WHS Commencement Address

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

 

These are the words of the great Bertrand Russell.

 

President Laverty and distinguished members of the School Board. Dr. Buck and District staff. Dr. Grant and faculty and staff. Class President Peter Greubel and other class officers. Student Senate President PJ Gorman and other officers of the senate. To our students, families, and all of the rest in attendance today, thank you for having me.

 

This opportunity has caused me to revisit my formative years. Not just those glorious four years I spent in high school, but the time leading up to it as well.

 

I was born to a single teen-aged mother who raised me and my younger sister on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We grew up in government-subsidized housing between the Wellington Heights and Oakhill Jackson neighborhoods. These were the places others referred to as the ghetto.

 

We relied on food stamps and food drives, and other welfare programs just to get by.

 

My mother was not college educated, and neither was my father, a man I met just twice in my life. The last time I heard from him was during my sophomore year of college. He phoned me to let me know that he had followed my high school football career in the newspapers. It turns out, he lived just fifty miles away from me for my entire life.

 

My mother had a childhood friend who had moved to Buffalo, New York. This friend of hers had fallen ill and asked my mom to stay with her for a few weeks over the summer. I opted to stay in Cedar Rapids with my grandmother, while my mom took care of her friend.

 

When she left that day, I would never see her again. My mother was murdered in Buffalo, New York, and the case was never solved. To this day, her killer remains free.

 

After learning of her death, my sister and I went to live with our grandmother, Shirley Martin. A child of the South, she was born in rural Alabama near the end of the Second Great War. She recounted to me stories of the Indians – as she called them – who lived in her neighborhood. She told me stories of friends and family members being strung up from trees. One story I’ll never forget dealt with the quietness of her great grandfather. He was a man who seldom spoke. When she asked her great grandmother about this, she was told that he hadn’t quite been the same ever since she saved enough money to buy his freedom out of slavery.

 

She lived through some tumultuous times: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four innocent girls lost their lives, the brutal beatings endured by the Freedom Riders, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, then Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many more of our leaders.

 

But she also lived through some pretty remarkable moments in time as well including the Brown v. Board of Education decision which effectively ended segregation in our public schools; the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964; and the election of this nation’s first African American president a little over 50 years after the Brown decision.

 

She survived cancer multiple times. She went to Kirkwood Community College in her fifties to become a nurse. She was deeply religious. She was the strongest, kindest woman I ever knew. Two summers ago, I lost my grandmother to illness and she went to be with her God.

 

I stand here today, because she lived.

 

It is important that I share my story with you this afternoon – the stories of the people whom I hold dear – because I hope you’ll do it too one day. I hope that you will pay homage to those in your life – parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, and friends – who helped to get you to this point. No one can do it alone. We all had a little help getting here, and we all will need a whole lot more going forward.

 

When you go from this place, you will be encouraged by friends and caring adults to pursue noble careers. They will tell you to study law and see to it that justice reigns supreme. Study physics and help us reach further into the infinite depths of space. Study medicine and bring healing to those in need. All of these pursuits are worthwhile and necessary. However, I implore you: seek the path that sets your soul on fire. Pursue your truth and your passions, and do good by others in the process, and surely, your life will be one of purpose and satisfaction.

 

For generations we have been programmed to believe that the ultimate measure of success of woman and man is the size of their bank account or the square footage of their home. With this being the end, the means necessitate careers with high earning potential. We should neither exalt nor degrade a profession by its financial yield. Instead, we should recommend career paths that align with our values and our passions.

 

We should hand a paintbrush to our students who wish to revive the neo-expressionism of Basquiat. We should find studios for those students who want to express themselves through hip-hop – the artistic combination of poetry and music. We should bear any burden for those students who wish to do life’s most important work: which is to teach and educate the masses.

 

If our society is to reach its full potential, it will be because we made serious and continued investments in education. It will be because we supported our teachers, without whom no other profession would be possible. Finally, it will be because we made college and other postsecondary education options more affordable and accessible to all people.

 

A student’s dream of college should not be hindered because their parents don’t earn enough money. That is not how a good society should function. The cure for cancer could be trapped in the mind of a child growing up in the throes of poverty. We have an obligation to that child. We have an obligation to our society.

 

At Washington High School, if we are to be known for anything, let us be known for being a place where a kid growing up in Oakhill Jackson or Wellington Heights has the same chance of success as the kid growing up in Green Valley or Diamond Woods.

 

How do we make this happen? How do we repair the body politic and make our society better for all people? The answer is you.  All 278 graduating seniors here today and your peers across the country will soon have the opportunity to put your smarts and energy to good use and make an impact on your community. One day, you will serve on the PTA, or on the board of a nonprofit organization. You will lead companies. You will be teachers of students. You will be influencers in your community.  Some of you may even go into politics.

 

Please remember that politics is not supposed to be a dirty profession; one filled with more hypocrites than heroes, or more sinners than saints.  Those who hold elected office are representatives of people in society. What our politics needs now more than ever is good people. Thoughtful women and men who want to do the right thing; who want to see businesses flourish; who want to build inclusive communities that are safe and afford all people in society opportunities to thrive.

 

Your partisan affiliation will never matter as much as the content of your character. What matters most, is what’s in your heart.

 

If this country is ever going to heal, it will be because Republicans and Democrats remember how to treat each other with respect, and remind each other that democracy works best, when we all work together.

 

In these trying times, you are the greatest hope for a better society. We will rely on your technology savvy to further democratize learning, ensuring that a good education can reach people in every community across the globe. We will rely on your endearing sense of tolerance, which will enable all people to be comfortable in their own skin and identity.

 

It will bring people out of the closet and out of the shadows. It will give power to that sacred credo that all women and men are created equal – no matter who they choose to love, or what god they choose to pray to – affirming once again, our shared humanity.

 

We will rely on your curiosity and idealism, which will lead to great discovery. The roadmap to peace for those countries embroiled by constant war; or a roadmap to recovery for an earth that continues to warm, amid rising sea levels, melting ice sheets and an atmosphere being suffocated by greenhouse gas emissions. We have the science. Now all we need is you. The solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges may very well be within your reach, even if they are not currently within our sight.

 

In all things, stand firm in your beliefs. Stand firm in your values. Show the whole world that this upcoming generation can be the adults in the room that we so desperately need.

 

If you believe that a course in African American literature ought to receive the same credit as any other course in literature, then you gotta stand up.

 

If you are not satisfied with the decisions being made by elected officials in this community, then you gotta stand up.

 

If you believe that a teacher or a principal has been wrongfully terminated, then you gotta stand up.

 

We can’t wait for leadership to trickle down from on high; the whole idea of a trickle down process never made a whole lot of sense to me anyways.

 

It starts with us. Leave the petty bickering to others and focus on results. Keep the big picture in mind. Know that people come into our lives for seasons – whether it be friends, even family, or a beloved principal. Let us try to be a blessing to each other and make the most of the time we have together on this earth.

 

History is an unfailing judge, and it will give all generations to come a dispassionate view of our leadership. In the final analysis, we will be made to answer whether or not we did all we could for the most vulnerable; whether we were fair and just in our dealings; whether we found courage during the hard moments.

 

We work to make our society better not for bragging rights or to cement our legacies. We work to make our society better because it is a noble cause, and it is the right thing to do. If we give ourselves to this, history will be forgiving of our errors and will hold in even greater esteem, our successes.

 

This work is difficult. But no one here is asking for a break. That’s not what Warriors do. We don’t pray for easier lives. We pray to be made stronger women and men.[1] We don’t seek easy answers or clichéd wisdom. Instead, we seek the challenge of the impossible.

 

Your generation is a stubborn one and out of necessity, you’ve become fearless. For you, there is no such thing as an unreachable goal or an unachievable task. You are the architects of your own destiny.

 

The future of the universe has not been written in any book; it is in the blood and brains of the stumbling human race. So I offer you a philosophy of an unfinished world where there still remains the adventure of building it as we want it, a glorious opportunity for youth to help write and act in the drama of earth’s story to be…We are thus, all of us, the small and the big, builders of the universe for all time.[2]

 

Now I cannot leave this stage today without paying tribute to a titan in our community; a wise king, Dr. Ralph Plagman.

 

For nearly a half century, he dedicated his life to thousands of young women and men during a most critical time in their development. He understood privilege. He understood equity long before these two words became buzz phrases. He made sure that our institution was a leveled playing field for everyone who walked through the doors. He was an advocate for all people.

 

And while he is not here in this place with us this evening – he promised me he would be watching from home – he can rest assured knowing that thousands of Warriors across the globe are honoring his legacy; because that is what Warriors do.

 

He was and will likely remain the heart and soul of Washington High School, forever. It is one of the great honors of my life to call him a friend.

Tennyson said it best:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Celebrate tonight. For you have reached a great milestone in life, but your next great experience awaits.

 

There is more work to be done in this imperfect world, and we’re all relying on you. Let your thoughts – the chief glory of man – and your heart – the vital organ of morality – light your path, forever.

 

Go forth, dream big, work hard, and change this world for the better.

 

Thank you.

[1] Kennedy, John F. “Remarks at Presidential Prayer Breakfast.” 11th Annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast. Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. 7 Feb. 1963. Speech.

 

[2] Sorensen, Theodore C. Counselor: A Life At The Edge of History. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2009. 73. Print.


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