"Sometime over the course of our four years, we realize that some of us came in with more math, or science, or history knowledge, but that doesn’t make anyone an expert at navigating Commonwealth. Nor does it mean that we are worse mountain climbers just because someone’s pace is a bit faster. At the end of the day, we all stand on the mountaintop together, helping each other decipher the great unknown."
Every year, in lieu of a valedictorian and salutatorian, Commonwealth faculty and staff choose two graduation speakers—after much deliberation, as it is no easy feat! And, every year, they impress with their insight and observation, reflecting on their time at Commonwealth with poise and eloquence far beyond their years; 2021 was no different.
In his graduation speech, Markus Tran '21, with his sublimely romantic way, discussed the beauty of not knowing what lays beyond life’s mysterious “fog.” You’re invited to read (and watch!) his artful speech below.
For an entire month, my first grade teacher painstakingly led me through a hundred recitations of a traditional Vietnamese nursery rhyme. The mid-autumn festival was coming up, and my one-minute performance would be the culmination of a tedious journey. Chanting about frogs and toads for so long, I had basically befriended those characters. The moment finally came and the microphone was being adjusted to my height (so about three and a half feet) when my mildly myopic self stared down at the large masses of color. I opened my mouth, and…the frogs were stuck in my throat. I froze. Yep. I stood there for a long minute before I was escorted off the stage. My mother was not thrilled. So you could imagine her reaction when I told her I would be giving this graduation speech.
I’ve never stood on any cliffs or hiked to the top of any mountain; however, I imagine it would feel like that moment on that stage. And if so, then Commonwealth has taken me on my fair share of cliffs. But Commonwealth has also taught me to let myself be dazzled by the landscape that presents itself in front of me, in any moment, on any cliff. A kind of joy in bewilderment that would make me forget that I was standing on a cliff at all. You guys all know at this point that I’m a lover of all things Romantic and so you know I could not pass up the opportunity to bring a little Romanticism into this speech. You might recognize Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic painting upon looking at it, if not by its title: "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog." Since there’s no way for you to look at the painting right now, I will call upon my Art History powers to paint the picture for you in as few strokes as possible. Perfectly in the center of the composition, a man stands, facing away from the viewer, on a craggy precipice. His cane steadies him as he gazes upon the wreaths of pristine white fog, painted in frenzied brushstrokes, the fog dancing around crags and hills and mountains and plains and whatever else one could assume is in the distance. The sky, painted in a similar white, embraces the fog as they meet at the horizon. What is beneath the fog, we could not know, but we could always look a little harder. As Commonwealth students, we are the wanderer. Perhaps some of us are not as confident as he is standing so boldly, so firmly on that precipice looking out into that great unknown. But maybe I could also convince you of how much more boldly, and how much more firmly, we are standing now than four years ago.
Imagine yourself, still on that cliff, in the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and the gusts of wind have not died down yet. The wind, it’s roaring, and it’s threatening to shove you off. Now, let’s reset that image and imagine that you, the wanderer, are a freshman at Commonwealth, and the cliff is the freshman cubby area. What do you imagine are the causes of the uproar, the gusts of wind? I’ll point to one culprit: our grades on the first English 9 assessment. If you’re anything like me, you went into it thinking that, hey, if I could come up with some guesses about what some of these poems’ meanings were, then I’m probably in good shape. But you see, freshman me was yelling next to the third floor cubbies about how it was utter nonsense that that was the wrong thing to do. Was I supposed to believe that arriving at the “meaning” of a poem was somehow less important than picking apart the writer’s choices of diction, syntax, cadence, meter, mood, all the things that English teachers remind us to look out for? Ah, close reading. That once disastrous phrase has been transformed into the wanderer’s cane, steadying him on the cliff. On our final “real” English exam before the pandemic, we spent many intimate hours with the final page of “The Dead” by James Joyce: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” For at least three long hours, we allowed ourselves to be dazzled by the great fog, forgetting that we were standing on a cliff. Like the fog, that last paragraph of “The Dead” assumes many mysterious, mercurial forms, where one moment it dances around as a paragraph of prose, then as verse, then as a benediction given to “all the living and the dead.”
What if the force keeping you unsteady on that cliff is yourself? Coming into 9th grade, it was easy to think that others had more mountaineering expertise than ourselves. Sometime over the course of our four years, we realize that some of us came in with more math, or science, or history knowledge, but that doesn’t make anyone an expert at navigating Commonwealth. Nor does it mean that we are worse mountain climbers just because someone’s pace is a bit faster. At the end of the day, we all stand on the mountaintop together, helping each other decipher the great unknown. If Friedrich’s central figure is a Commonwealth student, what Friedrich got wrong in his painting is that the Commonwealth student wouldn’t be alone on that cliff. All of us have learned the ‘Great Commonwealth Lesson.’ First, we had to fail. Then, we learned how to look for helping hands, whether it be the hands of our peers or teachers. Steadied by those helping hands, we started to feel safe on that tall precipice, standing firm and ready to indulge in the act of looking into the great beyond.
In Art History, we would characterize this “great beyond” shrouded by fog as “sublime.” The sublime is supposed to terrify us. Overwhelm us, threaten to kill us, even. We are meant to experience the sublime on a visceral level. It is meant to impose limits on our reason. The wanderer standing on that precipice is experiencing the sublime. Yet at Commonwealth, we deal with the sublime so brazenly. What is unknowable we slowly tease out. We might not end up seeing anything, as is the case in many of my classes where discussions end up with no real answers to any of the questions posed. They aren’t small questions either, but grand ones. For example, when discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost, we play around with the idea of fallenness. What if Adam and Eve had already fallen before they ate the apple? The great unknown that may, admittedly, at first confound us, ends up yielding enjoyment and excitement. There are still many stages, and many cliffs, where I completely freeze up upon looking into the distance. But even if at first we are terrified, we, both the teachers and students, provide each other with the helping hands to stand as firmly as the wanderer on that rocky cliff. As we leave this place, I know we will all encounter many a cliff in our futures, but if there’s one thing I do not doubt, it’s that we are all very equipped to look upon the dancing sea of fog not as an enemy but as a friend.