“We are not in need of more bright people.”
Prize Day keynote speaker Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein P'19, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, acknowledged that his statement may sound strange while addressing ninety-three Groton School graduates, in a tent full of bright students and their families.
“What we need desperately,” he went on to explain, “is smart people with a brilliant and clear conscience, who are courageous. We need you!”
Mr. Al Hussein stressed the need for moral courage and shared stories of those who embody it. He recalled his 2014 chapel talk at Groton, when he hailed a Senegalese military officer who smuggled some one thousand civilians out of Kigali, Rwanda, saving them from massacre. “His only defense was his toothy smile and his enormous charisma,” Mr. Al Hussein said.
The speaker also described his recent visit to the Oslo Freedom Forum—“the greatest annual gathering of the world’s most prolific trouble-makers, leading political dissidents”—and how nervous one political exile was before delivering his speech, which he feared could result in harm to his parents, who still lived in his home country. An exemplar of moral courage, he forged on and attacked his country's authorities in front of a large crowd and a livestream of thousands.
“Another dissident I spoke to,” Mr. Al Hussein said, “had similarly spoken out against his government’s policies, in circumstances which could spell the end for him—and he knew it. He was extremely nervous, almost shaking when I met him, nevertheless firm in his resolve that he had to continue.”
Mr. Al Hussein acknowledged that the choice is far from easy. “Do you speak up before a tyrannical sultan or their equivalent . . . and risk everything—your entire future and that of your family?” he asked. “Or do you remain silent, which may be the more sensible approach, but leaves you well encaged within a form of master-slave complex?"
The Prize Day audience on the Circle—as well as those viewing via livestream, who tuned in from nineteen different countries and forty-nine states—had been clued into the speaker’s sense of conviction by his son, Ra’ad ’19, who introduced his father. “Human rights violations are as many as they are terrible,” Ra’ad said, “but I have never seen another person throw themselves so fully at such a demanding task and stay so committed to representing the rights of all peoples.” Ra’ad said his father “made a name for himself at the UN for being outspoken, for publicly calling out individuals and voicing strong opinions.”
Indeed, while his speech was sprinkled with humor and light-hearted banter, Mr. Al Hussein’s opinions at Prize Day were not timid. “We are surrounded the world over by gutless individuals leading many of the world’s governments who cannot, for the life of them, publicly oppose their counterparts—the many bullies, almost villains, who also lead countries and not just threaten the livelihoods of the most vulnerable within them, but global stability too,” he warned. “This we must change—and it is happening.” He went on to cite the courage of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who presses effectively for action on climate change despite online hostility.
Mr. Al Hussein’s talk followed words of wisdom from the headmaster and Board of Trustees president, and a comedic talk by Edward Cho '19, who was selected by his formmates as the student Prize Day speaker.
Board President Jonathan Klein P’08, ’11, ’18, in words of welcome, stressed not only the extreme talent of the Form of 2019, but also their impact on the school as the form “that has been very active in helping the trustees and administration with suggestions in areas including mental health, our environmental footprint, and gender equality. “It is thanks to you,” Mr. Klein said, “that we will soon have a solar array at Groton School.”
He said he hopes graduates carry with them from Groton lessons about living “with judgment and discernment, demonstrating character and service to others, and taking integrity and honesty to every place you go in your lives.”
Groton Headmaster Temba Maqubela honored a form that brings honor to the school. “No one can argue that, as individuals and as a collective, you embody the Groton traits of scholarship, service, spirituality, and globalism,” he said.
Mr. Maqubela went on to note decisions made by each Groton headmaster to further inclusion at the school, from Endicott Peabody’s 1899 invitation to Booker T. Washington, a freed slave, through the admission of Groton’s first black student, coeducation, generous aid policies for low-income applicants, and, most recently, the impact of the GRoton Affordability and Inclusion (GRAIN) initiative, which made the school accessible to applicants regardless of their financial standing and which continues to restrain tuition costs.
Edward Cho, the much-anticipated student speaker, opened with a warning that his speech would be “a little different, a little unorthodox.” When Edward admitted that he recently learned that most people spit out sunflower seed shells (“I just chewed them until the little shards stabbed me in the esophagus”), it was clear that he wasn't kidding.
“You deserve a better life coach,” Edward told his formmates, as he launched into a seemingly random assembly of disparate tales and one-liners, somehow woven together with meaning.
Edward’s talk included a story about leeks—a bag of them inadvertently left by his father turned into a most unusual dorm feed, as well as weapons for limp-vegetable “swordfights,” and ultimately what the dorm still refers to as Leek Week. Edward also managed to draw a parallel between the video game, Minecraft, and Groton School. One formmate who withdrew into the Minecraft world but ultimately failed to conquer it, “was sad because he lost the unique place which he had created. He missed all the unique things in the world that made the world his world.”
The parallel was coming . . . “And now, we are sad to leave Groton,” Edward said. “Together, we built experiences and memories impossible to truly recreate ever again . . . We’ve been molding and shaping it for a major portion of our lives, and now we have to let go.” When his friend stopped playing, “he went outside and saw things he had never seen before in real life: trees, grass, the sun. They were so much better to experience outside than in a pixelated video game.
“It is the same for the Form of 2019," said Edward, "Now we must go out and experience things we only imagined at Groton.”