In 2009 the NYCDOE officially closed Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, New York as part of its “revamping policy regarding large “failing” high schools they deemed unsuccessful. I taught and coached there from its opening in 1970 through 1986. I still have relationships with many of my former students. To me it was not failure. Policies were failures. The author of the speech, my friend Bernie Keller, taught English there for 35 years. He gave the last graduation speech.
One of the best and most important lessons my parents taught me, (and the rest of my siblings), was never to allow others to define me, or to write my story. A more urbane epithet for this statement would be, “Let no man write my epitaph.” People will say Stevenson failed, that the teachers and the supervisors and the students who learned there failed. That is their perception, that is their definition, that is their story. An African proverb states, “The lion never gets to tell the story of the hunt.” This is because the lion always dies, so only the hunter, the survivor, is left to tell the story, or at least, his version of it. Each of you sitting in the audience today as graduates, along with your brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins who graduated form Stevenson High School must tell the story. The story must be told through the colleges you attend, the professions you enter, the lives you lead and the contributions you make to your communities, this city, this state and this country.
Those who see Stevenson High School as a failure, see something I do not see, because that is not what I lived or experienced throughout my three decades of teaching here. While Stevenson wasn’t perfect, (and no place on earth is), Stevenson was a living, breathing community. The people I was privileged to work with and the students I had the opportunity to teach throughout my tenure there were special people. The teachers I admired and respected were hardworking, with a sense of loyalty and commitment. They understood that a teacher “touches eternity,” and they took that responsibility seriously. They helped their students to stretch for their dreams and gave them the means to reach those dreams.
Every year, a new group of ninth graders walked into Stevenson, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, and four years later, more often than not, they left with their heads in the clouds, but their feet on the ground, with a vision for their lives hewn from the dreams, doubts, uncertainties, questions and wishes they possessed when they began as a result of the classes they took and the people who taught them. They learned you do not measure greatness or success with some number on a test paper or graduating in four years. They learned that you measure success, not by where you end up, but that the true measure of success and greatness is what you have to overcome in order to have that success. The diamond, the hardest substance known to man, is nothing more than common coal, until the weight of the earth crushes the coal and transforms a worthless lump of coal into a valuable gem. Like that diamond, it is the adversity and the challenges one must face in order to get where one wants to go to create the person one wants to be that produces the diamonds of our lives.
There were no shortcuts, no easy ways out. There was no magic, no miracles. While every student was given the opportunity to meet their challenges and adversities, not every one was willing to fight for what they wanted. For them, the battle was too hard, or it took too much work. They did not succeed, but those who were willing to do the work, to face down the struggles and the problems, those who were willing to persevere, those people are sitting here today, and they have sat in these chairs for the past thirty-five years.
Thirty five times, purple and white robed graduates have walked down these aisles and across this stage to begin a new chapter in their lives. Thirty five times, they have stood and walked forward in the faces of the doubters, the empty promises and the failed fads. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound anything like failure to me.
Remember that contrary to the experts who believe that one size does fit all and that what makes one person a success can be duplicated in exactly the same way in others to make others succeed, success cannot be measured or doled out in a certain number of years or by achieving a certain grade. No matter how long it takes or how much work is required to do it, I charge you all this day to continue your battle to succeed
On that note, allow me to leave you with two thoughts. The first thought is a definition of success. It states that, “Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is in the doing, not the getting, in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard – reaching for the highest that is in us – becoming all that we can be. If we do our best, we have had success.”
The second thought is a poem I write in every yearbook I sign. It says,
Reach for a star-
if you miss
there’ll be a cloud
for you to hang onto.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak with you today, congratulations Stevenson High School graduates of 2009, and always remember to keep a good thought.
What’s your good thought?