This speech is shared in commemoration of this year’s 201st Commencement and our honored speaker Dr. Clare K. Rothschild P’15.
Head-of-School, Mr. Joe Williams, Chairman of the Board, Mr. Karl Kimball, members of the BOT, Faculty, Staff, students, parents, and other guests, first allow me to say, congratulations. Congratulations to everyone. We have endured a worldwide pandemic. Honestly congratulations to you all.
And now, to the New Hampton School, Class of ’22: You. Did. It. And it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t hard in the way that other commencement speeches celebrate difficult years. No, what you have done was really hard. And not just this year. But the year before that. And, yup. The year before that too. That pandemic thing. But that’s not all. Our country is divided today in a way unfamiliar since the 1960s. People are suffering from mental health issues at a rate beyond anything we have ever seen. Europe is at war.
What has enabled you to persist, even prevail? Was it blissful ignorance up here in the glorious White Mountains of New Hampshire? Hardly. You know better than me the misery of our age. Was it grit? Nope. Grit was gutting it out through tough times in the 90s and aughts. Your old siblings are gritty. You are much more than gritty. So, how did you do it? What is your secret?
As far as I can tell, your secret is that you are adaptable. And not just adaptable like Dunks is out of chocolate Long Johns so you’ll have two glazed donuts instead, please. No. You are adaptable in like: you adapt (and nimbly!) to unforeseeables. Unwelcome surprises and unanticipated demands like taking your high school classes online; like wearing medical masks to class; like getting nasal-swabbed weekly; like moving away from home thinking you can return now and then, only to find out that if you wish to stay in school, you can’t go home—not at the holidays, not in the summer, not at all. And you’re not from Maine. You’re from Senegal. So you have been forced by circumstances to cultivate this adaptability to unforeseeables. The question then is: how might you harness this skill for success in your futures beyond New Hampton?
As you may have heard, I am a historian. Before you visibly yawn, allow me to tell you a little story. The story involves something called the Muratorian Fragment. The Muratorian Fragment is one of the key pieces of evidence for establishing the second-century canon of the Christian Bible or New Testament. Having spent the past 12 years working on a book on this topic, in the summer of 2019, I was ready at last to see the famous manuscript in person. It is carefully guarded in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a historic library in Milan, Italy. I wrote to the chief librarian of the library, Don Signor Dr. Federico Gallo requesting to see it. I crafted a careful email listing the requirements of my stay, and in less than twenty-four hours, I was flatly denied. Recognizing it was impossible to publish my book without seeing the artifact, I consulted the expert in medieval manuscripts, Professor Michael Allen, at the University of Chicago. Michael told me that I could request to see the codex one more time, but I had to be extremely deferential. And Michael said to tell Don Federico that I was investigating medieval marginalia, drawings or doodles in the margins of medieval books. My next email to Don Federico described the project in detail and included an offprint of an article I had already published on the topic. I requested just one hour with the manuscript under the auspice of Gallo’s priests; and I concluded by characterizing my life and work as soli Deo Gloria, “for the glory of God alone.” About a week later, Don Federico agreed. He said that I could visit his library for one hour on Monday, October 14th at 9 AM to examine the renowned Muratorian Codex. When I informed Michael Allen that I had received permission to see the manuscript. he advised me to bring white gloves in case the library required that I use them to touch the precious manuscript; to bring a very expensive bottle of wine to give to Don Federico; and, to purchase and print the digital images of the manuscript from the library in advance and all but memorize them.
I arrived in Milan on Saturday afternoon and after checking into my hotel, I headed over to the library to get a sense of how long it took to walk there. The gallery was open, so I paid to enter and traversed the halls, orienting myself and perusing the art collection. As I was wandering the hallways of this former monastery, I bumped into an imposing bust of Signor Antonio Maria Ceriani the nineteenth-century librarian who had allowed a few, very distinguished New Testament scholars of the past—including B. F. Westcott and Samuel P. Tregelles—to view the Muratorian Codex.
On Sunday, I purchased a bottle of wine at Peck, a landmark Milanese grocer featuring cheeses, meats, produce, and fine wine. The bottle cost 175 Euros. That night I couldn’t sleep. Over and over again, in my head, I ran over my plan: what I would bring, who I would request to see, what I would do if I was admitted into the Reading Room, what I would do if I was permitted to examine the codex.
On Monday morning I packed up my binder, grabbed the bottle of wine, and headed over to the Library. When I arrived, I pried open the giant wooden door and entered the lobby. Approaching the glass-enclosed reading room entrance area, I told the door guard that I was there to see Signor Stefano Serventi. He motioned to me to take a seat, gesturing at a large stone chair built into the wall near the entrance. Moments later, a short man with dark hair and a beard appeared. He introduced himself as Serventi. I gave him the bottle of wine explaining that it was a gift for Don Federico. He then said the words I was hoping to hear: “You are welcome to enter our library today.” I filled out paperwork at the guard’s desk and submitted my passport for xeroxing. The guard stamped the paperwork and buzzed the gate allowing me to enter the guarded area. I placed all of my things in a locker on a wall next to the Reading Room entrance and entered the legendary Reading Room.
Approaching the head librarian, I requested to see “Ambrosian I 101 superior.” He barked back: “Italiano!” So, I stuttered: “Ambrosiano I cento uno superiore,” hoping that was close. He stood up and disappeared into the stacks behind him. When he returned, he pointed at a seat in the first bank of desks. I sat down. He placed a volume on two grey foam book props and plopped a few tiny black beanbags on the desk. I gestured at my white gloves. He shook his head no. Half expecting to see the wrong volume, I now directed my gaze to what was in front of me. It dawned on me that the cover—featuring two small antique crosses–matched my digital images. I opened the book.
Moving more quickly now, I turned to the 17th-century librarian prefect, Antonio Olgiato’s signature page. It contains two Renaissance hand-written tables of content— both incorrect and one even lined out—features I had expected to see. I lifted this page revealing the first rippled page of heavy ancient parchment. My eyes passed over the words: liber sancti columbani de bobio ioh’is grisostomi: “The book belonging to St. Columbanus of Bobbio containing the works of John Chrysostom.” Ten years of study and there it was. A book that only a few people had examined since the Middle Ages. Page by page, I began to work my way through the book, marking everything I saw on the xeroxed pages of the digital images I had brought with me. When I finally came up for air, I checked the clock: two hours had passed. Glancing nervously at the head librarian, he was staring intently into his computer. I would keep working, I thought, until he asked me to leave. Now I relaxed a little. I went through each page of the codex again, checking my notes and exploring a bit more. I noticed that by slumping down in my chair, gently tilting the manuscript, and viewing the pages horizontally, I could see marks not visible on the page when I was sitting upright. I marked in my binder every pen test, ink spill, evidence of liquid damage, insect damage, and ornament I saw.
This second time through, as I turned over page 42, I made the same examination of page 43 as I had made of all previous pages. I reread the text. I scoured the margins. I double-checked my notes and tilted the manuscript to view the page from a different perspective. On this time around, however, on the bottom margin, I spotted something. Slouching deeper into my chair I tilted the volume back and forth, negotiating the glare. Suddenly, as if in a dream, two heads—one of a man and the other of a woman—emerged from the page. It looked like a small doodle or cartoon that had been erased or scratched out. I recognized them immediately.
The text on the page is a letter from John Chrysostom to his friend, fellow theologian, Theodore of Mopsuestia. In this letter, John pleads with Theodore to remain true to his promise of celibacy. You see John and Theodore had pledged to each other to remain celibate for life. But Theodore met a woman named Hermione and fell in love. He decided to forgo his prior commitment and, in this letter, John laments what he regards as Theodore’s “lapse.” This drawing likely represented a pining, lovesick Theodore, inclining his head toward Hermione as she looked knowingly ahead. “What should I do?” I glanced up at the librarian. He was still immersed in his work. I certainly could not take a photo of the ancient manuscript and, anyway, did not think that a photo on my phone would have captured the image anyway. My only option was to sketch what I saw. Not being an artist, I gave it my best effort and also made a few notes about John, Theodore, and Hermione. Then I carefully proceeded through the entire manuscript again, checking every page for marginalia. Nothing. After two more hours, I decided that I was finished. I stood up, presented the volume to the librarian, and thanked him … in Italian. I collected my things from the locker and left the library. As I was walking down the street—admittedly in a bit of a daze—I heard a voice, “Professoressa! Professoressa!” I turned. What had I done? Had I broken a rule? Did I leave something behind? I recognized him right away: it was Don Federico and he was smiling. He thanked me for my visit to his library and for the wine and asked whether all was in order during the time of my stay. I thanked him and told him yes, that everything had been in order. Then I suddenly blurted out, “There is a cartoon on the bottom of folio 43v.” He looked at me quizzically and then his face brightened, “A discovery!” he said and hurried off back to the library. I turned into a nearby café and popped open my computer because I wanted to see if the digital image of page 43v showed any sign of the cartoon. I open the file, scrolled quickly, expanded the lower margin, and … there it was.
So, in my decade-long commitment to understanding the oldest New Testament canon list, I discovered a thousand-year-old doodle of two famous lovers probably sketched by a tenth-century Christian monk to taunt his fellow monks. Was this a colossal waste of time or the greatest thing that has ever happened to me? There is a Latin phrase that I think sums it all up: fortuna eruditis favet. It means something like, “Luck favors the prepared.” Chance discoveries are inevitable when you are prepared. This lesson pertains to you: New Hampton School has prepared you to be “lucky” wherever you go.
But, is that it? There is another lesson that I learned from this experience that I think is perhaps even more important. I saw the lovers doodle when I opted to adapt. And so, I conclude, Members of the New Hampton School Class of Two-thousand Twenty-two, you are mentally flexible nimble adapters and I charge you to keep adapting. Slouch down. Direct your eyes to the margins. Tilt your perspective. Reconsider your assumptions. Stay curious. Not because you have to, but because you can. And because you never know what you will discover. Thank you.