A Graduation Speech to Remember

Sometimes when I get caught up in the policy debates, all the hollering and posturing of political skirmishing, I feel that I lose touch with the real stuff, the important stuff about teaching and education and schools. I lose touch with the students. I was fortunate enough to get pulled back to reality, to the insistent truth of the classroom, at a recent graduation ceremony for Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), the small school I helped found in 1997.

In the newspapers this time of year we see plenty of reprints of graduation speeches by famous people, filled with advice and clever phrases. But I was most taken by this short speech by high school senior Gracie Mungovan which I want to share it here, with her permission.

It reminds us that school is not just about certification, technical training, and test preparation. CAS is a small school at Berkeley High that values diversity, explores digital media, and pursues a curriculum of social justice. It has tremendous success with students of all abilities -- mainly through fiercely building community. While there are some Advanced Placement options, CAS is not built around tracking or competition or the reproduction of social inequities. But CAS is challenging -- in developing critical thinking, in putting students in internships and creating projects and portfolios, and in teaching us to take responsibility for each other.

That community was tested, and the community was enacted, when junior Kyle Strang was killed in a car accident last spring. So this graduation, needless to say, contained many tributes to Kyle and to journey that the community went through. None of this can be captured in a test; none of it is getting funded by Gates or Broad; none of it contributes to the pathetically-named Race to the Top. The MBA's and foundations can't wrap their minds around this. But Gracie's speech reminds us of the real, the treacherous, the beautiful path that young people are actually traversing while they are in our schools.

Commencement Speech - Gracie Mungovan - May 31, 2011

Freshmen year, we were small. We had nervous smiles and skinny legs, opinions that faltered when brought into the light.

The death of our brother Kyle during junior year seared a road through our collective heart, destroying all that was profane in our lives. This road broke through our days as we had known them and shattered the normalcy of life. It dragged us many levels deeper than the typical teenage fare did. We fell hard and we fell together.

Just as death cut through us and intensified our interactions with our lives, a second force, both older and more powerful than death, rose to complete the process. A force that turns profound life riddles into poems and illuminates meaning in chaos was activated deep within us to transform the broken pieces of the collective heart. The type of love that emerged in the community was love that had already been present; built within the infrastructure of the program and laying latent as potential within the nervousness of our freshmen smiles. Our heartbreak created a shift in the air, in our perspectives, in our psyches. This shift revealed what had been waiting for us as we grew.

When the normalcy of our days was destroyed and time itself seemed to distort, a new kind of self emerged from each and every one of us; a self only present before in the glimmers of electricity that tease every soul. We come from different backgrounds, we have vastly different perspectives on life and we certainly all look different, but when we were the most disillusioned we sought solace in each other. A tremendous love was indeed present within the differences and tension that existed between us.

When I look at my classmates now I see young people who have been touched by things older than time. The potential of freshmen year has fully exploded and actualized. The seeds of destiny and character that we held within us erupted when jarred by the twining of pain and magic, light and dark, love and death.

What makes CAS a brilliant and revolutionary program is the recognition that the work of the world is not done, that it hangs in the balance waiting to be pushed into a new direction. The institutions that uphold social inequalities are temporary and the persistent chaos and heartbreak that plague our world are similarly transitional stages. The work that must be done in a global sense is the same work that I have seen in my CASmates. As people we have transformed from our naïve potential of freshmen selves into people in contact with deeper truths. Likewise I think the world today will age a similar transition and grow from chaotic potential into a more mature and beautiful self.

CAS does not petrify the state of the planet or make us drolly recite historical facts as if they were true representations of reality. It sees the truth that sleeps underneath the inequalities: that the potential for something new and more beautiful is always present, waiting to be actualized by people who care enough to take the risk. We cannot know how much love is present until we know how badly we ache. Likewise we cannot fully immerse ourselves in the horrors that exist without uncovering the raw strength within us that cares enough to look. The CAS program recognizes the personal power of the individual, that that which changes within us shifts without, that our personal revolutions somehow leave the world changed.

The world is ultimately created in the images that we hold inside and those have now been shaded and outlined in the ink of our connection to each other and the depths of ourselves. The veil between the world we live in and the world we wish to create will be pierced by the type of love that is created in communities like CAS among teachers and students, people of all backgrounds and abilities.

We move out into the world different people than who we were. We have encountered the mystery: the mystery of who we might become, the mystery of the Other, the mystery of different people coming together in community, and the mystery of loving deeply and having life end. However, paradoxically, even when we lost we gained. When we fell we were gathered up again by love that emerged from distant corners, we felt hands on all sides rush to keep us up, to give us a reassuring squeeze, to match us pulse to pulse, to confirm that connection was present. Having encountered this, I know we move forth and there is a part of us deep inside that can never truly be afraid again.