A Note From Chris | June 2024

A Note From Chris | June 2024

June 7, 2024

Dear Friends,

On Tuesday, May 28, the Whitfield School community gathered in Cady Gym for its 71st commencement ceremony. It was a beautiful May evening and a joyous event. In addition to graduating our seniors, highlights of the evening included the Senior Class Address given Zachary Tessler ‘24 and the Commencement Address by Ron Fox ‘74 (Jay ‘01, Liz ‘03, Annie ‘07, and Nathan ‘24). We also honored the service and contributions of several important members of the Whitfield community:

  • Alicia Tessler (Jake ‘19, Zachary ‘24) received The Lou Lazarus Award, given to a senior parent who has made a significant impact on Whitfield students with their energy and dedication.
  • Dave Lauer (Adam ‘20), our retiring director of business and facilities, received the Mary Leyhe Burke Award, given to an individual whose commitment to Whitfield has been passionate, whose values concerning education reflect those of the school, and whose expertise has resulted in the further development of Whitfield in a significant way.
  • Lauren Weissman Kerner ‘96 and Kyle Kerner ‘96 received the Chairman’s Award. Whitfield’s highest award, it recognizes an individual or individuals who have provided major financial support to Whitfield, and whose dedication and involvement in the school have been transformative to Whitfield’s future as an educational institution.

Finally, we started a new tradition, awarding honorary diplomas and class membership to departing faculty and staff who have served the school for twenty-five years or more. Honorary membership in the class of 2024 was awarded to Dave Lauer (30 years), Jeff Cacciatore (34 years), and Ruth Greathouse (39 years).

As I come to the conclusion of my second year as head of school, I am filled, yet again, with gratitude for the extraordinary people who make up the Whitfield School community–students, faculty, staff, trustees, parents, and alumni. This is a special place, and I am fortunate to be a part of it.


Chris Cunningham, Ph.D.
Head of School

P.S.  For those who are interested, I am appending the text of my remarks to the class of 2024. 

Last year I was the final speaker at this ceremony–after the student speaker, the official commencement address, and the awarding of diplomas and medallions. By the time I stood up, I was the only thing standing between all of the graduates, their friends, and their families–and a party. I’m not making the same mistake twice!

In fact, I’m grateful for the opportunity to begin this ceremony with a reflection and indeed a special encouragement for the Whitfield class of 2024. It was in your senior year that the School adopted a new vision and new mission–both of which you helped to create. These brief statements say a lot–they describe who we are as a school and a community–and they challenge us to live up to our own lofty aspirations. 

Whitfield’s vision talks about “empowering young people to discover and become their best selves.” You graduates on the stage tonight show us what it looks like when that vision is fulfilled. The diploma and medallion you will receive in a short time are symbols not so much of homework and tests and essays and artwork and music–although they surely are all of that–but, more importantly, these things symbolize passions you pursued, talents you discovered, skills you honed. They represent new and more sophisticated understandings of the world around you, and they represent aspects of yourself that you discovered and explored, in classes, in athletics, on the performance stage, and in the hallways you walked every day. If nothing else, we are all here to celebrate that extraordinary accomplishment: the discovery and exploration of selfhood.

In our new mission, we talk about “lead[ing] a life of curiosity, integrity, and purpose,” and it’s that first word, curiosity, that I want to reflect on in my brief remarks this evening, offering three different ways of understanding what it means to be a curious person

First, there is the most common sense of curiosity–that impulse or desire to know or understand more, to look under the rock, to click on the link, to go down a rabbit hole and get to the heart of a question or problem or idea. In your Capstone projects, you each had a chance to go deep into a subject. And I suspect that many of you discovered the great secret about intellectual curiosity: that is, the more you know about something, the more you realize how little you know about it. If nothing else, curiosity reveals the hidden depths of almost everything around us, from libraries and actuarial science and preaching to wrist watches and education. Indeed, the more curious we are, the more we know we don’t know, and the larger and more mysterious the universe becomes. To my mind, the ultimate end of curiosity is humility and wonder and awe: that feeling we have when we confront the sheer magnitude of all that can be known and our own finite capacity to know it. 

If the world outside of us is infinitely large and, I would say, infinitely interesting, so, at the same time, is the world inside each of us. Each of you sits here today with hopes and ambitions, habits of behavior and speech, beliefs and values that you have developed and internalized over your lifetime. Where did all of these things come from? How do you know what you know–or know what you want to be? Did you choose your beliefs and values, or were they chosen for you by the people and culture around you? Similarly, what are your intellectual and emotional ruts, the ways of being and thinking that tend to lead you down the wrong path? By contrast, what are those habits of heart and mind that work for you, that have led to your success? Leading a life of curiosity also means taking the time to notice yourself and your own mind. It means asking yourself questions, thinking critically about what you do and what you believe. I’m not suggesting you have to change your mind about anything, but I would encourage you to interrogate yourself, to test and challenge yourself. Only by doing so can you be sure that you are “leading” your life, that you are choosing it for yourself and not following a path that someone else has mapped out for you. 

Finally, and at the same time, I encourage you to be curious about other people. Every person in your life, from the stranger next to you on the plane, to your best friend, to your great uncle is an opportunity to expand your world, and asking questions is the easiest way to do it: What is it like to be a banker? a truck driver? a painter? a surgeon? What was it like to grow up in that place–or in that time? What do you love about your job? What’s a favorite memory from your childhood? Questions like these enlarge our world, offering us access to other people’s stories, opening up experiences, times, and places that we would otherwise never know. At the same time, asking people deep questions, questions about their lives and what they care about helps us to form meaningful connections. Being genuinely curious about others helps to create the relationships of care and understanding that are the foundation of a happy life.

Indeed, in its broadest sense, curiosity about others is the foundation of civil society and a healthy democracy. It seems to me that much of our current political division stems from a lack of curiosity, a deep and authentic desire to understand the experience and point of view of those who see things differently than we do. When we have not taken the time to talk to people with whom we disagree, it is easy to create caricatures, to dismiss them as ignorant, misguided, or acting in bad faith. By contrast, when we seek to understand another person, we often discover points of agreement, shared values–if nothing else, our common humanity. Even if we walk away from these conversations unchanged in our opinion, the easy caricature we had is often replaced with a more complicated, multifaceted portrait. In the end, curiosity about others is a civic virtue. Leading a life of curiosity is an ethical commitment to recognizing other people in all of their human complexity. 

And so, graduates, my hope for you this evening–and in the years ahead–is that you will be curious people, for your own sake, and for all of our sakes. In each of your programs, you’ll find a small card, identifying you as a “Curious Person.” I have put one in my wallet, as a reminder of the person I want to be–but also as a reminder of the class of 2024 and of the two years we have spent together here at Whitfield. I offer it to you as a small token of your time here, the person you are, and the person you will continue to discover and become.