Concord Academy’s 100th school year culminated in a heartwarming ceremony on May 26, 2023, when the CA community gathered in pride in Academy Garden to honor its newest graduates. The spring morning couldn’t have been more beautiful, with a gentle breeze and hardly a cloud, promising blue skies ahead for Concord Academy’s class of 2023.
The senior class song, “Cups” from Pitch Perfect, encapsulated the moment: “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,” the classmates sang, and that sentiment holds true for those who will remain on campus. In her opening remarks, Fay Lampert Shutzer ’65, president of CA’s Board of Trustees, shared descriptions that faculty most often used to characterize this class: “resilient, optimistic, authentic leaders, patient, energetic, and full of joy.”
A psychologist, Shutzer said the roots of her career grew in her student days at Concord Academy, specifically during a course on community service that introduced concepts in developmental psychology and personality theory. When faced with writing a chemistry term paper, she took a risk and chose to research the chemical basis of schizophrenia. The school arranged for her to conduct research in Harvard Medical School’s library. “My passion, like so many other CA students’, was no problem for our faculty, who have always encouraged and still do encourage students to pursue areas of their own interests,” she said. Shutzer framed the challenges and joys of the past four years as having uniquely shaped the class of 2023 as rebuilders of CA’s community, young people who will make a difference in the world.
Head of School Henry Fairfax acclimated families to some unique aspects of CA’s graduation, most notably the absence of academic distinctions, a tradition that dates back some 70 years in the spirit of honoring each student and prizing process over outcome, transformation over transaction. “You have been blessed with some of the best educators in the world,” he told the class of 2023, “and it is also true that we have been blessed to have some of the most thoughtful and passionate students anywhere.” Looking back on how their time at CA had been shaped by the pandemic, he reminded the graduates that the adversity they had faced would set them apart in years to come. “Remember,” he said, “diamonds are cultivated under intense pressure and they take time to form, but in the end they shine in the brightest of lights.”
In inimitable fashion, Jayant Talwar ’23, student head of school, distributed personal notes of gratitude to every classmate before sharing several quotes from this year’s many wise and moving senior chapels. Advice students gave ranged from embracing change to seeing beauty in imperfections and the value of living with honesty and kindness without looking for reward. Talwar thanked CA’s faculty and staff, saying, “you all have already changed this world, and changed our world.” True to his style, after expressing his love for his fellow members of the class of 2023, he closed with a rhyming poem, and then a selfie.
Next to speak was Svava Valfells ’23, senior class president, who introduced the Centennial Commencement speaker, André Robert Lee, an award-winning filmmaker, speaker, consultant, writer, storyteller, and educator whose work has encompassed, among many impactful programs and productions, the documentaries I’m Not Racist … Am I? and the Road to Justice, which documents the civil rights tours Lee led throughout the American South for more than 15 years. Valfells called Lee “an incredibly inspiring role model” who “could not be more aligned with Concord Academy’s mission” and “someone who advocates for a more just world, a world we want to live in.”
Lee began his address by reflecting on how he came to be part of this occasion, momentous both in the lives of the graduates and their families and in the history of Concord Academy. A descendent of enslaved people, Lee called on his ancestors—and those of everyone in attendance—in gratitude and witness. He spoke of his paternal grandmother, Juanita Marcus, a “quiet and mysterious woman” who migrated north with her family, leaving the sharecropping fields of Winston-Salem, N.C., for the factory floor in Philadelphia. “She did not talk about her past much,” Lee said. “I imagine it was dark, terrifying, and horrible in many ways.” He also believes there was joy, he said, “because somehow, someway, after all, I’m here in front of you today.”
In Concord Academy’s 100th year, he said, everyone assembled was “right where we are supposed to be.” Lee recalled his early experience working as a personal assistant for American singer and icon Diana Ross, and her eventual dismissal of him as she encouraged him to follow his own creative path. “I walked away from what felt like a grand opportunity,” he said, “but it was the right thing to do.” He also shared something that had surprised him while he researched for his speech: learning that Concord’s own Louisa May Alcott, of Little Women fame, had been born right across the street from Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, which Lee had attended. “The ancestors have taken care of me in all kinds of incredible ways,” he said, noting how fated the coincidence seemed. “Juanita Marcus’ migration, hard work, and sacrifice landed me here.”
Lee reflected on the evolution of American society during CA’s century of existence. “History is riddled with moments of change that didn’t feel like growth until time had done its work and gifted us all his/her/their most profound gift: hindsight,” he said. “I believe that much in our current moment will follow the same legacy.” In this time when books are being banned and “restrictions are being placed on people’s minds and bodies,” he said, believing in change as growth can be difficult. “But we must be optimistic about what it can yield,” he continued. “It is only through hindsight that we will be able to see the change and growth of our current moment clearly, but if the masses of individuals across this country who choose to speak truth to power are any indication, there is reason for hope and optimism.”
Civil Rights Movement architect Bayard Rustin originated the call to “speak truth to power,” Lee added. “It wasn’t about public declarations for the sake of vanity,” he said. “It wasn’t a call to the masses—it was a call to each of us, as individuals, to ensure that those in power can’t pacify us into complacency … [to harness] our individual conviction that we are stronger together.”
The heart of Lee’s message came down to this: “love as a way forward.” He said, “That is the way we achieve change. I believe that with an army of change agents, we can turn this world around. We can reduce all the ’isms.”
Following Lee’s address, Fairfax presented diplomas to the 92 graduating seniors in random order—a lively CA tradition that kept the audience expectant, as the final recipient is also given the coveted “Commencement Sock,” filled with contributions from the class of 2023 and the alum community.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, faculty and staff formed a line along the main walkway toward Main Street, offering handshakes, hugs, and parting good wishes to the newest members of CA’s alum community. The new graduates and families enjoyed a reception on the quad, savoring the sunshine and the bright future ahead of these promising young change-makers.
Congratulations, CA class of 2023!
The evening prior to Commencement, seniors celebrated with their families and CA faculty and staff at the annual Baccalaureate Performance. View images of the event below.