Head of School Graduation Books: A GDS Tradition

On Friday, October 30, 2009, the GDS High School celebrated Halloween. Students and faculty came to school dressed as popcorn tubs, football players, vampires, and more, ready to dive into the traditional festivities, including the costume competition and the marshmallow-consuming spectacle “Chubby Bunny.” The fun was interrupted, however, by a special assembly–a chance for the student body to interview the first finalist in the search for GDS’s fifth head of school. That candidate happened to be me.

I began my session in the Forum by sharing with the students a bit about myself, then we opened the floor for questions. As microphones were passed amongst the student body, I imagined myself as Oprah Winfrey, striding through the space and working to keep 500 students engaged. The questions were serious and insightful, reflecting a passionate student body who cared deeply about their school. And then, I was asked this:

Each year at the High School Christmas Assembly, Peter Branch [my predecessor as Head of School] reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Will you continue this tradition and–second question–what’s your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

I couldn’t have been better prepared for this question if it had been shared with me in advance. As a child I grew up in La Jolla, California. Each year on Halloween (remember, we were celebrating Halloween that day),  I would trick-or-treat in the neighborhood around my house. The highlight of trick-or-treating was always visiting the sprawling ranch home several blocks up the street which belonged to…Dr. Seuss. Really. Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) and his wife Audrey were my neighbors. They would invite us to sit on the carpet in their living room each Halloween, where they would feed us cupcakes and where Dr. Seuss would read us (what else?) Dr. Seuss books. As a six-year old, I thought this was normal. As a head-of-school candidate, I understood that this was a unique life experience, one perfectly suited to the moment at hand.

I shared my story, closing my answer with my favorite Dr. Seuss book (The Lorax, because of its sustainability themes), and enjoyed the rest of the interview. I suppose if my neighbor had been Maurice Sendak or Shel Silverstein, I could now be working at Tulsa Country Day School.

I don’t read How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Christmas Assembly, as that was Peter’s tradition, not mine. Instead, I perform a unique version of “The GDS Christmas Blues” every year, a tradition seven years old and counting. I know that traditions are meaningful in the life of a school, and they’re certainly meaningful to me.

Another tradition which began with me seven years ago has to do with books. Each year at graduation rehearsal, I give the soon-to-be graduates a book. The book can be fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic. The following criteria must be met to be a graduation book selection:

  • Quite simply, I loved the book;
  • The book hasn’t been read in a GDS High School course the year that it is given;
  • The book must both stand on its own merits and convey some “deeper meaning” befitting a graduation speech.

The following books have received the distinction of “Russell’s graduation book” for the past seven years. It goes without saying, I highly recommend each of them:

Class of 2011: Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. McCann’s novel, which won the National Book Award in 2009, is based loosely on the story of Philippe Petit, a French high-wire artist who gained fame for his tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. Petit didn’t have permission for the walk, and spent more than six years secretly preparing for what he called “the artistic crime of the century.” He learned everything he could about the towers which, when he hatched his plan in 1968, were still under construction. He had to figure out how to get a 450-pound steel cable across the 200-foot gap between the towers, how to take into account the ways the towers would sway in the wind, how to get a 55-pound balancing pole up on the roof, and other details. He obtained fake IDs for his co-conspirators and himself, dressed in disguise as construction workers, and used this cover to scout the rooftops and hide supplies. On the morning of the walk, he used a bow and arrow to shoot a fishing line from one roof to the other, and then passed larger and larger ropes across the space between the towers until his team was able to pass the heavy steel cable across and use guy lines to anchor it. Let the Great World Spin is a dazzling story and a remarkable portrait of a city and its people, reminding us that creative acts can change the ways we see each other and the world around us.

Class of 2012: White Teeth, Zadie Smith. This novel tells the story of several families from very different backgrounds and the community that they create together. Smith began writing this book while an undergraduate at Cambridge and published it when she was just 23. White Teeth chronicles a world whose demographics are transforming. The book describes a changing London, one in which Millat Iqbal, the British-born son of Bangladeshi immigrants, marries Irie Jones, the daughter of white Archie Jones and Jamaican Clara Bowden. Smith writes, “It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke bouncing a basketball and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course.” The book, while rife with the tensions that can arise when people with very different backgrounds and experiences bump up against each other, presents at its core an optimistic vision. It is a vision of a world in which we can be enriched and enlivened by our differences, in which we grow and are strengthened by multiple viewpoints and perspectives. It is, I would argue, a vision that is at the very foundation of GDS, a vision not of acceptance of the world as it is, but of the imperative to create the world as it could be.

Class of 2013:  Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, Tracy Kidder. Paul Farmer is an American doctor who tries to change the world by working to solve global health problems and the conditions that often create them. Farmer is the founder of Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to providing health care for the world’s poorest people. In Kidder’s book, Farmer shares a Haitian proverb that says, essentially: “God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid on us.” Our aspirational GDS mission challenges us to engage actively in the world beyond our walls, and Farmer’s life work calls us to social justice. It is difficult to be unmoved by the example that he provides.

Class of 2014:  Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon. Like our School’s founders, Solomon is an anthropologist and believes we learn from engaging different voices and life experiences. Solomon has the right approach to his different subjects—he’s curious, nonjudgmental, and not too politically correct. Solomon understands that while he may carry his own prejudices into his encounters with difference, he is, in the words of one reviewer, “only too willing to have them demolished.” One member of the Class of 2014 wrote to me three days after having received the book, “Only at GDS would the seniors receive a 900-page book for graduation. And only at GDS would there be seniors who are really excited about this. My friends have already been asking me if I’ve started ‘the book’ yet. I admit to only having read the first chapter, but I am already enthralled by it.”

Class of 2015:  Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story of a young Nigerian woman who migrates to the U.S. for university and then stays, Adichie’s novel is funny and alive, with brilliant insight into race and identity. New York magazine’s review of Americanah included the following: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.”

Class of 2016:  When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. In his posthumously-published memoir, Kalanithi proves himself to be bright, curious, and ambitious. He studies both English and biology as an undergraduate, and then trains to become a neurosurgeon. At 36-years-old, when he is married to his medical school classmate and ready to begin a life of great purpose and accomplishment as a world-class surgeon and neuroscientist, Kalanithi is diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and dies several months later.

Between his diagnosis and death, Kalanithi writes this book. His illness forces him to ask in an existential way, “what matters?” What matters beyond achievement, beyond a diploma, beyond college acceptances or graduate school or recognition or awards? What makes for a meaningful or purposeful life? The author argues that meaning can’t be found exclusively in our heads nor can it be found exclusively in our hearts. Rather, a meaningful life lives at the intersection of both, when you connect your mind to your heart as you move through the world.

Class of 2017:  The Abundance, Annie Dillard. Dillard is one of my favorite authors and essayists. The Abundance is something of a “greatest hits” for Dillard, offering samples of her work from the past five decades. Significantly, the collection begins with the essay “Total Eclipse” from the collection Teaching a Stone to Talk. This essay recounts Dillard’s transformative experience of a total eclipse in 1979. This rare occurrence (the most recent solar eclipse occurred in 1991) will next place take in the U.S. on August 22, 2017. Whether or not you’ll have the chance to witness the eclipse firsthand, Dillard’s writing will help you to see the world differently.


Enjoy these books–great as summer reading or at any time of year. I look forward to building on this collection in the years to come. And I look forward to continuing to steward a community rich in tradition, even as those traditions evolve to reflect the life of the School in this current moment.

What GDS traditions do you hold dear? Please share them in the comments!

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