I will never be invited to address a class of graduating college Seniors, much less a class of minority students who grew up below the poverty line. Nevertheless, in Walter Mittyeske fashion, I recently imagined myself in that role, and composed an address for such an occasion.
Of course, even if I were qualified, I am not the person to give this address. The right person is…well, there he is, sitting over there on the speaker’s dais, waiting patiently through the preliminary speeches. He is a large, black man, balding, in his fifties or early sixties, with a graying, neatly trimmed moustache. In his dark red robe, he is an imposing figure. From his demeanor, his ease in these surroundings, it is clear that he is an academic, probably of some stature.
When his introduction is complete, he rises, a sheaf of papers in his right hand, and walks purposefully to the lectern. After placing the papers on the lectern, he looks up and slowly scans the audience of upturned faces, mostly brown and black, silently waiting for him to speak. Every eye in the room is focused on him. They feel his commanding presence. When he finishes his scan, his lips purse in a small smile of satisfaction. He nods his head…and begins.
Congratulations! Your presence here today is little short of a miracle. You have overcome great adversity and worked long and hard to earn the right to wear that robe. Every one of you deserves great credit for what you have accomplished.
But with that credit comes a burden, a heavy responsibility…to succeed! Most of you would not be sitting here today if you had not received assistance from your government…local, state or federal. Because of that, the pressure on you to succeed is greater than it is on graduates from more advantaged backgrounds. There are some who will not be dismayed if you fail. It would justify their selfish, shortsighted, and misguided notion that it is futile to try to raise the economic level of the poor and disadvantaged…a waste of taxpayers’ money. Other students will graduate, some will succeed, others will fail and it will not have any political significance. Your success or failure will have political repercussions. It’s not fair. It’s just the way life is.
That would seem to be burden enough, but I am going to lay some more on you, because what you and others like you do, how you live your lives, how you raise your children, is crucial to the future of this country. I know that’s an old cliché, but hear me out.
Many of you, as you begin your careers, will marry and start families, if you have not already done so. Raising children is an awesome responsibility. From the earliest age, kids are avid students of their surroundings, but they learn most from their parents. You are their primary example of how they should live their lives.
Let me be specific: From the beginning, they must know that their education is of the utmost importance. There must be continual and close monitoring of their academic performance, parent-teacher conferences to address problems, and above all, help at home. Not just as a taskmaster, ensuring that they finish their homework before turning on the TV, but as a helper and advisor. When they understand how important their education is to you, it will become important to them.
Outside of school, there is much more for a child to learn and experience. Take them to museums, to a classical music concert, to a Shakespeare play, or an opera. Encourage them to take up a musical instrument, or to pick up an artist’s brush or sketching pencil. Take them on hikes in the mountains, so they can see the beauty and serenity of pristine wilderness, the magnificent wild animals that live there. Show them the beauty and the wonderful, fascinating diversity in life.
In short, give them the kind of enriching, stimulating beginning that many of you were denied. This is the greatest gift you can give them, and the greatest contribution you can make to their future, and to the future of this great nation.
That is the bright and shiny side of the coin.
There is also a dark side that they must know.
They must know that our present way of life in the developed nations of the world is unsustainable…that the explosive growth of world population, and the resultant accelerating exploitation of nonrenewable resources cannot continue much longer. We are withdrawing from the bank of nature, and replenishment of those deposits will take hundreds of millions of years. Even renewable resources are threatened. The depletion of fish stocks in the oceans is a clear demonstration that, although our planet is bountiful, its capacity is not unlimited.
Pollution of the air over our cities and of our freshwater supplies endangers our health. Acid rain is killing our forests where they are not being destroyed by logging, mining, oil well drilling or slash-and-burn agriculture.
I could go on. Drawing down of the immense freshwater aquifers underlying the Great Plains threatens one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. Where will the food come from for an exploding world population when the Great Plains becomes a desert? Global warming threatens wildlife and coastal populations, changing habitats, raising ocean levels and breeding huge destructive storms.
All of this is arguably the result of human activity…irresponsible, shortsighted human activity. Your children need to know that.
They will learn in their history classes about man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man…the wholesale destruction and slaughter that has occurred almost continuously since the beginning of “civilization,” and more recently, in the two great wars of the twentieth century, culminating in the unbelievable atrocities of the Holocaust. They must understand that, instead of learning from these horrific events, mankind is plummeting toward even more catastrophic confrontations if global tensions are not eased.
They must know about the dangers of nuclear, biological and biochemical weapons and the terrorists who seek them for their holy wars. This Sword of Damocles hangs over all living things, human and nonhuman, flora and fauna. It is unquestionably the greatest threat the human race has ever faced. We are staring extinction in the face.
On the home front, they must know about the twin national disgraces…homelessness and healthcare. It is a national disgrace that we have 600,000 people, many of whom are physically or mentally ill, living unsheltered on the streets of our cities, and this number is growing every day. Over 15% of U.S. citizens are without any kind of health care insurance…about 45 million people. For a fraction of the money spent on the defense budget, these disgraces could be eradicated.
They must understand the political processes that have allowed…and continue to allow…these atrocities to occur. Encourage them to get involved in their government, to understand the importance of voting, of joining advocacy groups, of sharing opinions with people of opposing views, and even of running for public office. The nation desperately needs bright, young dedicated people in government.
Ah yes, opposing views. One important gift you can give them is an open mind. Discuss the great moral issues of the day…birth control, abortion, stem cell research, cloning, the existence of God, separation of church and state. They will, of course, be influenced by you, but you should try to give them differing viewpoints. You do not want them to have a carbon copy of your beliefs. You want them to examine issues critically and listen to all sides before they take a position…to keep an open mind and be willing to change that position if new information comes to light, and most important of all, to learn tolerance for the different opinions of others.
If you teach them all of this…the good, the bad AND the ugly…you will have equipped them to be thoughtful and responsible citizens in their world…the world of the future.
Finally, let’s talk about success. Your success. How do you measure it? By how much money your make? The size of your house? The cost of your car?
(shakes his head)
No, wealth is nice, and I am not suggesting that you should try to avoid it (laughs with audience) but consider: Mozart and Bach were nearly penniless when they died. Shakespeare was never a wealthy man. And yet their works, their contributions to the civilization of mankind, are incalculable. They will almost certainly be remembered for as long as humans continue to exist on this earth. In a sense they are immortal. No wealth can buy that immortality. It comes to those who leave the earth richer than they found it…regardless of their own wealth. That is the measure of success that I would like to leave with you.
Once again, congratulations! Go forth and slay dragons!