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Ben Williams '98 delivers Commencement address

Ask Them To Play

Ben Williams ’98
2021 Commencement Address
June 12, 2021

In my job as a lawyer, and in my life as a person, I often write and speak, but I confess that it was challenging to find words to say for Commencement today. We have been through an unspeakably difficult and frightening 18 months. We have lost friends, family, and loved ones. We have suffered, and we have witnessed so much suffering. We will be impacted by the pandemic for years to come – for many, for the rest of our lives – and for me, some of that short-term impact is that the spark of inspiration that causes me to sit down and write has felt diminished.

Director of Development David Hannon asked me in February to speak, and although my mom and dad, along past and present Pine Point faculty, can attest to my terrible habit of procrastination, I assumed I would write this at least a month in advance, but I couldn’t find the words until this past Sunday, when I looked through Pine Point’s website, and listened to the words of one of Pine Point’s youngest students. When asked about Pine Point’s motto – “Strong Minds, Caring Hearts” – this Lower School student responded, “To be kind: if somebody’s just sitting somewhere, like on the bench, you say, ‘Do you want to play with us?'”

None of Us Can Do It Alone

I was so moved by this student’s words because I had too many moments last year where I was that person who was sitting alone. And although I have worked so hard in my life to get where I am, and although I fought through many difficult struggles in my life, the truth is that none of us can do it alone. And I could not have gotten through this year without friends and family who are thoughtful and caring, who knew that I was alone, and who reached out: to see how I was doing, to see if there was anything I needed, to say they were thinking about me, or just to be there, on the other end of a phone call or an email, or six feet away, on a walk down an abandoned street in New York.

Some of you have been at Pine Point for as long as you can remember, and some of you have been here for just a short time, but all of you are about to go into a much bigger world. You may not know it now, but you will come to appreciate the lessons you’ve learned here, in and out of the classroom. They will give you a very real advantage in the world as you take this next step in your lives. And I hope that this realization comes with a desire to share your gifts with others, and to give back.

Knowledge is Power

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “knowledge is power,” and perhaps passed by it without giving it a second thought. But knowledge is power, and I’d like you to think about that more. Perhaps some of you will study and become doctors: you will learn skills that let you save a person’s life. Perhaps some of you will study and become lawyers, and use the power of the law to protect other people. And perhaps some of you will study and become teachers, the most powerful profession of all, with the skill to help hundreds or thousands of young people grown, learn, develop, become who they will be, and then you can stand proudly on days like today as your students go out into the world, using what you taught them. Whatever it is that you choose to learn, you will know something that other people don’t, and that is power.

And while knowledge is power, so too is heart. Remember the student I spoke of who noticed someone alone on the bench: some of you have been alone on the bench, and know how good it feels when someone asks you to play; and some of you have been the person who asked, and know how good that feels too. Looking out for others and helping them is a fundamental part of how we define community. Caring about people other than yourselves is one of the most important concepts that you’ve learned.

Combining Knowledge and Heart

And when you combine knowledge and heart, you can change the world. As an example: a couple of years ago, I and several law colleagues volunteered to take the case of a young man. He is gay, like me. He likes Lady Gaga, like I do; he likes singing and dancing, like I do; he likes hanging out with friends, like I do. In many ways, I am him, and he is me, except I happened to have been born here here, in America, where these days it’s pretty safe to be a gay person, especially in a place like New England and at a school like Pine Point. But our client was born in a place where if people found out that he is gay, he could be killed, and where at his school, his teachers said gay people deserved to die. And so he fled here, to America, and tried to stay – but our laws don’t allow people to just decide one day to come here and stay. In most cases, the government would force him to leave, to go back home, and perhaps, to die. But my colleagues and I had knowledge that there were exceptions to the rules. And in our hearts we knew we had to try to keep him safe. And so we argued, with knowledge and heart, before the most powerful government in the world, that he should be allowed to stay. And we won. He and I are even more alike now: he lives in New York City, just like me, and he is safe.

For me, this is just one way I could help. For you, there will be limitless ways that you can help, with the power of your strong minds and the power of your caring hearts. And so I challenge you to go out into the world with your eyes open, and look for that somebody sitting alone on the bench, whoever, wherever, whatever that may be to you.

And ask them to play.

Ben Williams '98 delivers Commencement speech to 2021 graduates

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