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Writing skills have been honed, historical events committed to memory, scientific and philosophical curiosities sparked. But perhaps of even greater significance for Durham Academy’s Class of 2017, suggests Zoe Pharo ’17, are habits of kindness and a “commitment to people” that are hallmarks of the school community.
“While I did expect the academic rigor, I never expected to be so struck by the kindness of this community,” Pharo said from the stage of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, where she addressed classmates, faculty and graduates’ family and friends gathered for DA’s 43rd commencement exercises on May 26.
“Once you’ve had Mr. Cullen transition seamlessly from a lively discussion of derivatives to Lumosity to ‘keep the brain sharp;’ had Mrs. Throop stay after class to listen to our thoughts on a recent event; had Mr. Murray tell you his ‘Murray code of wellness;’ and had Mr. Hark and Mr. Ulku-Steiner tackle the ‘happy, moral, and productive’ part of our mission statement; you realize just how much dedication goes in day in and day out,” Pharo continued. “The most important thing about my four years, not always easy years, has been the role models I’ve found in teachers, students and parents.”
As Pharo prepares for her life’s next chapter at Carleton College, her 103 classmates are readying for their own next steps at 63 other colleges and universities, from nearby schools like Elon University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, to schools farther from home, like University of Michigan, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Howard University.
Pharo expects that the transition to life as a college student will be one of the biggest changes she has ever experienced, likening the feeling of leaving high school to “learning to tie your shoes again, as if this has been Velcro and the next step is laces.”
That process “comes with a bit of nervousness and fear — you question if you will ever succeed, will ever truly master the art,” she continued. “But it also comes with excitement, of learning something new, of being a bit more independent. I think a lot of us are nervous for this next step, but also excited to be taking it.”
In opening the ceremony, Upper School Director Lanis Wilson warned the graduates that “there is no road map for the life of the mind” — that there will be times in their life’s journeys when choices made in the moment, without the necessary information to know where each choice might lead, will have lasting impacts on who they become.
“But for right now, on this particular afternoon, in this moment, you don’t really know which forks you will take, or where those roads will ultimately lead. … I urge you to celebrate this very moment, appreciate where you are right now, surrounded by the people who care most about you — your friends, your teachers, your family,” Wilson said. “Class of ’17, you will never be in a room with so many people whose focus is your well-being. You’re surrounded by people who love you and care deeply for you.”
The significance of choices also rang clear in the words of commencement speaker Daniel Wallace, an English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he also serves as director of the creative writing program. Wallace, the author of six novels, is best known for his 1998 work Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, which was adapted for a 2003 film and 2013 Broadway musical of the same name.
Wallace’s remarks centered on the summer of his 17th birthday, when he “probably became a writer.” He was staying out late most nights, and upon his return home each night would slip a note under his mother’s door to let her know that he’d made it home safely, he recalled. Before long, the notes took the form of serialized fiction, with each note providing another chapter in the lives of a couple named Brenda and Lee.
The cliffhanger ending of a final note prompted Wallace’s mother to shake him awake the next morning, pleading, “What happens next?” That, he guessed, was when his writing career truly began.
“I learned that for a writer and a reader, what happens next is the single most important question we can ask — more important than how or even why,” he said. “At least it should be because literature, a good story, is just a distorted reflection of a human experience, that through its distortion, makes us see it more clearly.
“And everything we do and everything that is done to us is the answer to that question — what happens next. We want to know what will happen in the story the same way we want to know what will happen to us in our lives. But we won’t know until we turn the page, until we get there. Otherwise, it’s just not interesting.”
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