History Teacher Max Campbell Addresses Class of 2024

The Class of 2024 selected Upper School History Teacher Max Campbell to be their Commencement speaker on Sunday, May 19. Here are his remarks.

For at least a year now, my advisees have been incessantly asking me one question:

Are you gonna cry at our graduation?

I haven’t know how to unpack just how much they seem to want to see my cry. BUT, if I do cry today, it will be thinking about how the class of 2024’s first day of high school was the same day I started teaching here. It will be thinking about you all getting to know each other in an unfathomable environment your freshman year, only to develop a confidence and grace that I now find myself trying to emulate. You all are completely unstoppable.

I recently heard the great writer Marilynne Robinson remember that a teacher once told her: “You will have to live with your mind every day of your life. So make sure you have a mind that you want to live with.” Because commencement is a beginning, not an ending, we have to ask – how do you make sure, as you leave your home base here at MICDS, that you continue to make your minds exciting and lovely and pleasant things to live with?

When I found out I would have the honor to speak today, a memory from my own time in high school, when one of my history teachers spoke to our class, came back to me. This was a teacher that I really respected and loved. And I can remember being completely enthralled as he spoke, feeling like he was unlocking tools that we, as teenagers, had never even considered. At the end of the speech, this respected teacher put his advice together in a culminating moment with an acronym. He had talked through some idea that started with P.. then there was another that began with H…. then something else that he set up connected to the letter L…

Got the WORDLE fans thinking here, don’t I?

The acronym he presented was PHLEGM. P – H – L- E – G – M. PHLEGM.

I’m in the audience, completely taken by all the challenges and insights he had hashed out. Because of his cheeky acronym, I’m also sitting there thinking to myself: I really hope that I have PHLEGM for the rest of my life! Of course, thinking back on this, I don’t really have PHLEGM anymore, at least not in the same respect.

Despite that day and that advice being this completely brain-rewiring moment for me, I’ve almost completely forgotten his blueprint for a good life. The P has slipped away. Same with the H, the L, the E. The same way I don’t remember the details of sine and cosine, and I’ve lost track of whether the green light in The Great Gatsby stands in for aspiration or desire or some unrelenting force of capitalism, so went most of PHLEGM for me. No matter how hard the people sitting up here in black robes fight, so many details get lost along the way. And we know that. Things fade slowly over time. That is natural. And there will also be major moments of erasure. When you fall in love with someone in college, at least fifteen percent of your working memory is getting chucked out the window. And when you discover something in an anthropology or organic chemistry class that you never saw coming, your entire philosophy is going to feel like it’s getting gut renovated.

So, if we accept that losing so much of what we learn is par for the course here, what does that mean you should be doing to cultivate an exciting and lovely and pleasant mind to live with? What do we do with the advice Marilynne Robinson received? Embracing impermanence – that not everything will last – while also valuing whatever you’ve got in front of you right now is one of the great joys and challenges of growing. Gatsby was there on your path to falling in love. Cosine got you to the organic chemistry class in the first place. There is this changing river of ideas that washes away so much in order to get us where we’re headed, and that is ok.

And, for me, there is also the G. The G from PHLEGM. That’s the only piece I remember – just the G – and I still try to live by it. It was very simple: Go (g for go…) – go to breakfast with friends.

My teacher advised us to start the day over good food – whenever we can – with friends. Get into the world and connect as soon as possible. That idea has stuck with me, becoming one of the most important things I remember learning. And I think I understand why, which I’ll come back to in a moment. But first, with the lasting impacts of the G in mind, a few additional notes on lunch and dinner.

Lunch: Of course, what I really wish for all of you is that you are compassionate companions to whomever you sit across from at the table, and that you find your own ways to support those who don’t always have the warmth of a shared meal available to them. With those hopes in mind, lunch is not always the place. It’s smack in the middle of the day, you’re coming off one thing, and you’ve got a whole set of tasks ahead of you. As life gets busier, a get-it-and-go approach bleeds further and further into how we operate. So, when it comes to lunch, I try to remember this: If you do everything on your to-do list, you may not have time to do the things you forgot to add. We have to leave time for pivots, unforeseen paths of inquiry, the consuming thoughts of love, the demands of supporting people in our lives. A lot will show up unexpectedly. Leave space to change your plans at the halfway point. Again: if you do everything on your to-do list, you may not have time to do the things you forgot to add.

Ok, let’s talk about dinner. When it’s time for dinner, let someone else take the reins and take recommendations seriously. We do not need to be in control of everything at all times, and the straightforward practice of saying, “Oh, you know what, that sounds really good” OR “I’ve never had that, I think I’ll try what she’s having” is one of the easiest ways to open ourselves up. It is so important to find simple paths to connect with people in our world, whether they’re best friends or the friends’-friends’-cousin’s partner you’re stuck in the corner with. It doesn’t matter if you’re out to eat or boiling water for macaroni—dinner is an easy time to let someone else steer the ship. See where that takes you.

So, I recognize that it’s probably a stretch to think that just following someone’s lead at the buffet or pivoting midday or getting breakfast will make your mind an exciting and lovely and pleasant thing to live with. But I think the reason the G stuck with me is because it revolves around everyday practices, not abstraction. You all are about to enter into a period of your life with a tremendous amount of new autonomy and freedom.

This is the time to recognize the need for and impact of everyday practices. As ideas and people and interests get pushed in and out of your world, remember that we only get to keep what we work to hold onto. You’ve got to feed the things that you love, what you value, what you believe in everyday while also finding your own way to embrace impermanence.

And when everyone here forgets everything I just said, my hope is that you at least get through the next few years remembering to eat three square meals a day.

Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2024.