It is hard to believe that graduation is once again upon us. I have been thinking a lot about this significant event. This year I have one senior graduating from a South Shore high school. It was not an easy walk for him. He had to work very hard to reach this crossroad in his life.
What do you say to a generation of seniors who have been exploited by a system of education that is more concerned about SAT scores and grade point averages than the content and character of a 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.
TJ is an immigrant. His homeland is half a world away. He came to this country not knowing a word of English and not knowing a soul. In his homeland, his family was poor and uneducated. They came to the land of opportunity to find a better way.
By the time TJ was nine, his mother had died. With broken English, his father forced him to work. TJ was consistently torn between our culture and the culture of his birth. His father was very abusive. By age twelve, TJ was running away to survive, but always attended school. He was determined to get an education.
His high school years were a nightmare. His father continued to be abusive and when reported to CPS, always found a way to discredit his son's allegations.
Finally, in eleventh grade, TJ was determined to leave his abusive home for good. With the help of some friends and mental health professionals, he found a life-giving environment that empowered him to move beyond his violence and abuse and excel.
During the last year and a half, TJ has transformed his life. This shackled, broken immigrant has emerged as an articulate, bright, self-confident young man who is determined to go on to college and become a contributing member of the global community. He is the first in his family to graduate from a secondary school and hopes to be the first to graduate from college.
He talks about his education as being one of the greatest gifts he has ever been given. He feels so indebted to his teachers and classmates who have helped him along this arduous journey to achievement and success. He does not understand why so many of his fellow seniors were so indifferent to the learning opportunities before them. As TJ graduated, he was so grateful that two local colleges accepted him for the fall freshman class. His summer challenge is to make enough money to pay for his tuition.
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. We are hoping for a better America. You deserve a better America, where all people no matter what their race, color, creed, socio-economic or life orientation, can live in peace, mutual respect and equal opportunity. We want an America that protects human rights on Fifth Avenue as well as on Death Row.
For the first time in your history, we have a President who was not elected by popular vote. Contrary to what some people say, your generation is moving away from the indifference and complacency of yesterday and is moving towards a new idealism of freedom and responsibility. It is happening throughout Europe, Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia. It is not happening among the political elite, but rather among our young, our students, your peers. It does give me hope that tomorrow will be better.
As you graduate and continue your journey, refocus your moral compass. Gandhi once said, "An eye for an eye makes the world blind." Take your blinders off. Keep these simple thoughts in mind: 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 that you have limitless opportunities.
May you see your future as one filled with promise and possibility. Learn to view everything 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.
Martin Luther King wrote, "Justice at it's best is love correcting everything that stands against love." As you graduate, seize the courage to stand against human exploitation, abuse, violence in all its' forms, hate, corruption, dishonesty and recklessness. We must act collectively and individually. The world will change when one person acts individually and another adds to it.
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 feel loved.
Congratulations graduates of 2004. Thanks for making the world a little bit brighter and more compassionate!