2020 Convocation Address by Headmaster Drew Casertano

My doctor said it was a heart attack. It was August 1975. I was 18 and getting ready to go to college when I experienced serious chest pain which woke me from a deep sleep. When my parents called my pediatrician, he said I had had a heart attack.

Fortunately, my cousin, the first in my large extended family to go to college, was a cardiologist, a heart specialist. My parents’ next call was to him and he quickly diagnosed the pain as something called pericarditis, a virus that infects the pericardium, the sack around the heart, filling it with fluid. 

The next thing I knew I was in the hospital, hooked up to all sorts of machines that were monitoring my heart. While my cousin assured me that I would get better and that there would be no lasting negative effects, the only treatment for this virus was to rest and wait for it to run its course. I was scared.

I spent a week or so in the hospital and several more at home. The date when I was supposed to have my freshman orientation came and went. So did the first day and week of classes. And the second. While I wasn’t infectious, I didn’t have many visitors as my friends had all left for college. I’m an only child. It was just my parents and me. I was lonely and worried that I would miss the entire first semester. 

Finally, my cousin told me that I could go to college, three weeks after classes had started. He made it clear that my activities would be severely restricted, for the fall at least. Rest continued to be my road to recovery. He said that I could leave my room, which was on the third floor of the dorm, just twice a day; once for classes and again for dinner. He prescribed eight hours of sleep, and that I change my eating habits to lose 25 lbs. 

By Christmas, the virus was mostly gone and by January I was able to resume regular activity, bit by bit.

Still, that fall was tough for me. At times, I was anxious and uncertain as there was no deadline for my recovery; just the assurance from an expert that it would happen if I took the proper steps.

So, how did I get through that challenging time?

Well, first I listened to my cousin, the doctor. I did what I was told to do. I stayed in my room, limited my activity, and altered my diet.

I trusted my doctor when he said that I would get better; that the virus would run its course. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

I desperately, desperately wanted to be at college. As I said, I’m an only child. I attended boarding school and loved the independence and friendships. I did not want to be home with mom and dad for the fall. Plus, they were beginning what turned out to be an unpleasant divorce. So, if being at college required my having to adjust, to make compromises, and to accept restrictions for the fall, well, so be it.

The kindness of friends helped immensely. It was a small group from my dorm and one who was a year ahead of me at Choate and who I followed to Amherst. Still, they made all the difference and they remain close friends today.

Those friendships are just one of the silver linings.

I experienced the first real challenge of my life; actually, the first two real challenges of my life with the virus and my parents’ divorce, and I learned that I could handle it.

Running became part of my rehabilitation and helped me to develop a lifelong passion for exercise.

I learned to eat in healthier ways and went from being a football linebacker to a running back and a baseball catcher to a lacrosse midfielder. 

I share this story as we celebrate our starting the 2020 – 2021 school year together and in place because I think it has many parallels to the situation we now face as individuals and as a community.

The challenges of this fall are real for us all. We are restricted in our movements and the ways we can experience Millbrook. That can be disappointing, and it will be uncomfortable. 

Still, we are here…together. And we want to stay here…together. That is powerful motivation, and no one feels it more than the VIth form, the class of 2021.

So here is my advice.

There is a path forward.

We need to trust the doctor, just as I did. On Sunday, Dr. Salas and Nurse Malara gave us clear direction. Wash our hands, wear our masks, and keep our distance. Yes, six feet! Do that and we can make this work. The science is conclusive.

There is an end in sight. 

While we don’t yet have a date on our calendars, written in ink when we will have a reliable, effective vaccine and the “all clear” will sound, the pandemic will end. To quote the Persian adage, made well known by Abraham Lincoln, “And this, too, shall pass.” 

And for those who find comfort and inspiration in a date certain, starting tomorrow there are 67 days until Thanksgiving break. We need to make this work for just 67 days. 

There will be silver linings. 
The brightest of those linings is that we are here, in school, when so many aren’t. The most precious of the silver linings will be what we all will learn from embracing the difficulty, discomfort, and uncertainty of this moment; of learning to deal with the inevitable challenges that life brings with optimism, empathy, and courage, which means managing our anxiety, fear and the impulse to judge. 

Nan Gingher was among the bravest, strongest, and most caring people I have had the privilege of knowing. She suffered from spina bifida and severe, debilitating arthritis. She was bound to a wheelchair and had dialysis three times a week because of failed kidneys. Nonetheless, Nan was positive, loving, strong, and always looking for ways to help others. She taught me that the only way we learn, grow, and become stronger and wiser is by facing challenges head-on and with enthusiasm, even if we have to fake it from time to time.

We are in this together. 

We will benefit from the care and support of friends, advisers, teachers, and our families. And we will look for ways to return the favor whenever we can. As always, our mission, with the values of respect, integrity, stewardship, service, and curiosity, will be our foundation, while our motto, Non Sibi Sed Cunctis, not for oneself but for all, will be our guide.

Added to the challenge of creating a community that is safe and healthy physically, will be the opportunity to build one that is explicitly anti-racist, inclusive, and just, to fulfill the founder’s vision of educating Millbrook students to be productive citizens in a democratic society. This is our commitment, with much work done with alumni, students, faculty, and staff during the spring and summer, and with much more to be done. That work that can be accomplished far more effectively in a room, than on ZOOM. 

We can do this.

As the prefects told you, this is Millbrook’s 90th school year. Our school was founded in the fall of 1931, the teeth of the American Depression. The opening was delayed until October 12 because of a flu outbreak. Just ten years later, the United States entered WWII. The founding headmaster, the heart and soul of the institution, retired in 1965, in the middle of that turbulent decade. And here we are. Resilience is part of who we are.

As we continue on this journey together, with the challenges we are sure to face, let us honor that legacy by mustering some mustang magic; let us offer some otter outrageousness. Let us be among the schools that demonstrate that this can work. That will be good not just for us, but for all.
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