Rhett Gentile ’13 will deliver the valedictory speech at graduation June 7, President Thomas C. Hudnut said at the annual Cum Laude Induction Ceremony today in Rugby Auditorium.
Gentile, who was one of the 57 seniors inducted today, was chosen in a faculty vote.
Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts opened the assembly by reciting one of her favorite poems, “Ithaca,” by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, which she thought would be appropriate for the journeys the seniors would take upon entering college this fall.
“The joy of the read lasts a long time,” Huybrechts said.
Cum Laude chapter president and history teacher Eric Zwemer paid respects to the school’s Cum Laude chapter board, all of whom were either new to the board or departing this year.
Zwemer said that new Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas “managed his debut at the Upper School with great smartness and good humor,” while chapter secretary and departing math teacher Jacob Hazard “loved the school with particular devotion and energy.”
“The other, of course,” Zwemer said, pausing, “is Tom.”
Zwemer said he could easily have delivered a whole speech praising Hudnut, noting that the Cum Laude Society motto “Areté, Diké, Timé” (Excellence, Justice, Honor) applies well to Hudnut’s tenure at the school.
Instead, after briefly elaborating on the definitions of each word, Zwemer chose to focus mainly on “Timé,” or honor, a quality he judged especially important after the cheating scandal at school five years ago, which he called an “ethical failure” that “poisons our community with suspicion, disappointment and distrust.”
A brief working definition of Timé, Zwemer said, is “to speak truth, to give as much consideration to the interests of your fellow man as to your own” and to assume responsibility for the consequences of your actions.
“Why should we live our lives honorably?” Zwemer asked.
He quoted ancient Roman poet Ovid, who observed, “A man is sorry to be honest for nothing,” which he modernized by asking, “What’s in it for us?”
Zwemer gave three reasons explaining why people were honest. He said that the first reason, the fear of being punished otherwise, is “shallow but legitimate,” and is probably “the first great motivator for many of us to do the right thing.”
However, he said that he hoped that the “fear for our own hides and GPAs and reputations” is the not the only reason.
Occurrences like the five-year-old cheating scandal, Zwemer said, fuel the belief that honesty is unneeded and unused, that dishonesty is in fact the mainstream.
“Do not believe that,” Zwemer said. “Do not ever believe that.”
Zwemer said he believed that the third reason for honesty was the most significant.
“The gift of life carries with it an ethical imperative that the gift itself obliges us to respect,” he said.
This ethical imperative, he said, clashes with the principle of loyalty that students often claim to stand by when they refuse to “rat out” friends who have cheated.
“Does loyalty to people you’re comfortable with […] provide premeditative absolution for every wrong they ever commit?” Zwemer said.
He wondered how far that loyalty held out, asking whether wrongs like assault or torturing an animal still require loyalty.
“If [loyalty] ceases along a spectrum then it isn’t much of a principle, I think,” Zwemer said. “Giving an unprincipled friend a pass is an easy wrong. Aspire to the hard right.”
Zwemer did admit that life does not work in absolutes, but contains many gray areas that the inductees must use their wisdom and maturity to navigate and may navigate incorrectly. Although the inductees had conducted themselves with honor and distinction in their years at Harvard-Westlake, Zwemer said this was the precise reason he had chosen to deliver this speech
“It’s worth reminding you how important honor must be because you may continue having the impact on the world that you had here,” Zwemer said.
Zwemer finished up his speech by commending the inductees on their accomplishments.
“Every day you have been among us, you have helped to remind us why we love our jobs,” Zwemer said. “Enjoy it. You’ve earned it. Congratulations and good luck.”
Following his speech, students added their signatures to the book of Cum Laude inductees, received certificates from Hazard and shook the hands of Huybrechts, Barzdukas and Hudnut, who shared advice with each student.
In his remarks, Hudnut revealed that he had given the same advice to each student, who would descend the stairs back to their seats after greeting him: “Watch your step. Be careful.”
“If those are the last words of mine that they ever remember, they won’t be bad,” Hudnut said.
Like Zwemer, Hudnut focused on moral excellence and honor. All these inductees were smart, could write, could solve math problems, he said, but he asked, “Are you good? Are you resilient? Do you have as high an EQ as you have an IQ?”
“Your emotional quotient will see you farther in life, I suspect, than your intelligence quotient,” Hudnut said.
After announcing Gentile as valedictorian, Hudnut said again, “As you plunge off into the dark abyss of life, be careful. Watch your step.”
Following the ceremony, the inductees, family, friends and faculty attended a reception in Feldman-Horn Gallery.