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“Now You Know Better”: 1st Commencement Address by a Person of Color at My Alma Mater (after 148 years!)

I have been out of high school since 1991 and I am so very proud to know that the students in the class of 2017 voted overwhelmingly to have Mr. Grant Hightower, the METCO director, speak at their graduation. There is much wisdom in his words and I only wish that my own students in Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island could have heard these words at their commencement ceremonies.

The speech is here in its entirety for you to watch (Hat tip to my old friend and colleague Drew Kelton for sharing the video!) For those who want to read the text of the speech, it is below. Hightower gives us a lot to think about and I’m exceedingly grateful for that.

 

The text of the speech is below:

(Introductory remarks: Before I give my address, I’d like to acknowledge and thank some of the people who made my presence at Wellesley High School possible. Superintendent Lussier, the School Committee and the Wellesley Public Schools, thank you for continuing to put a premium on education and the growth of our students. Dr. Chisum, Mr. Kelton, Ms. Novogroski, Mr. Bender and their respective staff. Your undying devotion and care for all of the children who walk through the doors at WHS, and your support of the faculty in our various pursuits have made a profound and indelible impression on my perspective as an educator. I appreciate you.)

Now You Know Better

To the Faculty and Facilities Staff of Wellesley High:

Having the privilege of collaborating, coaching, learning, laughing, and teaching with you is something I hold dear. So many of you played an invaluable role in the success of the students in this graduating class. I appreciate you all. Dr. Wornum and my METCO family, my being here is a reflection of your hard work and a representation of everything you all are and always have been to this community. Thank you Kalise for taking a chance on a guy who looked better in person, than on paper. Carla and Cynthia, you are the real MVP’s. Lastly to Debi Levine our Special Education Department Head. One muggy day in August of 2009, a slimmer, more handsome version of Grant Hightower entered your office in the old Wellesley High School. He wore a full suit to a job interview to fill a Teaching Assistant position in a town he’d never heard of, more than an hour away from his home. You opened the door for me here. You championed my growth many years ago and were always confident in your belief in my ability as an educator. When I left the high school to chase a different challenge, you were supportive, and two years later, when the opportunity to return to 50 Rice St. came, you were as influential in that pursuit as ever. None of this happens without you seeing something in me. I appreciate you Deb. Oh…and P.S. Shout out to DAV Red and Green Blocks. You have provided me with an experience unparalleled in my career as a human service professional or educator. I speak for Mr. Brazier and Ms. Kahn when I say we will miss you all.

Wellesley High Class of 2017 I am eager to share my commencement address with you all tonight. It took many hours of preparation, meticulous editing, and rehearsal to come up with this very original and never before heard, once in a lifetime, truly tremendous message, in which I will inspire not only you, but the millions who will eventually see this online. So, my message is…You are not special. Thank you and good luck in life. Goodnight.

Take a moment and look to your left and right. Make a mental note and mark it in your mind. Breathe deeply and take in all that you can sense. See if from your seat, you can spot your old friend from elementary, or a past crush. Throw up one more hand gesture or contorted face signifying an inside joke to a buddy within an eye shot. This moment is equal parts present and fleeting. You are closer than you’ve ever been to an event you’ve been anticipating for so long. When it is done, the things that you have held dear will begin to change. Colors will vary in intensity. Places that have always held dear memories will also fluctuate in their importance to you as the summer nears fall and you head off deeper into your future. Love changes and best friends become strangers, while enemies may become allies. You will never have this moment again, and as time passes, whether you wish you could have it back or not is also to be determined. So take this moment and remind yourself where you are as I take you back to where you’ve been. And my how far you’ve come.

Starting the year on the heels of antagonizing a Black family, you end it seeking life advice from a Black man. That’s quite a turnaround. It begs the question…How Did We Get Here? Truth be told, to most outside of this school community, and I imagine for the majority of this graduating class, there is no ostensible reason for me to be the speaker this year. Statistically speaking, I am the least qualified. Although my cumulative time at Wellesley High spans 6 years, I’ve only been in my current position for 2, and prior to that was gone two full years in a different area of focus. I’ve taught one course here in which my impact, again on paper, affects at most, 48 Seniors. Add the other 14 handsome and beautiful METCO graduates and I have a whopping, 62 student sphere of influence as it concerns this graduating class, a class with whom I’ve ultimately spent 1 full academic year with. So how Sway? How does a class of 300 + students elect me, reportedly by an overwhelming majority, to be the last educator in which they will hear from in the community they’ve spent so much time in? I toiled over the answer to this question for weeks, when I finally realized how this came to be.

The change happened in November. Students who never felt it necessary to come to my room, began walking in. We joke, those of us who frequent the METCO room, that there is an ominous curtain only seen by students who have not embraced their special METCO powers that keeps them from entering. It’s a trip. A student who is in my room often, will come by with two friends who’ve never been in my room and while the one student will pass through the door as usual, their friends will just freeze. I mean their eyes are intent on entering and seeing what’s going on, but their bodies are motionless. It’s like in the movie Get Out, except I’m the one slowly stirring the tea cup waiting to release them from their sunken place.

Mr. Hightower at his desk in the METCO room at Wellesley High School.

So in November, overnight my door became like any other door in the building. Passing in and out, for brief or extended periods of time students of all races and religions, sexual preference and genders flocked. Some angry, ashamed, confused, melancholy, but mostly shocked. Through that experience, as I watched and listened, sometimes sparring with students to gauge where they stood, I smiled. I began to notice how the divisiveness and malice playing out in the world had begun to bring you all together. What I was witnessing were islands; independent bodies of intellect sharing a common experience and beginning to finally hear one another. This kind of change is slow and gradual, therefore rarely acknowledged, often demeaned and overshadowed by the Twitter Troll and the Facebook Fraud. But it was undeniable. Even those of you who felt that after November passed, greatness would return to our country again, you found yourselves conflicted with the balance of your personal beliefs and the astonishing rhetoric of a person you did not necessarily want to represent you in public, although you had no worries supporting in private. Instead of feeling pride or finality, you walked with your head down. Disengaging from class discourse and casual conversations with friends. These feelings of shame, and silent admissions of guilt were not mistake or coincidence. Because above anything else this class went through in 2017; you had been exposed to the most important social experience anyone can have. The experience of KNOWING BETTER.

There’s a phrase, my uncle would sometimes say “if you knew better, you’d do better.” This phrase always came up when someone apologized for a flagrant social infraction, or when they lost control or got involved in something that went against their better judgment. As it concerns this class, you know better because of group chats that demean the lives of your Jewish and Black classmates, know better because you witnessed how one headline can change or reinforce the reputation of a whole town overnight. You know better because of Trayvon, Walter, and Sandra, know better because of the 9 parishioners slain in a South Carolina church. You know better because of the 1 in 5 women who are raped on college campuses, you know better because of the little Syrian child dead on the sea shore, know better because Love is not binary even if your way of loving is. You know better because of Orlando, France, and Sandy Hook. You know better because of Now In Color, because of the Women’s March. You know better, because of Wellesley High School’s most important value. Respect for Human Differences. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from your last four years. That your relationships with those you share this world with will determine the most important aspects of your life, whatever those aspects may be for each of you. The understanding that disagreement is not dislike or hate, but rather an invitation to collaborate.

Now, this will be new territory for many of you. You leave a community both residential and academic, that has allowed you to find comfort in de-facto segregation. In a society where cliques and cache, skin color, earning potential, and politics separate you from your neighbors, you have blindly followed the path cleared by those who came before you. Over time you learned where the social order was and where you fit in it. This understanding happened concurrently to the expansion of your concept of right and wrong. So, As you were being taught about the historical atrocities of generations past, you were receiving contradictory messages about what you deserved as individual members of your respective social classes. This miseducation commuted your sense of responsibility to a place of ignorance. But the transformative power of “Knowing Better” eradicates your ability to blame your decisions or indecision on simply “not knowing”. Your ability to discard the plight of your neighbors, your fellow human, when you witness their oppression or injustice without any accountability, is null and void. Once you know better, it is impossible to access ignorance as a privilege, for ignorance becomes a choice.

See, Ignorance before knowing is a mistake. Choosing to remain ignorant is a sin. If you knowingly participate in acts of hate or more commonly, stand by idly in the face of what you know to be incorrect, unhelpful, or maliciously hurtful, understand that you have made yourself complicit as part of the problem. Why does this matter? There is an accountability to living life, and the degree to which you honor that, determines the quality of the life you and those around you live. You are not here alone. Your choices do not exist in a vacuum. Class of 2017, your struggle has not been won yet. As you move into this next part of your lives, you will spend every minute determining who you truly are. There is no more space to dangle your sense of character daintily on a string in your subconscious. Every choice of significance you make will lend ITSELF to your understanding OF SELF, and begin to formulate your contemporaries’ perception of you as well. These choices will bring you closer or further from your center.

Many people believe themselves to be good. And while that feels nice, good is not an accurate measure of a human being. Good, on its own, is useless, in the pursuit of change. What you will encounter in your journey through life requires courage. Strength in the face of pain or grief. There is no courage without risk, just as there is no heroism without stakes. What our world is in desperate need of, is for those of us who believe we are inherently good, to act when we witness or become aware of something inherently wrong. To act when we know better. Placing yourselves firmly in the fire of social justice, and enduring the sting of public scrutiny from your peers and possibly society at large. To do what you KNOW to be morally right is not as glamorous or easy as people proclaim it to be, and when that truth begins to sink in, will you then come to the conclusion that your best self was just a mirage? Pack up and retreat into your comfort? Or will you be who you believe yourself to be? An alert, present, and educated individual who is up to the challenge of enduring the temporary pain of the right and unpopular thing, rather than the lifelong frustration that comes with reconciling the choice to take the path of least resistance?

The truth, is that eventually, no matter what you do, how long you put it off, how much or how little money you make, how much power you accumulate, or how influential you become, a moment will arrive where none of those things matter and a choice to act on your better judgment will arise. It may be next year, or when you marry, or when you have your career, or your kids or any number of other important milestones, but it WILL come and when it comes it won’t be convenient. A choice in which you must act solely on the basis of your character. A choice in which the outcome will affect you or others in a life changing way, will hang in a moment in time. And the only thing that will matter is what you do in that moment. Risking ridicule, humiliation, or social ostracism for speaking or acting out against the oppression of what you feel or know to be moral and ethical. What will make this choice even tougher is that it may come at the displeasure of those who might normally support you. Your friends, relatives, parents, siblings, spouse or lover. Your act of courage will most likely not be recorded, or shared virally around the world for you to revel at. You will probably not share a stage with Ellen to be showered with pleasantries or come up in a conversation between Desus and Mero. In fact, it is likely that in the short term, you may not even receive a thank you. Do not be deterred. Former President Theodore Roosevelt stated that: “It is not the critic who counts, not those who point out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to those actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strive valiantly, who err and come short again and again. Who know the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spend themselves in a worthy cause. Who at BEST knows achievement and if they fail at least fail while daring greatly so that their place shall never be with those cold, timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

It is not enough to bury yourself within the ignorance of the people around you who have stopped struggling. To try and recede into a shadow in plain sight, curving your hand over your brow as if no one can see you, continuing on while others suffer. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and your humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. If you risk subscribing to the notion that change hasn’t come, therefore you’re trying is futile, and you work harder to find an excuse to not rise to a challenge than struggle to conquer that challenge, be prepared to look your nephews and nieces, your future sons and daughters in the eyes and say I gave up on you, because I gave up on myself. I let my FEAR conquer, even though you needed me to fight. You needed me to know better. You’re suffering because I was too fearful to act to the best of my ability. Your world is worse off because I didn’t do what I could, when I could.

Is this an unfair burden? Yes. But always remember that the things that are most important require the largest sacrifice.

So go forth undaunted Class of 2017, for you know what to do. You always have.This year simply and painfully made it clear, that you know better. And you all have arrived at that understanding at different points, in different ways, but this year helped you realize that you are on your way to understanding, who you believe yourselves to be.

I am standing here, because of that occurrence. Because you were able to judge me for the content of my character and not the color of my skin. Because you were courageous enough to say I was worthy of being heard regardless of how your peers or parents may have felt, and because those of you who were leery of what I might say, were courageous enough to listen anyway. That courage has allowed you to create a historic moment. Because of your courage, for the first time in school history a faculty member of color has addressed a graduating class. Because of a few, we as a community can benefit. Grow together. Come to understand who we are, when we are brave enough to open up with each other. You are already changing the world, and you didn’t even intend to.

Before I go, I’d like those of you who identify as Students of Color to please stand. For too long, you have been expected to be in the background, especially at events like this. Extras in the feature film of life. But please understand you have a starring role if you so choose to accept it. In fact, you owe it to those who came before you, for they endured so you could stand on their shoulders and see the vast and unlimited landscape that is opportunity. Before we part, I want to let you know that I am proud of you all. I see myself in you. I see the result of your parents’ best efforts. That alone is enough to fight for. Understand before you lies a unique challenge. You have a responsibility to not simply live your life but shine as brightly as you can, because your illumination will lead others to a place where opportunity is a reality. You must educate those still ignorant, because if you don’t, who will? Who has had your experiences or perspective? The time for being angry that things haven’t changed is over. You fight, and you fight, and no matter what happens don’t ever dim your shine. Not out of fear, not out of fatigue. You shine unapologetically because somewhere, the next version of you needs to know they matter. You might be the person to be the difference in their success or failure.

Will the rest of the class please stand? Breathe deeply. Take in all you can sense. Realize the strength in your numbers. Together you are better. As a group you are stronger. Before me lies a group of individuals who possess the power to create and influence a world that your parents only dreamed of. Hell, I’d argue the reason you grew up in this town is because your parents tried their best to simulate an ideal world. Please know, you have the ability to make your impact in that pursuit. I am proud to have been given the opportunity to be around a group as unique as this one. From the writers, to the painters, the deep thinkers, and the comedians. The athletes and the techies and those of you without labels or limitations. If you find yourself lost in the world, remember: Be Just, and validate your actions. Breathe deep and walk upright, lead and never follow, love the people, be of the people, humble yourself and pray.

We will miss you. I appreciate you all. Be safe, and I’ll see you out there.

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