Duncan Moore '16 is the first senior in 13 years to be named Valedictorian of his class and also receive the Grayson Medal, the highest award the school offers, honoring the student who most singularly represents the ideals and qualities sought in a McCallie Man. Mr. Moore will attend Yale University in the fall. The transcript of his address at Commencement is below.
This year, about a week before school started, all the Pressly RAs came to campus to prepare for the incoming class of freshman. Half of each day was spent in constructive activities, learning how to approach messy rooms, smelly laundry, and unruly 15-year-olds.
For the most part, we had the afternoons and nights off. One afternoon, seven of us decided that we needed to get off campus and have a little adventure. After some deliberation as to what we would do, we settled on spelunking.
Spelunking, also known as caving, is simply the exploration of a cave. For us, we knew it entailed both novelty and a small tinge of danger. We liked it that way. Typically, professional spelunkers use high LED headlamps, knee pads, roping gear, and 2-dimensional maps to make their way through a cave. We managed to scrounge up some headlamps on campus, several of which were running on low battery. We put on long sleeve shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. We had no roping gear or maps, just a bad case of boredom. Thankfully, the cave that we went to was recommended to us, as it was a cave for “beginners.”
In all, the group consisted of Eli Lemkin, Will Via, Liam Goldman, Lawson McInnis, Mack Kraus, Jay Gibbs, and myself, and as we made the descent from the mouth of the cave into the first chamber, we could feel the air go cold. The only light was from our headlamps, enveloping us in a dense black. The first chamber was large, about the size of a small gym, so we broke off into groups of two or three to look for the passage to the next chamber. Liam Goldman, Will Via, and I poked down several corridors and dead ends, sticking close together. Will was out in front, scanning across the floor for any hazards. The last thing we wanted was a broken toe or twisted ankle two hundred feet underground. “Watch your step,” he said, as he pointed to an indent in the rock.
Perhaps the toughest part about exploring was remembering how to get back to where we started. It took spacial memory and awareness that one person alone couldn’t have, especially in the dark. It seemed like every corridor had its own misleading openings, with alternate routes that lead to more openings and occasionally looped back around.
It was reassuring to know that if one of us got confused, the other knew which way to turn. If we didn’t have that assurance, we would not have ventured as far as we did.
Eventually, Mack and Eli found the way to the second chamber. It was a tight hallway between two faces, that opened up on the other side. We had to crawl on our hands and knees, caking ourselves in mud. As we went in single file, Liam spoke up from the back, “Hey guys, you see the fossils on the walls? Look up at the ceiling!” Embedded within the limestone were the outlines of insects and shells, some as big as my hand, others the size of a thumbprint. Altogether they looked like a fine etchwork, covering the surface of the rock.
Once we’d all gotten to the second chamber, we proceeded to find the passage to the third. Starting in the second chamber, there was a small manhole that we needed to squeeze through in order to get to the next. Jay, leading the pack, went first. He slid down, legs in front, and managed to shift his hips down in the hole. It was tight enough to cause some discomfort, requiring him to shimmy his waist and chest slightly.
As Jay tried to slide further, it quickly became obvious that something was wrong. This hole, we failed to realize, was no straight shot. About ten feet in length, the first half funneled to a small cavity, and then pinched to an even smaller diameter on the other side. Essentially it was shaped like a crab trap. Easy to get into, but not out of. As we all watched, Jay calmly looked up and exhaled, “Guys, I think I’m stuck.”
We tried pushing, we tried pulling, we tried water, we even found a way around and pushed from the other side of the hole. No luck. Not even an inch. Jay was beyond stuck. He was locked down. After about an hour of exertion, we thought about our options: We could keep trying like we were, call for help, or try to dislodge some of the rock. We decided we didn’t want to call someone, mostly because we didn’t want the commotion and didn’t feel like the situation was urgent. However, we also knew we had to get Jay out somehow and within a few hours. Breaking the rock seemed like the best way to expedite the process. Although, if we broke the rock, we would be violating perhaps the highest outdoor maxim: Leave no trace. One could say we were caught, between a rock and a hard place…
We concluded, in terms of utility, that Jay’s immediate safety was more important than the inch or so of limestone. The cave itself was next to the home of an older couple, the house not far the cave’s entrance. At this point, it was about 10 p.m.
Eli and I left the cave and knocked on the front door of the house. The nice lady that opened it seemed sufficiently surprised to see two smelly, dirty strangers on her porch, especially when we asked if she had any heavy tools. Luckily, she willingly gave us a hammer and a crowbar.
Lawson positioned himself over Jay, and with the hammer, began to beat on the rock near Jay’s waist. The rest of us sat quietly, waiting to see if it would work. “Chink. Chink. Chink.” The sound radiated through the cave like tinny heartbeat. “Chink. Chink. Chink.”
As we listened, I remember thinking, “If this is a cave for beginners, what does intermediate look like?” After beating the rock for another hour, we tried to pull Jay once again, to no avail. By then, it was past 11:00. Our breaths had grown heavy and we began to get antsy. Jay, exhausted, said, “Guys I think it’s going to take a lot more to break through.” Eli and I scrambled back up to the house, looking for something else to use, and we brought back a sledgehammer and a three-foot iron rod... the big guns.
As Liam held the rod in the rock, Mack and Will took turns swinging the hammer into the rod. Slowly, the limestone flaked away. In between swings, we’d try to squeeze Jay out, and eventually, we had success. It was neither glorious nor climatic, just very sweaty, and with a few hard pushes, he was free.
Overall, I think we came away from that experience with a new appreciation for one another and greater respect for the cave. Much like life, caves can be complex, even mysterious.
As we move through them, we are often forced to do so with little direction, in the dark. Sometimes we aren’t sure where we’ll end up, another dead end or another chamber. Just like in life, those who try to tackle a cave alone are more prone to getting lost. It helps to have a friend and a teammate. Often times, we need someone to be there for us, to tell us where not to step, to show us the artwork on the wall. We need someone to get us through the struggles and tight spots, someone to chip away at what holds us down. In general, caves and life are not solo operations.
Furthermore, just as others provide support for us, we are called upon to support others. We must use our own light to illuminate the path of those next to us, and we should be prepared to bring out the sledgehammers when life traps those we love.
That night, once Jay was free, we all shared some good bro hugs and handshakes. As we rode back to school in the car, Eli looked over and said, “You know, I wanna say that what just happened was bad, but I’m kinda glad we got to do it. I think it was good for us.” As a group, we were glad we got through it together, and nowadays we laugh at how surreal the night was.
Oftentimes in life, we go into caves in search of some end all, final destination, that one beautiful chamber. However, real happiness is not found in the destination or even the journey. Happiness is meaning, and meaning is in relationships. Life is full of caves. It has its own tight squeezes, sudden drop-offs, and awe-inspiring caverns, but what really matters is who we go with. We must live lives seeking connection, finding fulfillment in our care for others.
One day, when we all come out of the cave, we should come out with people that we love and trust, because ultimately that’s what the cave is there for.
Thank you all. God bless.