also think we must be careful not to wall ourselves off from those who seem unlike us in their beliefs.” Dr. Holt led a book group in reading Middlemarch this school year, and she shared profound lessons she learned from that experience. “We ought not compete or retreat, but rather do our best to engage with others justly,” she explains, noting that the good we hope to see in the world is partly found in coexisting with others.
Head of School Jenny Rao closed the ceremony with a reading of slightly-modified lyrics from the Celtic song, The Soft Goodbye:
When the light begins to fade
and shadows fall across the sea,
one bright star in the evening sky.
Our love's light leads you on your way.
Yours are dreams that will not sleep,
burning hopes that will not die.
so you must go now with the wind,
and leave us waiting on the tide.
It is time to fly, time to touch the sky.
You are not alone, you must not cry;
A song, a star burning bright,
may those carry you through darkest night.
Rain comes over the gray hills,
and on the air, a soft goodbye.
Hear the song that we sing to you
when the time has come to fly.
When you leave and take the wind
and find the land that holds destiny,
the brightest star in the evening sky
will be your Mount Ida memory.
Following the ceremony, students and faculty made their way to the brick pathway in Kellas Garden, now with a new addition of Class of 2021 engraved bricks. Parents who were watching remotely enjoyed a pre-recorded Brick Dedication message, announcing the fruit of their fundraising efforts over the past year. Class of 2021 parents
raised over $100,000 for the Emma Fund, and the brick pathway dedicated in honor of their students will provide a lasting place where families can return each time they visit Mount Ida.
The touching tributes from the day were a fitting preamble to the next day's Commencement celebration.