The following speech was written for delivery to the members of the MICDS Class of 2021 at their graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 16, but rain interrupted the event. Head of School Jay Rainey subsequently recorded the remarks below and shared them with the Class.
Thank you, Mr. Hughes. Thanks as well to all of you who have offered words of reflection, congratulations, and inspiration to the Class of 2021, first on Friday evening and now this afternoon. Thanks specifically to Hanna, Riley, and Cal; to Mr. Ludbrook and Mr. Small; to Mr. Rapp, and Jack, and Mr. Huntoon; and, again, to Mr. Hughes. Thank you all. I will now try to rise to the high standard of reflection, congratulations, and inspiration—and let’s not forget appropriate brevity—that you have set for our ceremonies this weekend.
The coastal region of Virginia where I grew up is sometimes called Hampton Roads, and it is sometimes called Tidewater. The Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York, and the James Rivers that drain most of the land in my native state—as well as the Chesapeake Bay into which they flow—are brackish estuaries, and oysters thrive in them. I grew up knowing that every month with the letter “R” in it is great for eating oysters, and the rituals and joys of oyster roasts with family and friends at Thanksgiving, on Christmas Eve, and through the late winter season were mainstays of my childhood and early adulthood.
Seniors—forgive me: alumni—I believe it was two years ago that you read Their Eyes Were Watching God in your English classes. The author of that novel, Zora Neale Hurston, once expressed a way of being in the world that has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it, and that I hope will stay with you after today. “I do not weep at the world,” she said. “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
Now, this is what an oyster knife looks like:
It is an intentionally dull object, first cousin to a letter opener, the principal utility of which obtains not in its squat blade but in its thickish tapered point, through which the concentration of pressure against the joint of an oyster will pry it open. So what is the purpose of sharpening it?
Why, for that matter, seek your fortune in an oyster shell? Hurston’s little knife isn’t looking for a seafood appetizer. It’s looking for a pearl, but the odds of finding one in the clutches of an oyster are only about one in 10,000—and first you have to find an oyster, which Hurston doesn’t even acknowledge having yet.
“I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Hurston is not talking about the glamorous business of getting and winning. She is talking about the unglamorous business of everyday living. She is not saying, “Step 1, sharpen your oyster knife. Step 2, find a pearl! (Step 3, blow up on social!)” She is saying, “Step 1, sharpen your oyster knife. Step 2, repeat step 1.” Hurston’s words are not directions for successfully achieving the end of something. They are directions for successfully being in the middle of something—and you, members of the MICDS Class of 2021, you are now, officially, in the middle of something. An oyster knife rarely, if ever, needs to be sharp to do its job. Now go sharpen your oyster knives. An oyster rarely, if ever, hides a pearl in its little house. Now go hunt for an oyster, and hope for a pearl.
This week, Tim Duncan will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. As the sportswriter Jonathan Abrams noted on Friday, Duncan is best known for his “quiet excellence.” I wonder, in fact, how many of you who aren’t basketball fans have even heard of this extraordinarily self-effacing team leader. The fact that Duncan is also one of the better bank shot shooters in the history of the NBA, which is a decidedly unglamorous distinction, probably would not help him in a household name contest. What Tim Duncan should be known for and generally isn’t, however, is simply this: that over the course of his 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, during the last 13 of which he was inarguably the team’s most essential player, they won 71% of their regular-season games, the highest winning percentage among all professional basketball, football, hockey, and baseball franchises over the same period—a period whose duration exceeds that of the life of almost every one of you graduating here today. Tim Duncan was quietly excellent for a very long time.
Retired NBA player Antonio Daniels remembers this about his former teammate: “You hear people say all the time, ‘I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win the championship.’ And what’s missing at the end of that sentence is ‘unless.’ ‘Unless I can’t get the minutes I want, unless I don’t get the contract I want, unless I don’t get the role I want.’ Tim Duncan actually took the ‘I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship’ and lived by it.”
Tim Duncan’s version of Zora Heale Hurston’s directions would definitely not be, “Step 1, sharpen your oyster knife. Step 2, if you don’t find a pearl, complain about the knife, or complain about the oyster.” I think he would say, “Step 1, sharpen your oyster knife. Step 2, repeat step 1.” Or maybe not “sharpen your oyster knife,” but “practice your bank shot.”
I know you have heard this same song many times before in different keys. “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” “Effort is its own reward.” “Process over product.” Or, to quote the early twenty-first century American philosopher Miley Cyrus, “It’s the climb.” These are important songs to know by heart, and I hope you will add two more to the playlist after today: “Work on your bank shot” and “Sharpen your oyster knife.”
Do not let this afternoon’s gathered clouds fool you about your future. This is only an elaborate metaphor! Look at all the silver linings. We were able to be together outdoors. There’s not a bad seat in the house today. Yes, alumni, you are now officially in the middle of something, but what a wonderful life each one of you is journeying into the middle of. Do not weep at the world. Believe in clear skies, and you will find them.
You have worked hard to be here today. Behold the assembled multitude that celebrates you with deserved pride! Congratulations. And now, even though there is no letter “R” in the month of May, go sharpen your oyster knives.