A canopy of thousands of origami doves greeted nearly 900 guests—parents, faculty and staff and friends —at the 122nd Commencement Exercises of The Spence School at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. In her opening remarks, Head of School Bodie Brizendine pointed out the temporary installation that emphasizes peace in the world as “a welcomed and well-needed message…indeed, beautiful reminders of the promise of our better selves.” The ceremony, featuring Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist Anna Quindlen as the Commencement Speaker and Mary Ben Apatoff as the senior speaker, celebrated the 67 members of the Class of 2019 for their love of learning, commitment to their goals and passions, and care for one another.
Mary Ben’s senior address amplified the Head of School’s introduction of her, “anchored by a sense of self and ever-present sense of humor and wonder, Mary Ben walks through our hallways and our world with something as near to truth as possible.” She highlighted special characteristics of the Class of 2019, with qualities that have defined them throughout their Spence years, and what binds them together beyond the Red Doors.
“We’ve learned from each other and helped each other grow with respect to equity, accountability and 11th Grade biology,” Mary Ben shared. “Throughout it all, I’ve always been struck by the care we put into what we are passionate about, and perhaps more importantly, the care we feel and display for each other.” Having surveyed her class about their unique attributes, Mary Ben called out their cheerful, hopeful spirits and resilience facing adversities with light-hearted examples of their losing streaks in several school contests and how they put 9th Grade physics to work to overcome “bone chilling cold” at a class retreat in Pennsylvania. She evidenced 2019’s “love of learning,” with the account of the “heated discourse in our common spaces where we debate the ideal blade shape and angle and number to produce the greatest volume in a wind turbine.”
Mary Ben praised her classmates for their great sense of camaraderie, as well as their active listening and communication that helped them “embrace each person’s individuality and learn from one another.” The Class of 2019 “loves to sing,” Mary Ben told the crowd, recalling how the entire grade sang “Count on Me” together on their last day of Upper School Lunch. “Count on Me,” she explained, was “the song we lost with in our fifth grade sing off…ingrained in our collective consciousness…. The song’s message is a sentimental one of friendship and loyalty. But at its core, it doesn’t really matter what the song is about. It matters that we have a song and we sing it together at the top of our lungs.”
Finally, she wished for her class to continue beyond Spence staying true to their core qualities and to “do things mindfully…listen openly…never stop learning” and “be thankful, always.” “We took all the warmth and joy and love and magic that Spence has given us and we made a family of it.”
In her introduction of the Commencement speaker, senior Natalia Chino recalled that Anna Quindlen spoke of the “benefits of receiving her own single-sex education,” when she met with the Class of 2019 earlier. “Ms. Quindlen possesses the gift of being able to express herself with confidence in a multitude of ways,” Natalia shared. “She can be a mother, a public speaker, a feminist, a trustee on the board at her alma mater...without letting one label define her because she embraces all the complexities of who she is…. This reminds me of the Spence senior class, who is so versatile in what they are passionate about and what their goals are.”
Quindlen took the opportunity to talk about the Class, comparing their powers to the afternoon’s sudden and severe thunderstorm. “Class of 2019, you were ushered in today with thunder and unlike the ancients, I consider that a good omen,” she began. “A sign that you are going to go out there and make some noise.”
Quindlen encouraged students to forge their own paths, even if that sometimes means deviating from their life plans or defying societal expectations. “You are the people who make the checklists, who come up with the plans, who are invested always in the right answer,” Quindlen told graduates, emphasizing that, “The right answer is often the wrong answer…the people whose names we carve into the cornices of buildings and see on the covers of books, are deviants in the best sense of that word.” Quindlen noted that such “deviants” include past and present female figures, from Jane Austen and Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Marie Curie and Beyoncé Knowles.
Quindlen added that, “The so-called right answer about who we should be, how we should behave is today so often a punitive one, especially for women; not thin enough, not pretty enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, not accomplished enough. Members of the Class of 2019, if you remember nothing I have said today, remember this: you are enough.”
Quindlen’s words were the prelude to the presentation of diplomas, followed by Brizendine’s closing remarks to the Class of 2019 about the power and responsibility they have in their hands. She referenced an 1898 letter Clara Spence to seniors in which she wrote: “you are free—you can choose. It is a high privilege of freedom which makes you morally responsible human being. If the school has been faithful to its charge, each of you should have an earnest desire to help others and remember that with the desire always comes the power.”
Brizendine reminded the Class of 2019 that, “We have lived together in questions and not for school, but also for life.” “Knowing that we’re always unfinished, always working toward the best version of ourselves, allows you to think of your life in partnership with that privilege of freedom about which Miss Spence wrote.”
Brizendine echoed Quindlen’s words, also encouraging students not be beholden to checklists or plans. “Be thrown off course sometimes. Take a great wrong turn, and live no half-life, ever. I think there’s nothing more hostage-holding than a life already planned out, one already filling in the space between where you sit today and where I stand.”
Brizendine’s final message sent the graduates off with a deep connection to the School’s mission: “And as you leave the Church of the Heavenly Rest and walk out as proud Spence graduates, know that each one of you carries with you not only our blessings, but also our hope for a better world: a world that stands up for those powerful words of ‘purpose, passion and perspective,’ which frame our mission; a world that thinks not only of the todays, but also the tomorrows; a world that walks tall and strong for justice and civility; a world that embraces the promise each of you carries; and a world in which each of you feels at home within it. You do have it in your power, and that dear graduates, is rather extraordinary.”
Congratulations to the Class of 2019; we welcome you to the strong community of Spence alumnae.
Read Bodie Brizendine’s full remarks here Read Anna Quindlen’s full remarks here