OHS Graduation 2009
by Geoffrey Andrews
Superintendant of Schools
Oberlin City School District
Men and women of the Oberlin High School Class of 2009… Members of the Board of Education, colleagues on the faculty, parents, families and guests….
On behalf of those of us who have had the privilege of being a part of your educational career, I congratulate you, the members of the 147th graduating class of Oberlin High School.
Commencement exercises are always bittersweet. Many look upon graduation as a destination, an ending place, a final accomplishment. And it is an accomplishment, of which you should feel proud. But we are here for your commencement – and to commence, as Mrs. Eiskamp will tell you, means to begin, not to end. So tonight we celebrate your accomplishments, but you are just beginning to live out your dreams.
I’d like to talk about dreams tonight. The most famous speech about dreams was delivered by Martin Luther King, talking about his dream, during the March on Washington more than 40 years ago. All of you are familiar with that speech and that dream – that one day, people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And today, we have an African American president who, last November, was judged by the American people on the content of his dream for America. So to a significant degree, Dr. King’s dream has come about. The idea of a black man being elected president of this nation could not have happened 40 years ago. This is not to say that the work is complete. One month ago at the local high school in Montgomery County, Georgia, two proms were held – one for white children, and one for black children. We as a country have made great progress, and here in Oberlin we have made more progress than most. Think about this statistic – 16% of the children in the Oberlin Schools are multi-racial. That means that more than one in every seven children in our schools has parents of different races. That is a great indicator of tolerance and acceptance of racial differences. But as we know anecdotally here, and systemically elsewhere, the dream has not fully been lived out.
One thing that many of you may not know is that Dr. King also spoke from this very podium, in this very hall, in 1963. It is extraordinarily humbling to stand here and think about others who have shared this space. This includes many famous Americans, including Newt Gingrich, Johnetta Cole, Toni Morrison, and Robert Reich just this year. The reality is that in 1963 King was actually too sick to speak for long, and his two minute speech consisted primarily of thanking those who had invited him and apologizing for his inability to deliver his remarks (incidentally, Malcolm X was to have spoken here that year, too, but the day before that address was the day Kennedy was assassinated and the address was never rescheduled). Dr. King returned to Oberlin in 1965, however, to deliver the commencement address. And that day he was in full health, with the following to say to us here in Oberlin: “I can never come to this campus without a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that this great institution has done for the cultural, political, and social life of our nation and the world. By all standards of measurement, Oberlin is one of the great colleges, not only of our nation, but of the world.”
That is indeed high praise from a substantial source. Since that time, it has been established that Oberlin High School students and Oberlin students attending JVS who qualify for admission can go to this great institution tuition free! We have four such students in this class – Hannah Jones, Kevin Gilfether, Cheryl Lindsly and David Lumpkin. And while parents and students everywhere worry about what it takes to succeed in college, because in America barely half the students who begin college complete their degree within six years, I am pleased to tell you that over 90% of the Oberlin High School students who have gone to Oberlin College on this scholarship have graduated in four years, with some impressive accomplishments. One recent example - two weeks ago, Oberlin High School alumnus Jordan Beard received his Oberlin College degree through this program, and last I spoke with him he was planning adventures in Europe this fall.
A dream I would share with you today is that one day, all Oberlin High School graduates will be prepared to enter Oberlin College on that scholarship. And we’re making headway. This year, Oberlin High School became authorized to offer the best college preparation there is – the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. In addition, Oberlin High School earned it’s first-ever excellent rating. And while the state has not made the announcement official, let me be the first to tell you that Oberlin High School will be rated Excellent again this coming year! The Oberlin Schools are preparing stronger graduates, and you are evidence of that. Tonight – and to the best of my knowledge, this is a first for Oberlin High School – every student in this graduating class has applied to go to college!
The title of Dr. King’s commencement address that day in 1965 was “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” He referenced Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle story – how Rip had gone up on a mountain and slept for 20 years. When he went up the mountain, King George III of England was in charge, and when he came down the mountain, another George, George Washington was in charge. Rip had slept through a revolution. You are not to do the same. Your generation is witnessing a revolution. President Obama’s inauguration may be your generation’s moon landing, but your generation must be a part of the revolution that solves the issues of climate change, radical extremism, energy, population growth, hunger, social justice and disease.
And you must actively pursue solutions, because human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. As Dr. King noted, “in the end we will not remember the misdeeds of our enemies, but the silence of our friends – the time is always right to do what’s right. Yet always conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” Take strength in Victor Hugo’s observation that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. So pursue your dreams and ideas.
And it is altogether fitting that we talk about dreams here tonight; after all, commencement is about your dreams. And not just having dreams, but working on them. Doing what it takes to make them real. Bruce Springsteen, who played a concert with then-senator Obama in Cleveland two days prior to last fall’s presidential election, sings a song called Working on a Dream. It goes something like this: (pause - you really think I’m going to try to sing here? No chance):
Out here the nights are long, the days are lonely/
I think of you and I’m working on a dream.
Though sometimes it feels so far away,
I’m working on a dream.
You have already been hard at work on your dreams. A dream many of you had was to play a European Tour with the Orchestra. Three weeks ago you were playing Venice, Florence and Rome, touring the Vatican and living out that dream that you had worked so hard to realize. And while you did work very hard to make that happen, you also need to thank Mrs. Thomas and the entire community that supported you in making that dream a reality. It does indeed take a village.
Working on your dreams led you to spend countless hours in the art room, having more works accepted into the show than all of the other 25 high schools combined at the Scholastic Art Show.
Working on your dreams led you to bring home the first winning football season in over a decade, and led to the first-ever Lorain County football combine being hosted in Oberlin – tomorrow, where several hundred athletes will be competing on our turf.
Working on your dreams brought the Academic Challenge Team the conference championship, the Erie Shores championship, the regional runner up slot, and a top ten finish in the state.
Working on your dreams brought individual recognition to many of you for your academic, artistic, and athletic exploits. From Jackie Pitts’ and Nora Stewart’s National Merit Recognition to the Ninde Scholars; from Hugh Thornton’s dominance on the wrestling mats and football field to Morgan Jones’ record setting year on the basketball court; from Jane Zhang’s wonderful Stop the Hate essay that garnered both recognition and cash to Jane Zhang’s Youth Speak Out essay that landed her on television; from Miranda Burbridge graduating from high school and community college concurrently, to welcoming students from New Zealand, Switzerland, China, and the Czech Republic to your school, from the academic programs to the arts, and from the sports and music arenas to the theater, you have pursued your dreams and, as Springsteen sings,
Though sometimes it feels so far away/
I’m working on a dream/
and I know it will be mine someday.
What will your dream be? We’ve gone from Martin Luther King having a dream to Bruce Springsteen working on a dream. I say to you, keep working on your dreams. And I want to share my dream for you tonight. As you strive to accomplish – as you strive to excel – as you strive to be the best in the world, I ask that you always hold tightly to the wonderful heritage that you take with you – that Oberlin has embedded within you, and that has been fundamental to Oberlin’s ethos since its creation 176 years ago. The arch across the street was built in memory of Oberlinians who lost their lives trying to help others in the best way they knew how. Last year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Oberlinians rescuing John Price from bondage in the Oberlin Wellington rescue.
Those Oberlinians lived out our heritage. They weren’t about being the best in the world. They were about being the best FOR the world. Help others the best way you know how. Because you have it in your souls that you can be the best FOR the world. The world needs more people who have had your experience, and more people who have your perspective. People who will be the best FOR the world. That is my dream for you, the Oberlin High School class of 2009.
Good luck, Godspeed, and Congratulations.