2017 Episcopal Ring Ceremony speech by Dr. Billy Pritchard
Upper School history faculty.
So, I wanted to start by saying that I am honored you chose me. Frankly, I was taken aback by the awesome responsibility of this endeavor. According to the email I received from Mrs. Rabalais right at the beginning of Mardi Gras break, the Class of 2018 had selected me to speak at their Junior Ring Day ceremony. I should say something meaningful in an allotted 5-7 minutes. In front of many of my colleagues, board members, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all of the school’s upperclassmen.
I will do the best I can, but I am from Louisiana. I do not know if I am culturally capable of keeping any comments under the 7-minute mark.
I wondered where I should start. I am a historian by trade, though. So, I am sure that my current and former students will not be surprised that I started… by looking to the past. The idea of a class ring and this rite of passage wherein one class effectively passes the torch to the school’s rising seniors had to start somewhere, right? “Where did this invented tradition begin in the first place?” I asked myself. Like a good scholar, I turned to peer-reviewed sources in Aldrich Library’s databases. Nothing! After that proved fruitless, I took a lesson from the Class of 2018: I went to Google. It turns out that the idea of a class ring has a long history in America. After a significant amount of “Googling” (roughly 35 minutes), multiple sources claim that the Class of 1835 at the U.S. Military Academy (better known to most as West Point) was the first to begin the practice. The ceremony, in some form, happens at private (and some public) schools all over the country during the Spring semester. Even though our ceremony today is uniquely Episcopal, these sorts of rituals all serve the same two purposes throughout the U.S.
First, individuals receive a wearable token to remind them that they are currently and always will be part of a larger community. Individuality and community seem antithetical to each other. To be an individual is to be original and distinctive; community indicates a collective existence. I would argue that not only can they exist symbiotically, but they do so every day here at Episcopal.
It took me a while to learn this lesson as a new teacher in your community last year. During the Fall semester of 2015, if someone had told me that the sophomores I was currently teaching would ask me to impart some small words of wisdom on their special ring day, I would have thought they were joking. I have taught roughly 75% of you, but I know a lot about you individually and collectively. That first semester was tough. My small family and I moved across the U.S. from Buffalo to return to my beloved home state, albeit in an unfamiliar city. I did not know where to find a decent hamburger. Heck, to this day, I still go to national chains with words like “super” or “sports” on the sign for my haircuts. In Buffalo, I had a guy named Frank. My phone contacts still list him as “Frank: THE Barber.” But, I digress.
Most frustratingly, nearly all of the students in my regular U.S. History class and many in my AP course just did not seem to be digging what I was teaching. For the whole semester, I tried everything to get you guys engaged and on the same page. I tried boring old school lectures. I tried group projects. I tried class discussions. I tried having some of you research and present information yourselves. Regardless of what I did, I could never get 100% of you on the same page at the same time. Even though nearly all of you were passing and learning something, it felt like my classes were failing.
Then, one day it clicked. I realized what I was doing wrong. I was asking all of you to march in lockstep. That, I have learned, is not the strength of this community, and certainly not the strength of the Class of 2018.
Collectively, I gradually learned, Episcopal thrives because it welcomes honest, genuine individuality. Therefore, your best work came when I let you BE YOU. When I began to give more assignments and activities that allowed you to express your individuality, your opinions, and your divergent interests, classes became a lot more fun. At some point in the 3rd quarter, Terrance Augustus spent a solid week and a half playing Devil’s advocate in every single class debate. I relented and let Kristen LaMotte write her entire final paper in my class on the historical importance of the O.J. Simpson trial. She proved to me and her classmates that she knows more than any living American about the case. I let Noah Dupree incorporate rap into roughly half of his assignments that second semester. I gave Grant Grantham a significant extension on his final paper because I realized that it mattered to him to write a 19-page thoughtful analysis of how 9-11 made his generation more likely to question the American government that, honestly, is better than most of the papers I wrote as an undergrad. In my AP class, I let Charles Barksdale sit in the windowsill and Wendy Wang sit behind my desk to take notes while I lectured. I also witnessed Henry Stater and Bailey McLaughlin use two student desks and classical music to perform an elegant dance interpretation of the landmark 1824 Gibbons v. Ogden Supreme Court decision. In addition to taking notes, Sydney Veazie jotted down my snarky off-handed comments and felt comfortable enough to tell me that some of the brightly-colored shirts I wore hurt her eyes. I still wear those shirts, but only on what I’ve dubbed “Sydney Veazie hates my loud shirts” Tuesdays.
It’s a lesson I learned last year that I hope your class hold onto in the years ahead. Be yourself, but always respect and bask in each other’s differences. Strong communities like this rely on passionate individuals who share a common belief in the overwhelming benefits of diversity.
Secondly, these sorts of ceremonies are in many ways your class’s first “good bye.” It is probably going to start to hit many of you very soon. Maybe even right now. The clock on your time here at Episcopal has nearly drawn to the final hour. You have a little over a year to ensure this place continues to have a strong local and regional reputation as a school that produces smart, thoughtful, empathetic, engaged citizens of the world. More than that, though, you have the opportunity to establish your legacy in the year to come.
How will you measure that legacy?
I have every confidence that your class will do amazing things academically, athletically, and as blossoming community leaders. Enjoy your senior year. As most of this year’s seniors will likely tell you, it goes by quickly. Next year, do not find yourself sitting here in this ceremony as soon-to-depart seniors having left something on the table. I speak for myself and my colleagues when I say, it will be our honor to witness the legacy you forge over the next 14 months, Episcopal Class of 2018. Now get back to it!
Dr. Billy Pritchard
Raised in a family full of storytellers, Billy Pritchard is a native of Winn Parish, Louisiania. He and his wife, Lisa, came to Episcopal last year after spending the previous decade in Buffalo, NY. He holds degrees from Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts ('99), Centenary College of Louisiana (BA '03), Ole Miss (MA '05), and SUNY-Buffalo (PhD '16). He teaches U.S. History, AP U.S. History, American Presidency, and the Civil Rights Movement.