Wild Horses: 2023 Commencement Address by Dr. Mike Davis

I want to welcome all of you to the Commencement Exercises of the Class of 2023. We are here to celebrate something special: the culmination of many years of your dedication and hard work. No matter whether you are a “super lifer” or “lifer,” joined sometime during your Lower School or Middle School years, or came to us during high school, you are about to walk across the stage to receive your Colorado Academy graduation diploma! Congratulations on your many accomplishments in the classroom, on the playing fields, in our arts studios, and on the stage. As Seniors, you have made your families very proud, and you have served as important role models for other grades. By engaging wholeheartedly in all of your activities at CA, you have played an essential role in sustaining all that is unique and special in our school for future generations.

This day would not be possible without the amazing work of all our teachers—from the Lower School to the Upper School. Let’s honor them with a round of applause. When I roam campus, I love catching the moments that you have with your teachers. Whether it is hearing laughter or an engaged conversation as I walk by a classroom; or perhaps seeing a teacher working one-on-one in a conference; or a coach giving feedback and encouragement; or an arts teacher helping you complete a project or a performance, CA’s faculty truly cares about you and your development as a human being. Thank you, faculty and staff.

I also want to thank your parents, grandparents, and family members for their support of this school and for entrusting us with these exceptional students. Sending a child to Colorado Academy is a significant decision for any family. It involves a commitment that requires tremendous sacrifice on many levels. Seniors, your parents have given you an amazing gift. And, next year, you will realize just how well prepared you are for the next level of your journey. It is up to you to use the foundation that Colorado Academy and your parents have given you and go out and make a difference. Opportunities await, and you have the thinking and problem-solving skills to go far in life. Let’s thank your parents and families for their support in helping you and guiding you to this important day.

So, here we are on a beautiful day… Let’s just set the tone with one of my favorite songs: the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”

This is a song the Rolling Stones wrote in 1969, the year I was born. The first version, written by guitarist Keith Richards, was about how he was apprehensive about going on tour, having just had a son (hence, “wild horses couldn’t drag me away”). Singer and co-creator Mick Jagger expanded on this theme of loss and transformed it into a song about the end of a loving relationship, likely one from Jagger’s own life.

As happy as we are on this day, it’s also a little bittersweet. As much as we think of ceremonies like today as beginnings, they also represent endings. There are 200+ parents here who are probably a little sad to see you leave home, not completely sad. They held you as babies. And, as much as you have grown and will continue to grow, no parent can ever forget that time when we held our children as they took their first breaths. 

While I know that all of you are eager to pursue your journeys and move on to the next level, my guess is that the idea of being “dragged away” from your immediate friends is a bit daunting. What’s interesting about the “Wild Horses” song is that Jagger, in one of the verses, sings about how nothing “could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind”—he wants to sustain that love. After today, your relationship will change with every person in the CA community, and I hope those will be relationships of joy. I know from being here for 15 years and seeing my own children graduate from CA, that you will sustain relationships and friendships with your classmates. Some of you will make connections with folks you aren’t particularly close to now, but this will happen because of your shared experience and continued maturity. This will all take work, but it will be worth it. 

One piece of advice I want to give you that I have offered to past graduating classes—give every one of your classmates a bit of grace. Most of us are not our best selves in high school. Many of you have known each other since Lower and Middle School, a time in which every human makes mistakes. While you will likely never forget when a classmate did something stupid or even unkind, please forgive them and assume good intent going forward. You will be rewarded by renewed connections.

You are about to enter a world that is likely as complex and challenging as it has been since the end of World War II. We have war in Ukraine and growing geo-political tensions abroad. At home, we are facing political dysfunction at a moment when our nation needs to be a leader. We need coherent strategies to face climate change, the role of government in our society, and the best ways to support the rights of all Americans—no matter their background or identity—to ensure their rights to happiness and liberty. On top of this, your generation will be the first to confront a revolutionary technology in artificial intelligence, which will make your university experience very different from past classes, as well as change the economy you will enter upon graduation from college. 

Yet, I know you are ready and will be leaders. You made it through COVID and the immense disruption it brought to your lives. Instead of being negative and cynical, your class provided great leadership this year. You are ethical, motivated, and kind-hearted. But to face these challenges, you must also know yourself and take care of yourself.

A few weeks ago, I was feeling a little restless. Springtime in a school can be a little bit hectic. So, after seeing the dress rehearsal of Mamma Mia!—which was just so much fun—I loaded up in my rig and went out to western Colorado to solo camp and hike. For me, self-care is usually setting a goal for myself to explore someplace new—to climb a new mountain, ski a new line, find a new canyon or Anasazi ruins or rock art in Utah. I’ll do research in advance, but typically, what I try to take on usually ends in some failure the first time. Either the weather isn’t right, or my goal is just a little too ambitious, but for me it’s the process that is most rewarding. It’s challenging myself and finding a head space where I have to focus to the exclusion of everything else I might be facing. One might say this isn’t healthy, and yet in those efforts, I end up coming home with more clarity.

So, when you are driving out to the Western Slope on I-70, eventually you emerge from a canyon into the town of Palisade, and if you look to your right or north, you will see these massive cliffs known as the Little Book Cliffs. My goal was to camp on the top of that mesa—known as the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Wilderness Study Area. It’s a reserve of 36,000 square acres, with only a handful of trails and about 150 wild horses. (You see how my talk is coming together now.) My goal that weekend was to see whether I could find any wild horses in that area, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That terrain is rough, with steep canyons and only a few established trails and poorly marked roads. The horses run in small herds of two to ten. As I set in to camp the night before, it dawned on me that my odds for success would be low.

Last year, Senior class speaker Maude Tetzeli talked about channeling your inner mustang. I encourage you to do that. They are amazing creatures. Brought to America by the Spanish, successful attacks by Native American groups led to herds escaping across the frontier where they thrived and multiplied. The horse changed the course of American history and delayed western expansion for decades as they gave groups like the Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache, and, particularly, the Comanche the ability to resist that expansion. In the 19th century, there were about two million wild horses or mustangs running wild in America. By 1971, before they received federal protection, there were only 42,000 left. (We should also not forget about wild burros.) There are now 201 herd management areas on fewer than 35 million acres. There has been a fairly concerted effort by ranchers and the federal government to reduce protection for wild horses. They are viewed as a nuisance, and they require resources to support, and there are sad tales of the mass slaughter of wild horses and burros to contain their numbers and not strain their food supply.

These are amazing animals. They are incredibly social. They stand on bluffs looking for other horses. They take care of each other. Herds of mares follow an alpha mare and a stallion. The stallions are protective and even aggressive in face of a threat. The alpha mare protects the herd as well.

As you know, we have that statue on campus of Robert Frost, and I have always followed the advice in his poem “The Road Not Taken” by taking the road less traveled, thinking it makes all the difference. I did just that, as I set out in search of these wild horses. 

I started on a high bluff and worked my way down on a very rough trail to a canyon floor, where for the next eight miles I wandered in and out of flowing streams. Then I saw them! A small herd of four young males. Two immediately got in my face. But I hung back and chilled nearby for 20 minutes. Eventually, one young male got curious and came really close. He was well fed and healthy, but covered in scars from the difficult terrain. By the end of my hike, I had gone 17 miles round trip and 2500 vertical feet and could barely walk by the time I got back to my camp. But, I was beyond enthusiastic. Halfway back up the cliff to the mesa, I took a break and was sitting off the trail, when an amazing red mare came around the corner. She was not expecting me and let me know. She was so strong and powerful, it was overwhelming. And then, just as I summited, I found a herd of six that included two foals. It was the kind of adventure that just gave me a renewed sense of energy and promise.

After we depart from today’s ceremony, college and life is going to drag you away from CA, and that is a good thing, as I have much hope and optimism for each of you. Life is about weathering the challenges. Like the mustang, I felt encouraged. I know you have scars already, and you will earn more. I hope you can maintain a fierce sense of independence and freedom as you chart your path. You will have relationships that will be lifelong and positive, as well as those that will come to an end. But, on your journey, only you can define your happiness and your sense of purpose. It will be critical for you to do so. And even Mick Jagger ends the mournful song and closes the lyrics with “Wild Horses….we will ride them someday.”

Ride that wild horse to your happiness and purpose. Congratulations!