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May 13, 2011

Speech for the Graduates

Last night I had the great honor to give the keynote speech at the farewell dinner for graduating seniors in the Union College AOP/HEOP program. While all my students are special to me in their own way, this class holds a special place in my heart because they were the first class I taught in America after being away for 12 years.

For those unfamiliar with AOP or New York State’s program HEOP, these are fantastic programs to help bright, talented students with potential be able to attend schools they might not otherwise have been able to due to financial considerations.  Most of these students are from poorer areas with weaker public schools, so they also lack college preparation.  The students are often given an immersion program the summer before school, which Union College provides, and tutoring during the school year.  It was in the pre-freshman immersion summer that I met this graduating group.

Every single one of this group of 21 had distinguished him or herself in some way while at college, through leadership, scholarship, talent, service to the college or local community through volunteering or a combination of these areas.  AOP/HEOP programs nurture students, and with that little bit of extra care, these students blossom into the type of graduate America is hungry for.

I wanted to share the speech, minus the introductory and concluding comments, because I ad-libbed them, because what I have to say, while especially for that very special group, stands for many of the graduates of 2011.

So now, here’s the speech. Congratulations, as well, to all 2011 graduates.

I had many brilliant ideas for this talk. Sheer unadulterated rhetorical brilliance. But they all happened late at night, between sleep and wakefulness and I was too lazy to write them down, so by morning they were gone. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

At times I was seriously tempted to just get up here and wing it. I’m good at improv and sometimes just seeing your faces would have given me plenty of stories to embarrass you with.  But since this is a one shot deal, if it flopped, there’s no redoing it tomorrow.  So I thought the better of that idea.

Instead I wrote this, so I hope it’s OK. And I’m going to read it, more or less, and I know you’re not used to that from me, but if I don’t I might get off track and go on a tangent and who knows where we’ll end up.  And if I don’t have something to focus on up here, I might possible let some water leak out of my eye or something and  that would be gross.

Because I am that proud.

I look out you graduating seniors and my heart swells with love and pride. I remember the kids I met the summer of ’07. Shy, cocky, brash, brilliant, brats, unpolished but so much potential. I’ve watched you over the years, even though I’m far away I’ve got cyber eyes.  Between Facebook and a few summers coming back, I’ve stayed in the loop, and I’ve watched you become the outstanding men and women sitting here today.

You’ve accomplished so much in your four years here. Every time I hear about your studies abroad, your internships, your mentoring, the shows, awards, I feel pride again.

Now it’s traditional to tell graduates that they are the future of the nation because in reality, they are. No getting around that, and as I told you that first time I ever met you, I took your education seriously because you’re going to be taking care of me when I’m an old lady.

But you also know me. And tradition, while nice, is not all that important to me.  It’s good to know our roots but slavish following of what was done before is just foolish.

And you’re not just the future. You’re the now. You’re changing the world already. You’ve changed it already. You’re the role models to the kids in your neighborhoods, to your relatives, to the people who think they are unimportant in our society because our society shows them every day that they are not valued—the immigrants, the working class, the poor. Some of you are the first college graduate in your family, like I was. Through this achievement alone, you’ve already changed the entire trajectory of your family’s American history.  

That’s a pretty big responsibility for people so relatively young. But so far, you’re pulling it off with grace.

You’re a very lucky group people—you’re Union graduates. I’m not saying this because I’m at Union, but this is a school of which to be proud. Graduating from here grants you access to a different world, and your degree is a great gift. You worked very hard for that gift, but it’s still a gift thanks to the wonderful AOP/HEOP program that brought you to a school you might not otherwise have been able to attend.

But there’s a catch, and the gift comes with strings.  “to whom much has been given, much will be required” and no, I’m not paraphrasing Uncle Ben. He was paraphrasing the book of Luke, a much older source of wisdom.

The strings are in the choices you make. Humans are such interesting animals. They fascinate me. They are capable of much baseness and evil, and we see this every single day. yet at their best, they are brilliant. Most, though, choose mediocrity.  They take the easy path of going along to get along. They lose the spark and fade into age. 

Tonight, I am giving you a charge: Choose rightly: be magnificent. 

Choose whatever path you want to follow in life, even if you have to create the path as you go, but travel on that path with gusto. If you do something, do it flat out, no holds barred. Don’t hold back. As Emerson wrote, “Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

 This is a difficult choice I’m asking you to make. I know it. It is easier to hold back, to not give everything of one’s self. In the eyes of the world, it’s smarter. Protect yourself, they tell us. Don’t “wear your heart on your sleeve”. And for goodness sake, don’t be uncool. Chill, don’t be too enthusiastic. Not cool, man.

Edna St. Vincent Millay had this to say to them: “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!”

Be a child of light. Continue to be an illumination to this world. That is the charge I’m giving you.

And do it with love—let that be the source of your power because it really can move mountains and change the world.

In “Praise Song for the Day,” Elizabeth Alexander’s poem written for Barack Obama’s inauguration, she wrote:

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,

others by first do no harm or take no more

than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

I love those words. Love that casts a widening pool of light–what an image!  Can’t you just see the light of disinterested love widening from each person, enveloping one another in that healing, caring light–the light that drives out darkness?  As Dr. Martin Luther King tells us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that.“

These are the things that will change this world for the better. And I charge you to try.

And since you’re going to be busy being magnificent you will change the world. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Do you want a kinder world? Be kind. More just? Be just.  Whatever you do, do with thought.  Ask: What are the ramifications of my action?

Again, this is not an easy path. But have I ever asked you to take the easy way? The easy way’s not worth it. This is a hard won, stony path to choose. It is so much easier to be thoughtless. To react instead of acting from thought. Take it from me, I know. But you will never regret anything you do or say if you act and don’t react.


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