If it’s June, this must be graduation. A ritual ending/beginning that most of us experience once or twice in life, it offers a better than usual chance to reflect – especially if you’re lucky enough to be a past rather than current graduate.
Light years away from my own high school graduation, I’m proud and grateful to be writing this from the site of another one, specifically that of my namesake granddaughter. It is happening under the balmy sunshine of Riverdale, NY (where last year that sunshine was 100+ sweltering degrees for her brother’s ceremony) and it is offering plenty of great material for reflection. Not to mention time to do so, because for all its exceeding good works and fine education, Ethical Culture Fieldston High School is painfully slow in its handing out of diplomas. Clicking away in a back corner under the trees makes it bearable.
Speaker Vernon Jordan (grandfather of two recent Fieldston students) delivered that rarest of gifts: a commencement address that was meaningful, memorable – and brief. The civil rights legend and former member of the Clinton administration harked back to his own graduation nearly 60 years earlier from Atlanta’s segregated David Howard High School (where his classmates included Martin Luther King, Jr, New York Knicks star Walt Frazier and two-time Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. Fieldston’s Class of 2012 included such recognizable names as Blankfein, Zabar and Baryshnikov.) He cited the vastly disproportionate dollars spent on white vs black students at the time, and one textbook that was a tattered cast-off from 1935. While the 2012 graduates do not bear the burdens of hardship and discrimination that faced the Howard High Class of 1953, Jordan said, they bear the burdens of responsibility, service and opportunity. He gave them three fundamentals to take on their journey:
Integrity: the inner conviction to think right, do right, be right; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (“loving your neighbor is hard, because some of our neighbors are pretty unlovable,” but you can follow that first rule, he said); and Reach out to those who need help, reach down to pull others up. Working on that last (with the first two in mind), Jordan told the new graduates, would enable them to make the world a better place.
For those of us discouraged about the current state of the world, and dismayed by political trends toward looking out for #1(%) and ignoring those who need help, the enthusiastic acceptance of Jordan’s proposed mantle by so many members of the Class of 2012 – in Riverdale New York and elsewhere – is a bright ray of hope.
You go, grads.