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Listen to Develop Openness

By Corbin Prychun, Upper School social science and English educator
Upper School social science and English educator Corbin Prychun’s commencement address for the 2020 ceremony.

I want to thank the class of 2020 for giving me the opportunity to speak today. This group of students means so much to me, and I am incredibly grateful that I have had the chance to get to know so many of you over the past four years. 

Now I feel required to talk about how bizarre this moment truly is. You’re in a parking lot, isolated from your classmates, teachers and even your school itself. It can’t help but feel deflating. This isn’t what graduation should be like. This isn’t what your senior year should feel like. 

It should feel more like a ride on the trolley. There are stops, but you know what they are. You are surrounded by people, none of whom give you six feet of space. It’s always moving, and all you have to do is hop on. Now the trolley has stopped completely, leaving prom, spring sports and award assemblies in its wake. Your upcoming year is a question mark instead of an exclamation point. 

And as much as I wish I could tell you this is it, you will have more moments like this. Moments that challenge you. Cause you to lose sleep. Cause you to reevaluate everything. The good news is they can also serve as incredible opportunities. Waypoints in life where you are forced to adapt, look in new directions and will yourself forward. 

You are now in one of those moments, except yours has been magnified to a point unlike anything in our country’s recent history. You have a frightening future to contend with. Major changes in how we work and interact are being forced upon us. It will take innovative thinking from dedicated and empathetic minds like yours to make sure the future is better than the past. To make sure people aren’t left behind in this massive disruption. 

There are also problems we have seen before. 

Here's where choosing a history teacher to talk to you is about to pay off. We're not good for a lot, but if there's one thing we can do it’s recognizing when humans are about to fall into the same patterns. 

Issues like fascism emerge when people are wary of the future, and racism when people are scared and looking for someone to blame. Times like these are a petri dish for misinformation. These concepts, which you will spend hours reading about and debating in classrooms and coffee shops over the next four years, are on our doorstep and in our supermarkets. Protests over police violence are in more than 140 cities across our country and have taken place daily just blocks from where we are now. There is no running from this, and the most vital task right now is to shrink, not grow these traps of human nature, and that takes action. This airborne toxic event we are living through has a good chance to flatten us. You can’t let it. 

Now I know, being thrust into the world at a time like this may be overwhelming, but no matter what path you are taking off on, your goal over the next four years and beyond should be the development of your openness. This is the time to push away from isolating principles and ideas. It’s the time to take risks, make memories and learn as much as possible. It is vital you say yes to opportunities, whether it's studying abroad in a place that makes you nervous, reading James Baldwin because you know his name and ideas are worth knowing, or even just having a late-night dinner with friends at a Denny's. 

When this passes, force yourself out, surround yourself with people that are also developing their openness and bond with one another by sharing a plate of fries with future doctors and geologists, VPs of marketing and maybe even a research scientist. Allow yourself to stay open enough to hear about things as painful as police violence, as infuriating as racial profiling and overwhelming as the history of minority oppression in our country.

It was at a table like this that I first learned about Trayvon Martin, a kid your age, who never made it to graduation because he was targeted and suspected to be a criminal based on the color of his skin. I never took a class about Trayvon or saw his name in a textbook. Instead, it took me staying quiet, which allowed me to listen to a friend talk about something they felt furious and passionate about. That moment of silence and acknowledgment is central to the openness I’m talking about, and it isn’t always easy. It can be a violating experience to learn new things that do not meld with your worldview. You want to push back, find excuses or ignore it completely. Don’t go that route. Instead, choose to acknowledge people when they pour their hearts out, make them feel heard and then commit to actions you feel appropriate. It could be as simple as saying the words, out loud, Black Lives Matter. In a time so full of confusion and fear, this is the most clear and straightforward statement I can make today. 

With that being said, for everyone listening out there, you can take a deep breath, because these young adults have everything it takes to use their openness to make a positive impact on our world. These graduates are hard-working, determined and empathetic. They are eager to learn as much about the world as possible, and most significantly, they are optimistic. So to those of you in the audience who are not graduating today. To the people who have supported these graduates through their journey, I ask that you continue to help them by keeping their optimistic spirit strong. Like fire, it can be suffocated, so when they come home with a class they’re excited about or have a new idea on how to fix a static problem that's always been there, hear them out. The world is very good at being cynical, at stomping out ideas before they even start. So many factors will attempt to put water on a fire that you all, and the faculty here at Country Day, have spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to craft and build. So let them be excited and passionate. Help serve as a gatekeeper of their optimism so that it brings new creative thinking on solving difficult problems and finding us a robust way forward through this crisis.  

Although the pomp and circumstance of this event may feel strange, it is a major life event for all of you, and I am glad we are celebrating it. Not everyone gets a chance to start their post-high school lives in a world so ready and demanding of new ideas. Put your foot on the scale with a full heart, limitless optimism and an abundance of openness. Make a dent or patch a hole, but most importantly, come back and visit. We here at La Jolla Country Day School are proud of you and cannot wait to see what you do with this opportunity. 

Thank you and congratulations, class of 2020.

Watch Mr. Prychun's speech here.