Georgia S. Zaiser P'12, '16 Addresses Class of 2022
Students, parents, grandparents, alumni, teachers, staff, and friends. The pride we have as a community is palpable as we share the joy of this milestone together. Facing the enormous uncertainties and disruptions brought on by the pandemic, the Class of 2022 responded with remarkable determination and resilience. We are so proud of you!
It is customary for me to share some words of wisdom with you, and I will do that by looking through the eyes of my greatest role model. I know many of you look to your parents, mentors, teachers, and adults in your life for support, love, and accountability. This is important to do as it grounds you and helps you to understand the power of family and relationships.
As some of you may know, my mother is a great source of inspiration to me. You may hear me share stories of her life on a regular basis. She is a proud independent woman who still lives on her own in the house where she raised four children while married for almost 60 years. Since 1953, she has lived on Long Island and has a full life that inspires those around her. In this small community, whether at the library, hair salon, or supermarket, my mom is legendary, with rich stories and great wisdom to share.
To understand why my mom, Connie Spiliotes (affectionately known as Yia Yia), is just that amazing, I share a few things to give you some context. My mom was born in 1931, before washing machines, interstate highways, space exploration, cell phones, and the internet—just to name a few. While born in the United States, English was not her first language; Greek was. Her father, my grandfather, was a proud immigrant from Greece in the early 1900s. As a result, my grandfather felt it important for his family to learn the language and culture of his homeland. In late 1939, my grandmother and her five children went to Leonidion, Greece, for what was supposed to be a cultural immersion and adventure of a lifetime.
Many years ago, in a different era, communication was vastly different, and world news traveled slowly. Without any major warning (while World War II escalated), my mother’s village in Greece was invaded by Germany in 1941. At that time, the only way out of this nightmare was through Egypt (with no guarantee of survival). Ultimately, my brave grandmother, at age 31, with her five children, ages 5 through 12, chose to stay in their village—occupying only one part of their spacious home, which became the Nazi headquarters in that part of Greece. My mom, at age 10, learned to clean and knit for the Nazi soldiers. With no formal schooling due to the war, she completed lessons and readings independently. I realize that is why she values formal education so much—it was something she lost during wartime. For three years, as a child, she witnessed the horror of war and a childhood devastated by world unrest and tragedy.
By October of 1944, Greece was liberated from Nazi rule. Miraculously, at the end of the war, my mother, her siblings, and my grandmother returned safely to the United States after almost a month-long voyage to New York Harbor. Seeing Lady Liberty looming large, torch in hand, as they returned home is a memory etched in my mom’s mind forever. Remember that the freedom we all enjoy is rather incredible.
So, at age 91, my mother lived through war, raised her own large family, finally received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at age 58, and cared for my father with dementia for almost a decade. Her perspective on life (as she knows her time is somewhat limited) is refreshing and insightful. Today, I share with you some of her best advice I have collected over the years as a daughter, mother, teacher, sister, wife, and friend.
1. Take a risk. It was my mom who supported (more than I did) my son’s wish to attend boarding school. She said to let him take a risk to see how it played out. You never want to regret a missed opportunity. Try new things, make new friends, and get out of your comfort zone. Seize the moment to do something different, you may surprise yourself.
2. Be kind. My mother’s kindness never wavers. She had plenty of reasons to be hateful and bitter, but her belief that kindness matters over all else has been a grounding force in her life (and mine). Think before you speak, act, post, or share. Do something kind each day for someone. It is good for the heart and mind.
3. Stay positive and be grateful. Through the depths of despair during World War II and the extended illness of my father, my mother learned how to look to the future, make plans, and set goals. Take time to think about your mindset each day. What is your mindset? Your actions and attitudes impact all of those around you. Remember now how fortunate we are and that the possibilities are endless as you leave this school for your next adventure.
These three key pieces of advice will help guide you to be your best self. Take them with you and keep them at the forefront of your mind. Graduates, your strength of character continues to develop and form throughout your young adulthood. Over time and through various experiences at school and home, it will be shaped and molded. Every day at Far Hills, we teach lessons about acting with integrity and speaking with honesty, and being a kind and responsible community member. Our Five Pillars have cemented the foundation of your Far Hills education. Be careful not to focus your energy solely on grades, standardized test scores, and athletic and artistic measures of achievement. Because more and more, you will realize that character truly matters.
So as you leave your Far Hills “home,” remember to speak with honesty, think with sincerity, and act with integrity. Don’t forget to take risks, be kind, and stay positive. This, Class of 2022, will serve you well in high school and beyond. As Yia Yia would say in Greek, ke-ah-no-te-rah—meaning, go higher. Congratulations to the Class of 2022. We are so very proud of each and every one of you and know you will soar to new heights in the next chapter of your life!