It is hard to believe that graduation is once again upon us. So much has happened this year to change the course of human history. The painful events of September 11th continue to shape our present and our future. That tragic day has forever changed the way we look at the world.
What do you say to the senior class of 2002? They have been exploited by a system of education that is more concerned about SAT scores and grade point averages then the content and character of the person. It is frightening that we live in a world that talks about love and peace, but seems more secure in supporting barbaric executions and discriminating against people who are different. This class graduates under a cloud of terrorism, hate and the threat of international war.
Four years ago a very shy, skinny, introverted freshman entered one of our local high schools. His freshman year was relatively uneventful and non-productive. He finished that year with a C average. That summer would change his life forever.
In July of his freshman summer, MJ and his mother were driving home from a barbeque in the early evening. A mile from their home, they were involved in a serious multi car accident. Three people were critically injured. MJ's Mom was one of them. MJ only suffered minor injuries. His Mom was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital. She was in critical condition in intensive care for ten days. MJ did not leave her side. He was an only child. His Dad walked out on them when MJ was three months old.
On the morning of the tenth day, MJ's Mom opened her eyes. She and her son shared a very brief but intense conversation. They kissed, and then she closed her eyes and died.
Needless to say, this fourteen-year-old boy was devastated. The most important person in his life was gone. What was he going to do? Where would he live? What would become of this devastated young man?
The brief conversation that MJ and his mother shared at the end of her journey would set the stage and direction for the rest of his life. During that brief moment, MJ's Mom urged her son not to give up on life, to become someone, to finish his education and to make a difference. He left that conversation promising his Mom he would do all that! He has kept his promise.
After the funeral, MJ moved in with his aging grandmother. It was mutually beneficial. He had a safe, loving place to live and she had someone who could assist her with life's basic tasks. The sudden death of his Mom and the responsibility of an aging grandmother transformed this shy, introverted teenager's life.
MJ became a determined and driven young man. He came out of his shell. He had no one to speak out for him. He had to take full charge of his life, and that he did.
During the next three years in high school, MJ did not merely get through by the skin of his teeth. He excelled both in and outside of the classroom. Few people, except for his teachers, knew about his family situation. He did not want people's pity, but rather their respect, and he surely had that.
By the midpoint of his senior year, as class rank was being determined, the issue of class valedictorian was also being decided. In this particular school, class valedictorian was not solely determined by class rank and academic achievement. The quality and content of the person were also considered. MJ was number five academically in his class, but was unanimously elected valedictorian by the high school selection committee.
After he graduates from high school with distinction, he will continue his higher education with a full scholarship at an Ivy League School. I was privileged to read the rough draft of his valedictorian address. Hopefully his classmates will hear more than his words. The thrust of his message is not to let life detour you from the things that are most important: family, friends and leaving the world a better place than how you found it. He will end his address by urging the graduates to never forget their parents. He will remind the graduates that they are forever indebted to their parents. He will conclude by thanking his mother for making all the difference in his life. He will share his promise to her that he will spend his life trying to make a difference.
So seniors, as you continue your journey, keep uppermost in your hearts never to give up on yourselves. Realize that being human is more important than a successful academic record. Showing compassion and understanding rooted in justice is more significant than any science formula. These are difficult lessons to learn because they demand you risk all you are now for what you can become tomorrow.
Look around you. We are living in challenging times. This is the first time in American history that our national security has been profoundly compromised and innocent human life destroyed. Your generation is moving away from the indifference and complacency of yesteryear and moving toward a new idealism of freedom and responsibility. It is happening throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is not happening among the political elite, but among our young - our students, your peers. It does give me hope that tomorrow will be better.
As you graduate and continue your journey, keep in mind these simple thoughts: May you discover enough goodness in others to believe in a world of peace. May a kind word, a reassuring touch and a warm smile be yours every day of your life. Remember the sunshine when the storm seems unending. Teach love to those who only know hate and let that love embrace you as you continue in the world. May the teachings of those you admire become a part of you so that you may call upon them. It is the content and quality of who you are that is important, not merely the actions you take.
May you never become too concerned with material matters, but instead place immeasurable value on the goodness in your heart. Find time each day to see beauty and love in the world around you. Realize you have limitless opportunities.
May you see your future as one filled with promise and possibility. Learn to view everything you encounter as a worthwhile experience. May you seek enough inner strength to determine your own worth and not be dependent on another's judgment of your accomplishments.
May you always seek peace and justice and work to build bridges not walls. Live a balanced life. Learn a little, think a little, dance, play and have a sense of humor. But most of all, be aware of wonder. And when you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together.
May you always be loved.
Congratulations graduates of 2002. Thanks for making the world a little richer and a little bit brighter.