Let me begin by offering my congratulations to the newly inducted members of Randolph School’s Cum Laude Society. The hard work and determination each of you has sustained over the course of your Upper School career more than amply justifies this recognition for “excellence, justice and honor.” I speak for all of your teachers when I say that we are proud of what you have accomplished.
A few months ago, Mr. Liese and Mr. Allen asked me to address the School during today’s ceremony. I eagerly accepted, and almost immediately began thinking about the substance of the remarks I might make. I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys public speaking, and other than our annual Community Time debates, I haven’t had many opportunities to speak at Randolph since Mrs. Hillinck and I moved here four years ago. At my former school, I spoke frequently, including addresses marking Prize Day, Commencement and even a Cum Laude induction assembly.
When Mr. Liese and Mr. Allen approached me, I went back over some of my earlier speeches, curious to see if the themes I addressed have remained relevant. I was pleased to discover that most of what I’d shared on those occasions has stood the test of time. For example, I have spoken about our country’s dire lack of energetic and competent leadership and the need for students like those we honor today to pursue the high calling of public service. In today’s challenging circumstances, I might well have repeated that summons to civic engagement.
I’ve given other talks about a wide range of topics, including the Aristotelian dictum that “To do what is right is difficult” and the ways to summon the courage we need to meet the challenges we face. At one senior class dinner, I even described the life lessons that can be drawn from watching AMC’s The Walking Dead. There’s plenty of good material in those speeches, but I’m not going to repeat myself today.
Instead, it seems reasonable under the circumstances for me to offer up some reflections on my recent bout with cancer, not so much as a way to garner your sympathy, but more as a means of encouraging everyone present today—our inductees, the entire student body, the faculty, parents and family—to think about what’s most important in your daily lives. Nothing prompts a serious reconsideration of priorities as much as a life-threatening illness. Perhaps my sharing some of what I learned while I was “on sabbatical” will prompt you to think about what you might want to reconsider in your lives.
I like the idea of the sabbatical. In some schools, and many colleges, faculty members can apply for and receive the opportunity to set aside their teaching duties for a short period, usually a semester or a year. During that time, the recipients of sabbatical leave can devote their energies to travel, to the pursuit of focused research in their disciplines, or perhaps even to an avocation for which they have little time while engaged in the normal round of classes, grading and so on.
I’ve never worked at a school that had a formalized sabbatical program. I guess I had to earn mine the hard way. Most of you know that I was diagnosed with renal cancer two months ago. After a whirlwind of visits to doctors and diagnostic scans, it was decided that I should undergo surgery to remove my right kidney. There were some scary moments along the way, like when it seemed for a few days that the tumor had spread into my liver, which would have dramatically raised the stakes, which were frankly pretty high to begin with. Fortunately, I had access to excellent care. My doctor moved swiftly to schedule my nephrectomy. Just two weeks after my diagnosis, he removed my kidney and my appendix, and I began an extended period of recovery.
During that time, I had ample opportunity for reflection. Though surrounded by my loving family (including Mrs. H. and our younger son, Peter) and supportive friends, I actually spent more time alone over that month-long period than I’ve spent in years. We have a particularly comfortable easy chair in our living room space, and I probably sat in it for more than 14 hours a day through the month of March. It was a chance to rediscover some of the benefits of solitude. Perhaps I’m trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But I’m pretty sure that, looking back on this episode, I’ll remember both its challenges and its pleasures.
So what did I do with that solitary time? I napped a lot. But here is the long-awaited Cum Laude connection. I spent much of my so-called “sabbatical” reading—lots of books, not to mention daily newspaper and magazine articles. I immersed myself in topics that I rarely have time to consider given the hectic pace we maintain as teachers and students. Here’s just a short list of the subjects I pursued (and I’m leaving out a few things):
- The impact of geography on America’s role in the world
- Sheepherding in Great Britain
- The Hollywood Blacklist
- FDR’s conservation policies
- The Holocaust and its consequences in neutral countries like Switzerland
- The origins of the graphic novel
These and other topics don’t normally arise in the courses that I teach. But I was well pleased to have the chance to learn more about them. I don’t recite this list to impress you with the breadth of my intellect. Rather, I’d like to inspire you to find time (hopefully without having to contract a life-threatening illness) to pursue some reading interests of your own.
We don’t allow enough space for the spontaneous combustion of curiosity that can transport us into a quest to learn more, deeply, about a subject. Driven by the demands of our coursework, we barely manage to get through what we “have” to do. This is true for students and teachers alike. I’m grateful to have had the chance to surpass those limitations, and I’m recommitting myself to insuring that I keep some time for deep reading even while returning to work.
During my absence, right at the outset, in fact, I learned from reading the news that a well-regarded poet, Thomas Lux, who taught for many years at Georgia Tech, died at the age of 70. His poem, “The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently,” has been a source of inspiration to me ever since I first heard it recited by a colleague at my former school who was speaking, not incidentally, at a Cum Laude induction assembly:
THE VOICE YOU HEAR WHEN YOU READ SILENTLY
is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head; it is *spoken*,
a voice is *saying* it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her "voice" but the sound
of that voice is the sound of *your* voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.
– Thomas Lux
I’ll leave you with this idea. Find some time to visit the “dark cathedral of your skull” and listen closely to that “voice that you hear when you read silently.” I can assure you that it will be time well spent. You’re bound to be surprised and elated by what you learn. Then find someone to share it with.
Mr. Hillinck joined the Randolph faculty in 2013, after teaching upper school history at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania for 16 years. He has also spent time as a teacher and administrator in California, as well as serving as a research consultant for the RAND Corporation, and as a Russian Linguist for the National Security Agency. Mr. Hillinck earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in geography and government from Dartmouth College, and a Master of Science in Russian politics from the London School of Economics. His wife, Jeanne, is also a faculty member. Both are themselves Faculty Members of the Cum Laude Society. "I would be remiss," said Ryan Liese, Head of Upper School, "if I did not mention Mr. Hillinck's star turn on Jeopardy, during the 10th season of the show and during the 1994 Tournament of Champions. Mr. Hillinck is the type of teacher whom students remember long after they leave high school, and the type of colleague who makes working at Randolph such a special privilege."