By Daniel Fleschner ’94
The following is the speech delivered by 9th Grade Graduation speaker Daniel Fleshner ’94:
This is the second time I’ve had the honor of addressing the graduating 9th graders of Foote. The previous time was in June 2016. And needless to say, the world was a very different place back then.
Now things are more… complicated. Which is why I’m so impressed by what the 23 of you have done, with the help of Foote teachers and staff and your families, to persevere through these pandemic years. I can only imagine the challenge it’s been, but you’ve gotten through it together, and with the kind of creativity, ingenuity and intelligence Foote students have demonstrated for more than a century. After all, who else could have come up with a groovy retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a concluding ABBA-inspired dance number? Of course you did, and you made us all proud.
I was fortunate to see your performance about a month ago, on Alumni Day here at Foote. As you’ll come to find, returning to Foote for alumni activities can cause a person to assess and reassess their life, their story. Which certainly happened for me that day.
While sitting in the Sandine Theater, I found myself thinking about a particular concept: The concept of “home.” What a home is, what it represents. As I watched you onstage, I thought about how in your short lifetimes — a mere 14 or 15 years — I’ve actually had eight different addresses. Eight. That’s probably more than any of you have had. In my case, it’s like I’ve had an internal alarm that goes off every 2–3 years, telling me I need to pick up and move. Sometimes it’s been for a job, sometimes for a relationship, sometimes it’s just been time to go.
But while I’ve lived in some nice places during this time, I’ll make a confession to you today: I’ve never felt settled at any one of them, never felt totally at home. And I realized, at Alumni Day, that home for me is really reserved for just one city and one place. This place.
So let me take you back to 1984 — if you can imagine that human life existed that far in the past. At this time, I am not quite 5 years old. Along with several other children, I am at The Foote School for an admissions interview. (Yes, they interviewed some of us when we were 4. If you had an interview then, you probably don’t remember it either. I had to ask my mom to fill in some of the blanks for me.) After parents and kids are taken into one of the buildings, each prospective kindergartener is brought into another room, one-by-one, for their “big interview.” After my name is called and I am taken from my mother, the details become a bit sketchy. But we know a few things for sure: I am interviewed by Laura Osborn, known to many here today as Laura Altshul; I draw a picture, the subject of which is long forgotten; and at some point during the proceedings — maybe at the very beginning — I cry. Yes, on the most important of the roughly 1,600 days of my life to this point, I cry.
“Oh, God,” my mother thinks to herself. “They are never going to take him.”
But she was wrong! I can’t say why I cried, but there must have been a good reason. And Laura and the admissions team must have understood this reason, whatever it may have been, recognizing my astonishing well of emotional depth, my record-breaking amount of 4-year-old empathy, and/or my high moral and ethical standards.
Or, more likely, I was just lucky. Right place, right time, and the numbers worked out in my favor.
But the role of luck in life is for another commencement address at another time. The truth is, we will never know why Foote took me. (And please don’t try to find out because you might discover that I was never supposed to be here in the first place, and they will not only revoke my diploma but also remove me from this stage.)
In any event, despite the tears, and whatever else I said or did that day, I was soon anointed as a member of the Foote School class of 1994. I didn’t know it at the time — because I was four — but the direction of my life had utterly changed.
Now when I sat down to write these remarks, I initially tried to think about particular anecdotes that came to mind from my time at Foote. Funny experiences that I could relay, that would be both personal and universal. Lessons about learning to have integrity, compassion, curiosity; learning to write, to think critically, to see myself as a member of a community; to appreciate art, and competition, and friendship. Foote absolutely taught me all of this. But what I have found… is the more time that passes from my 10 years as a student here, the more the memories evolve into something more impressionistic, turning from anecdotes into feelings.
And these feelings aren’t necessarily connected to funny stories so much as acute moments of particular intensity. Moments that still frequently come to mind, bringing a smile or a tear or sometimes both.
Here’s one: My wonderful 8th grade history teacher Mrs. Darst is sitting in her classroom, grading papers. I am the only student there, sitting at a desk doing homework, waiting to get picked up after school. It’s a beautiful spring day outside, and a breeze peacefully blows in through the open windows. While we work, the two of us are listening to the beautiful sounds of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane emanating from a cassette tape player on the bookshelf. The world is still, and I feel safe.
Another moment: I am playing in the 9th grade vs. faculty basketball game. Gym teacher Mr. Brandt is playing uncommonly tight defense against me. I am 14, and still small, but with a bit of an attitude on the court. And I am facing this man, who, quite frankly, is trying to rattle me. I can still sense the weight of his body against mine, his sweat, his desire to teach me a lesson. The game is chaotic and tough, and his aggressiveness makes me feel angry — and motivated. When we ultimately win, and later beat the faculty at softball as well, I feel proud of my class.
Now it is November 8, 1991. I am with my classmates in Mr. Corzine’s 7th grade homeroom. Everything is hazy, it’s just off. The day before, the iconic basketball superstar Magic Johnson revealed that he had contracted HIV, which in that moment, was like announcing his own death sentence. Mr. Corzine, our tall, athletic Southern gentleman of an English teacher, whom many of us revere, writes on the board the words to A.E. Housman’s famous poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Our discussion explores the artistic expression of life and death, a terrifying plague that seems to have no end in sight, and the impossibility of the news that this could happen to someone so alive. We are 12 years old, and we are sad, but our teacher trusts us to have this discussion, and we all feel a little bit older for it.
These moments in my life — these feelings I had — happened because Foote saw a 4-year-old boy and said, “We want him to be a part of this place. We want him to call Foote home.”
These and so many other moments I experienced at Foote have come back to me, again and again, throughout my life. They have helped inform how I interact with my family, my friends, my work colleagues, how I think about the world. You’ve had moments like these, too. The specifics of yours are of course different than mine, but their effect is the same: they have shaped you and will guide you in ways you can’t possibly imagine for the rest of your lives.
So for me, after 10 years at Foote, the place my mother affectionately calls, “The Womb,” it was time to leave. I went off to Amity High School, and then Yale University.
If my Foote interview was an early inflection point in my life, I hit another such point during my senior year of college. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knew me growing up, but in March 2001, I was preparing to embark on a career as a sportswriter. I had written for every school newspaper in my academic life, starting here at Foote with the many hours I logged working on The Spi. And I was looking forward to a professional life that might take me to Sports Illustrated — a magazine I had discovered and devoured here in the old Foote library — or maybe even The New Yorker.
But there was one problem: None of the newspapers I wanted to write for wanted to hire me. I had sent clips of my best stories to several of the major metropolitan papers in the Northeast, and only one had responded. The hand-written note back from the Newark Star-Ledger said, “We really like your stuff. Call us in a few years when you’ve got more experience.”
But then, the sports editor from The New Haven Register called to offer me a job covering Yale sports.
I had a history with the Register. In my final year at Foote, the school created a weeklong externship program during which 9th graders were placed at a local business to observe and experience the workplace. I went to the Register, where the sports editor at the time, a man named Richard Lord, hired me to work as an intern later that summer. It was a great experience, though Richard advised me against going into the newspaper business, telling me instead to go into what he called “electronic media.” Which, in 1994, meant television and radio. (No, kids, the internet wasn’t really a thing yet, hard as that may be for you to imagine.)
Seven years later, while I was considering the full-time job offer from the Register, the “electronic media” called. NBC Sports was interested in hiring me to work as a researcher on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The job was based in New York.
So here was a choice that would define my career and my adulthood. Stay in New Haven and get the necessary experience to pursue my dream of becoming a sportswriter. Or move to New York City, and see where my life would go in network television.
While I appreciated that my hometown paper was interested in me, it was time to leave New Haven, time to leave … home.
Since then, I have followed a career path that I could never have foreseen, giving me incredible experiences all over the world. I’ve worked on the coverage of 11 Olympic Games, three Super Bowls, have produced interviews with presidents, rock stars and some of the greatest athletes in history. I’ve told stories that have reached millions of people and have visited places I could never have imagined seeing. I’ve been very lucky. And it all happened because, at age 22, I left home.
Which brings me to a third inflection point — one that came in the spring of 2020. The pandemic had arrived, and I was holed up, alone, in my apartment in New York City. We all lived through it, so I don’t have to give you much more context other than to say that it was a disorienting and isolating time. None of us knew how long the troubles would last or what the world would look like on the other side. For me, it soon felt like time for another change.
My sister Andrea had been encouraging me to move back to New Haven for a couple years. She and her family were in Woodbridge, my mother was in West Haven, and I had considered trading in New York City for the Elm City before, but never too seriously. The pandemic, however, made me ask myself, “Is now the time to do it and see if I actually like being back? Or will it be too close to home?” But then I asked, “What do you have to lose? You can always move back to New York if you want.”
So I did it. That August of 2020, I moved into an apartment in East Rock, right around the corner from my best friend from Amity High School. Less than a year later, I bought a house a few blocks away. Since moving back, it’s still largely been a time of social distancing, masking, and remote working, though we are emerging into a more recognizable world now. Here in New Haven I have family nearby, friends from high school and college to see, and I’m just down the hill from Foote, giving me a sense of home that I haven’t had in 20 years.
I think I’m here to stay. I hope so. Or as Bob Sandine said to me last month, “You’re darn right you came back. This is where you belong!” Who am I to argue with one of Foote’s wisest and most beloved figures?
But in order for my life to develop and evolve, I had to leave Foote and eventually, leave New Haven. And now, you’re about to leave Foote. Once you’re gone, the place will change. Although I’m pleased to see some of them here today, only one of my teachers is still on the faculty. (Hi Karla, if you’re out there.) New buildings have gone up, new playing fields have been constructed. But the soul of Foote remains intact, just as I imagine Martha Babcock Foote intended back in 1916.
This thought really struck me last month at the start of Alumni Day. As everyone gathered to get caught up over bagels and coffee, I found myself wandering around, peering at the bookshelves to read the many dedication plaques that were installed when the new library opened in 1991. Like so much of the fabric of this place, these plaques are unpretentious, but I found them extremely powerful.
They reference names like Lauren Frank, Betsy Madden, Margaret Mann, Lisa Totman, Adam Leventhal, and many others.
To you, my dear graduates, these are probably just names lost to history. You likely never thought twice about any of them as you scanned the shelves, looking for the right book. But for me, they are a connection to living, breathing people. They conjure my classmates, teachers, parents, people whom I may not have seen for more than 20 years, but who still very much live in my past and in my heart. They are the names of my childhood, the names of my life.
And that’s when it dawned on me: my childhood lives here. Your childhoods live here. The soul of this place is nourished by all of our childhoods — more than a century’s worth — and they all still reside on these grounds.
You may not feel it now, because you’re still so close to it. But in time, I guarantee: you’ll come to recognize that a piece of you will live here forever. Foote and New Haven will always be your home. Embrace that. Treasure it. And use it as a source of strength — knowing that wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you have a home.
A home where you learned quite a few things. Of course, you learned math and history and Latin; you learned all the subjects, that’s a given. But most of all here at Foote you learned to become you.
So I wish you ABBA-loving performers all congratulations, and I bid you good luck as you leave this place. I can’t wait to find out where you’ve gone when you’re ready to come back. When you’re ready to come home.