It has become a tradition of mine to write a speech for each of my graduating classes at Emerson. Our award-winning speech and debate program has elevated the standard of the form, and I use this as a model as students craft their own unique oratories for the occasion. My first was about the value of living in the moment, something I learned from the class of 2015 after my mom passed. Last year, I wrote a speech for the class of 2016 after a scare with an open-shooter on the UCLA campus about sharing our stories. This year, my speech is about the hope my students provided in the wake of challenging political times.
Be a Trumpet
When the bell rang and the 2016-2017 school year began, I started my twentieth year teaching. In many ways, it was like every other year, but it was also completely different.
One new thing I did this year, was start each week with a quote and a question. Every Monday, my students would walk or stroll or bounce into my room, and some would immediately write answers to the question of the week on the board. Then, we would discuss the questions and quotes during class.
American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” I kept this is mind while selecting quotes and we heard blasts from Nelson Mandela, John Wooden, Gloria Steinem, and Michelle Obama.
My students sounded off to these words, and our conversations cracked my students wide open. They shared answers to questions like: what do you hope, what is your biggest fear? They shared their thoughts about technology, school, their parents, and friends. We discussed oppression and prejudice, politics and depression, love and betrayal.
I participated in these conversations too, but mostly, I listened, to you, my students, these graduates, as you shared your brave and unique perspective of our world. You took time-worn themes like carpe diem and nature versus nurture and made them new again. You applied the golden rule and taking a stand to today’s triumphs and challenges.
Some days, you reflected on election results, or executive orders, or you shared your personal experiences as immigrants, or children of immigrants, as Christians, Muslims, or Jews, as girls, boys, or some gender in-between, and through you I heard from America like the blast of a trumpet. Because this year, unlike any other, America is struggling to figure exactly what kind of country we want to be.
As we read To Kill A Mockingbird this year, the scenes just after the Tom Robinson verdict spoke to me in new ways. Jem was brought to tears by the outcome. He thought he knew his neighbors. He thought they were good folks: that they were kind, and just and fair and now he wasn’t so sure anymore. This made me think about this year’s election results, about my friends, my neighbors, and my students. Because in much the same way Atticus tells Jem that one day, when he can sit on a jury, things might change, I look at you and see that same hope Atticus saw in his son. In your empathy, and your compassion, and your ability to think about how to see things from someone else’s point of view, I see a brighter future.
In President Obama’s farewell speech, he also looked to Atticus from To Kill A Mockingbird. He said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In our classroom discussions, you breathed these words. You saw our world and one another with a compassion the rest of our world could learn from. And, you are looking forward to 2020, the next presidential election, when many of you will be voting for the first time.
So, that’s what I’m counting on. This group of graduates has spoken to me like the blast of a trumpet about Feminism and privilege, about hard-work and determination, about fairness and justice. As you make your way across this stage and into a world, a country, and a city grappling with its identity, you know who you are, or at least you're honest about trying to figure it out.
I believe that whatever experiences life hands you, you will be thoughtful. You will determine what is real and what is fake, and you will work toward what is right.
It has been such a privilege to get to hear your voices, to listen to and read your stories, and to learn from your many different points of view. Now, it’s on you. Carpe Diem, and be that trumpet. Make your lives, and our world, extraordinary.