Graduation 2020: Valedictorian’s Address

Gregory the Great Academy Valedictorian Address 2020

by John Snyman (’20)

Reverend Fathers, Faculty and Staff, Parents, Classmates,

The other day, I was talking to a visitor who came to the Academy, and he asked me, “So, what do you really learn at this school?” And I thought to myself, “Hm, what did I learn?… I don’t know… I can’t remember.” I’m afraid I didn’t have a great answer for him. I can only hope he comes and finds out for himself. Even though I realize I learned a lot, and that I have forgotten a lot of what I learned, one of the good things about this school is that it ingrains certain things into your character with experiences that, most of the time, you don’t even know are there—that you don’t have to remember.

What I do remember are the innumerable memories of those times that made up my formation. Every boy that comes to this school is given incredible memories. They are the things that we all carry with us, those things that affected us for the good in the moment, but also, I imagine, years down the road. The repertoire of memories I have from this school is vast, and they are ones that I can confidently say I share with everyone I went to school with, and especially my classmates. Whether small or large, silly or serious, they are with me—with us—and they will always bind us to that life that has made us who we are today, and who we will be later on in our lives.

I can’t help but share with you now a little of what comes pouring into my mind when I let those memories run loose.

Being awakened by Colby Robinson handing me a hot cup of coffee, with a look on his face saying, “I didn’t do all this work for nothing—you better get up.”

Walking into the sun porch, hearing the cackling of boys reminiscing an embarrassing moment of the past.

Smelling the fragrant, smoky smell of the chapel at morning prayer, where you find the strength to face the day with a rigorous attitude—sometimes ruined by the terrible breath of your friend who is breathing on you on purpose.

Coming down after morning prayer and getting a little boost by a smile from your friendly neighborhood John Bateman.

Busting out your morning job to get to breakfast on time only to find it’s all gone.

Making my way back to my room to find a large cup of coffee glued to my desk so that when I pull on it just hard enough, the glue breaks, and the coffee spills everywhere. It was funny the first three times, Max… or Billy. (I still don’t know who did it.)

Hearing James Gaetano run by me for the tenth time in ten minutes trying to catch someone who chucked a ball at his face.

Racing to get to class on time and the look on the teacher’s face when you tell him you forgot your book.

Fighting in the chalk wars before algebra class and watching Kevin Howerton walk to the next class oblivious that his blazer is covered with chalk marks.

Re-enacting a battle march in Ancient History class by savagely beating our desks and seeing the terrified kid who happened to be visiting the school when he heard Audino’s war cry.

Smelling lunch filling the building after morning classes, and often finding it tastes better than it smelled.

Mustering the strength during class to face the pain that was about to come from the weight room, or the rugby pitch.

Seeing your teammate give everything he has and turning to do the same for his sake.

Hearing Mr. Prezzia somehow accidentally skip four numbers when counting down the end of a circuit.

Feeling proud after making it through practice without your weakness getting the better of you.

Receiving a letter from your sister and soaking it with tears when she makes you realize just how blessed you are.

Hearing the roar of sixty boys belting out a song that only half of them know at the dinner table.

Feeling of the warm spring sun after winter is over and the bewilderment when it snows in April.

Bringing it all to night prayer at the end of the day, to give thanks for the joy and to offer up the pain.

And finally, falling asleep to the chatter of your roommates that you have somehow learned to love in a few short months.

There is such an accumulation of memories that make up one single day at this school, and we have been here for hundreds. I only wish I could remember them all. But what have I learned? What have we all learned?

What I probably should have said to that boy who was visiting is that living a busy and productive life is the only way to know and to better yourself. And that is what, I think, we have done, what we have learned—to stop, reflect, and recognize the beauty in every single thing around us. Our memories teach us that we have learned to love learning and know the importance of completely engaging yourself in whatever it is you’re doing in any given moment. We have learned to make a habit of sacrificing ourselves for others, whether it be on the field or in the dorms. We have learned to live with guys we didn’t really like and somehow ended up truly caring about. We have learned to take pride in doing the smallest things correctly and to never accept our current state as good enough, enkindling a drive for excellence.

The desire for adventure is in the heart of every young man, and at this school it is well exercised in order, I believe, to give us these lessons and these memories. Here, we took on challenges confidently, whether it was traveling to a foreign country with no money, striving for months to compete for a rugby state championship, or dressing up in a tie to sing to a girl at Dunkin Donuts. We tried hard to be resilient in whatever situation we were in. In fact, my fondest memories of this place are when the surroundings got worse and our spirits got better, making true friendships based on virtue. When I saw the crooked smile on a classmate’s frozen face going into a scrum, I thought to myself that there were few things we couldn’t endure together. Somehow, at this school, we have learned to enjoy the gifts given to us, both great and small.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from this school that my class has experienced only came when the tail-end of our time here was taken away. When we went home last March, the upcoming two and a half months was everything to us. Our last time together as boys, our last rugby season, our last chance to do good in this place where we have so much power to do so—all this was our world, it was all we cared about. When it was suddenly gone, many of us were extremely distraught. But it had its purpose.

One of the books we read when we were home was “The Ballad of the White Horse.” In it, there is a scene where King Alfred of the Wessex men is visited by Mary. At the time, he was despairing at the repeated defeats he had suffered from the Danes. He asked Mary not for the secrets of heaven. He only asks if they will one day be victorious. She does not answer his question directly but reminds him of his purpose. She says this:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

“The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

“The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

It was in this loving warning, this impossible challenge, that my classmates and I realized that we were being told that none of what we loved about our world was greater than loving Christ. If we only do this, then we will have joy without a cause and faith without a hope. This is what this school has taught us through life, liturgy, work, study, leisure, and play—it has taught us what it means to be a Christian man living our lives deliberately according to His Will, even as the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher. With the of grace God and the gifts given to us at this school, I feel confident as I stand with my classes and face the world. I am honored to have this opportunity, on behalf of my class, to say thank you to all here present who made it possible for us to have experienced this life-changing school.

Thank you.