Some college graduation speeches are far more memorable than others

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For most of western cultures, June is the month of graduations at every level, from kindergarten to advanced university students. It is always a time to celebrate. For some the accomplishment is easy and unspectacular. For others, the same graduation from the same school is almost miraculous where obstacles and reality have called forth incredible courage and stamina. Children of professional people stand next to children of immigrants, some of whom are illiterate.

Parents are proud but at the ceremony itself, many are grateful if it is brief. Graduations speeches are rarely remembered, many because they are boring at best and tasteless at worst. Some are political rallies, others diatribes against opposing views from those of the speaker’s.

During one college graduation the speaker spoke of hope for a few minutes and then sang a song of hope. People stood and applauded. Dr. Seuss gave a commencement talk which became his book: “O the Places You’ll Go.” One of my favorite graduation speeches came from Father Daniel Berrigan. He got up at a college graduation after a five minute introduction for him and said, “Know where you stand and stand there.” One sentence was his entire address.

This year we have heard from the usual stream of political figures. A light in the darkness of graduation addresses came from Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. He told two stories and made one point. The first story was about Mahatmas Gandhi. At one time, Gandhi was racing to make a train and lost his sandal as he jumped on the moving train. He immediately threw the other sandal on the tracks. “People were curious, ‘Mahatma, why would you throw your other sandal out there?’ and he looked like it was a confusing and bemusing question. He said, ‘I threw the other sandal because whoever finds that first sandal, wouldn’t it be nice if they found the other one as well?’”

The second story was closer to home. Senator Booker had visited a McDonald’s drive-thru late at night and ordered two large fries. As he was leaving he saw a homeless man nearby. Senator Booker asked if he could help. The man said he was hungry for fries, so the Senator gave him one of his fries. “And then the man pulled the fries to him. When the senator was about to leave the man turned around, and in doing so his face went from appreciation to anguish, almost as if he was in pain. The man then said to him, ‘Hey man do you have any socks? I need some socks.’ The Senator answered ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you,’ and he began to leave. But then his driver, a retired police detective, born in Newark, raised in the projects, threw the car in park, reached down between his legs, kicked off his shoes, pulled off his socks and handed them through the window.”

Senator Booker said what he learned from both stories is the need to look at everyone and really see them and to be open to love them and to do this in a creative way. Gandhi thought of the person who would find one sandal and knew he needed two sandals. He saw another’s need before worrying about his own loss. Senator Booker’s driver saw the man’s need for socks so he was creative enough to take off his own and give them to him. He saw the person in need and responded.

Senator Booker’s advice to the graduates was simple: “I’ve begun to learn in my life that perhaps the biggest thing you could do on a given day is really just a small act of kindness, of decency, of love, an exhibition of moral imagination, or creative compassion.“

“As great as every one of us is, as much as I spent my life trying to change the world, we cannot forget that our real power is not necessarily to change the world, but to make a world of change to the people we encounter every day, a smile, creative and a kind word, finding a way to throw a sandal onto the track — that is the power we have today and every day.”

(Quotes from Senator Cory Booker 2017 Address at the University of Pennsylvania)

Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.