David Simon, the urban Aesop who covered the crime beat in Baltimore for decades before turning his gimlet eye and poison pen to television drama with The Wire, Treme and Generation Kill gave the commencement speech at Georgetown last week. It’s worth reading or watching next time you can sit still for 20 minutes. In it, he quotes Woody Allen’s imagined commencement speech (really an op-ed in the August 10, 1979, New York Times): “More than at any other time in history, [humanity] faces a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
That reminded me of my uncle. Father Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, peace activist and poet, (reportedly) gave the world’s shortest graduation address at Xavier High School in New York: “Know where you stand and stand there.” Apparently, it was not well received by the audience.
Whether or not it actually happened, I love that story. I graduated from Hampshire College in 1997. Our commencement speaker was Eqbal Ahmad (whom I have mentioned in this column before), and he spoke for the better part of two hours. So I have a fondness for brief commencement speeches.
In a few more words, David Simon was saying much the same thing as Uncle Dan:
Learn to refuse, to dissent. And in demanding something more from yourself and from your society, you may be surprised to find that you are not entirely alone. That other voices are saying the same things, that others want the same things.
And then, he concludes that while today might be about celebrating accomplishment:
Tomorrow’s task is to make this moment matter to your communities, to your country, to the world. And to make sure that at the end of your run, you leave that world better than you found it.
That was always my dad’s motto: Leave things (your room, the kitchen floor, the world) a little better than you found them. It is a good maxim (and a tall order) for today’s graduates. Because leaving the world better than you found it is going to require a lot of elbow grease, sacrifice and tenacity. Whatever realm you peer into — the environment, justice and the law, civil rights, health care, equality (and the list goes on) — the obstacles to progress are enormous.
Can the next generation handle it? Can they make a difference where so many others have — in the words of David Simon — “shanked it”? In the course of his commencement address he apologizes to the graduates, saying he and the rest of his generation “choked”: “We let ourselves get distracted with greed, with gloss, with the taste of the bread and the glitz of the circuses. We took our eyes off the prize.”
Still, I am hopeful. My local paper is profiling high school graduates all this week. It has been a definite morale boost (along with my coffee and cornflakes). Today’s graduate, Allissa Porter, was the coxswain of her school’s rowing team and is going to college on a crew scholarship. Her 14-year-old brother is autistic and deaf, and since he was born she has been trying to figure him out, communicate with him, help him play and laugh and be a kid. For college, she is enrolled in a five-year program to earn a master’s degree in early childhood and special education. After that, she might go to law school to be an attorney who works on disability issues. She’s written a children’s book called Why Doesn’t Robby Love Me? about her own grappling with her brother’s inability to express himself the way other kids do. Her mom says, “I’m in awe of the woman she is today. As a parent, I’m extremely proud of her.”
I bet that everyone reading this column knows an extraordinary young person like Allissa — a high school or college graduate who is not only poised to do great things, but is already fully engaged in the world, knee-deep in the hoopla, outraged and inspired, wise to the fact that the gloss is dross and the glitz is ersatz, activated and unable to turn away from (despite all the distraction of our hyper-connected, high-tech world) the task of leaving the world better than they found it. In this month of graduations, find a minute to say thanks, to say sorry for how earlier generations have screwed up, to ask if you can do anything to help.
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