Graduation Address to the Washington Middle School for Girls
Congratulations to the remarkable Class of 2004 at the Washington Middle School for Girls! I had the pleasure of meeting you several weeks ago when I visited your school. I was impressed by your obvious intelligence, your great ambition, and your somewhat fearless view of how you will make your ways in high school. Good for you!
I’ve been thinking about the events this week elsewhere in Washington and how this moment of President Reagan’s funeral, which the media and many others are terming an historic occasion, might speak to you as you celebrate your accomplishments here and prepare to move on to the next level of your education.
At first, I imagine that you might be thinking, “What does President Reagan’s funeral have to do with me?” If I’ve done my math correctly, you were born after he ended his term as president, so you have almost no first-hand experience of him as a real person, only as an historical figure that you’ve heard about. When he died last week, he was old by most standards, Age 93. At one time he was the most powerful man in the world. A Hollywood celebrity, an actor, a politician, a man of privilege in his adult life, who, somebody who rode horses, who owned a ranch, who was politically very conservative. When he lived in Washington at the White House, I don’t know if President Reagan ever crossed the Anacostia River except to get to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base.
So, there’s President Reagan, lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and here’s the Class of 2004 of the Washington Middle School for Girls. Do these two events have any remote connection to each other?
Yes, hard as it might be to imagine at first. Let me suggest three connections, summarized in these words: History, Change, Legacy.
First, History. The process of education that we celebrate today is deeply rooted in respect for history, which is the story of social, cultural, political and religious tradition of peoples and nations. Education begins at the point where you understand that the world is much larger than your own experience; that the world existed for thousands of years before you arrived on this planet, and will continue to exist, we hope, for thousands of years beyond this day. In elementary school and high school, the learning process is primarily about knowledge that has already been discovered, about what history has taught human beings about how people live together, how we communicate, how we count numbers, what makes up the scientific basis for our world, what we believe as communities of human beings with belief systems and emotions and convictions. In college, you begin to analyze and synthesize that learning to form the basis for the next big question: how can I make history, how can I change history, what is my role in shaping history?
The true mark of an educated person is the desire to learn about things you don’t know about, to have experiences that are not similar to your own, to listen to ideas that might seem very strange or exactly the opposite of what you think. You don’t have to agree, not at all. There’s much in human history that I find deplorable. But if I never studied history, I would not know what kind of human behavior we want to avoid in the future — or what kind of conduct is so noble, sacrifice so great, idea so tremendous, concept so sacred that I might want to spend my whole life pursuing that goal.
The presidential funeral this week is a symbol of our national and global history, for better or worse. That’s why heads of state and many famous people from all over are at the Washington National Cathedral today, along with hundreds of thousands of plain citizens who came to pay their respects. I suspect that many of them did not necessarily agree with or even like President Reagan’s particular politics. But they pay respect today because of the human instinct to honor history, which is the foundation of learning and the beginning of action.
Study history, even as it is evolving. Consider your place in history. Think about how history will be different in the future because of your presence in the story. That’s why we call it “history,” you know — “his story.” Why not “her story?” Herstory? Sounds sort of feminist, but that’s not bad. History, Herstory, Our story. Make it your own story. Think about how you, too, will make history in the years to come.
If you think about how you, too, can make history, you will naturally understand my second point about change. This moment calls you to think about how you can create change, how we might want history to be different in the future. Does that sound odd? Not really. We write our own history every day, and much of what we do is in reaction to what has already occurred.
How would you like history to be different in the future? Let’s start with one simple fact. No woman leader has ever risen to the stature of the president who is honored this week. Only in very recent memory have women’s contributions to history even been acknowledged. In many places, women continue to be ignored and prevented from rising to their full potential.
Your generation is the one in which women will reverse the course of history when it comes to national leadership. Of this fact I am quite sure. Some time in the next 50-75 years, a woman will be elected President of the United States. She will be from your generation, not mine.
What about African American leaders? Here, too, we might be hard pressed to find an example of an African American leader who would be recognized nationally with the respect and great media attention that we’ve seen focused this week on President Reagan. Certainly, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a tremendous outpouring of grief, respect and affection. But that was now a long time ago. How will you change history in the future?
Throughout history we see examples of brave, courageous, visionary women who worked to create change. The women who inspired the founding of this school — Mary McLeod Bethune, Claudine Thevenet, Cornelia Connelly — these were women who saw history as it was and decided to change it for the better. Another woman who is close to this school, Dr. Dorothy Height, is such a visionary, a change agent, someone who has put her ideals into action.
You must remember these role models, keep them close to you, determine to follow in their footsteps and be agents of positive change in the history you write each day.
You will need those strong role models to keep you focused during your high school years. When you get to high school, you will face many challenges and temptations. I think you know this already, we talked about it when we met. You will have a lot more competition from other girls who are maturing, like you, into young women intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually. You will be way ahead of the young men who will be maturing faster physically than emotionally — that’s a documented fact! You will experience a great deal of peer pressure to slow down your maturing process, to repress your own particular genius, to cover up your bright shining light so that you don’t ‘show-up’ the guys and even the other girls.
You must not let this happen. You must guard against ever putting yourself in a position in which you fail to do your very best. You must keep your eyes on the prize at all times, and the prize is your self-esteem, self-confidence and academic achievement at high levels.
Why is high academic achievement important? The great South African leader Nelson Mandela recognized the power of education when he said that, ” Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Change the world: that’s your legacy. This week many commentators are talking about the legacy of President Reagan. Not everyone agrees with their analysis, but the idea of the legacy is powerful. What will people say in generations to come about your legacy? Legacy is the gift that your history will create for succeeding generations. What is the legacy that you want to create for others?
Education helps you to discover what you’re particularly well suited to do, and even more important, what you truly care about. Too many people do not wake up enthusiastic to go to work in the morning because they were not well served educationally, they did not have good direction about what could inspire their labor. You have a great opportunity before you as you think about high school and college. You have the opportunity to discover what your life’s work will be, what will get you up in the morning with joy and enthusiasm, what will keep you going even through tough times. Education helps you to discover your passion for your life’s work. To be truly successful at work — which is a part of the human condition — you must love what you do, and do it with love. And, you must have goals, which help to shape your legacy for your children and families and communities.
Now, sometimes women have stopped me when I’ve given a speech like this and they’ve said to me, “Well, that’s all very nice, but I have to feed my family. Who can worry about loving what you do when I have to take whatever job I can get?”
No, you do not need to settle for whatever you can get. Women have done that for too long. But you won’t get what you want just because you ask for it, or expect it. Entitlement is an unacceptable expectation. You must earn what you want, learn how to get there, and education is the key to your earning power.
The great poet and writer Maya Angelou had a thought that relates to this idea. She said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
You have a great, long, productive future ahead of you. You have the power in your heads and hearts to be great women for your children and families, your communities, and even our nation. You must not think small. You have the right to claim the world as your own.
You must continue through high school and college to develop your power to write your own history, to create change, to make your lasting legacy. There will surely be times when you will wonder if it’s worth it, if you can persist, if you should just settle for less.
Ladies, Never, Ever settle for less than the best that you can do!
Nelson Mandela had another great statement, given in his 1994 inauguration as the president of South Africa. Talk about something that people once would have thought impossible! For this black man who had been imprisoned for so long to have been able to destroy the apartheid system from his jail cell, then to experience liberation, then to have the courage and strength to be elected president of this nation that once denied his very existence as a human being, that is truly a triumph of the human spirit. In his story, you can find the way to change history in the future. I leave you with this statement from his inaugural speech:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, successful, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you NOT to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in EVERYONE!
And as we let our own light shine,we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others!”
- Nelson Mandela, 1994, Inauguration Speech
May your legacy be a new history, may you be a force for liberation of others, a beacon of hope for new generations. Congratulations, Class of 2004!