Inaugural Commencement Speech

Esteemed faculty, administrators and staff Accomplished students, Relieved parents I save certain words for only the most special occasions. Certain words I use very sparingly.

Miracle is one of those words.

We’re so quick these days to pronounce this or that a miracle. Especially in sports. We call a comeback by our favorite player or team a miracle. We talk casually about miracle cures. We call shopping centers Miracle Miles. We even call fertilizer Miracle-Gro. But what we have here today is a true, genuine, bona fide miracle. I can remember standing on this spot nearly a decade ago, when it was nothing but barren, sun-baked desert. People said we were crazy. Nothing but a hot wind ever soared away from here. But now you’re are all about to soar away. Back then, you were elementary schoolers mired in an education system known for the shamefully low number of its students who graduated high school. Today, every one of you, every single senior at this high school, is going to get a diploma. Each of you, therefore, is a miracle. And this day is a miracle that we’re all pledged to keep going.

Whether you like it or not, from this day forward you’re pledged too. Because you’re no longer just students. You’re alums. With every miracle, of course, must come gratitude. So I want to take this moment to thank the miracle workers. I want to thank the donors throughout the city and world who gave again and again-and again. I want to thank the thousands of volunteers who gave just as freely of their time. I want to thank the political leaders, community leaders, and education experts who gave us the tools-and the room-to grow. I want to thank the parents for always believing, the faculty for refusing to draw a hard line between their off hours and their work hours.

As a result of all these people-and of course the perseverance of our student body-today we’re turning loose a group of passionate, disciplined, heartbreakingly smart young men and women, soon to become a force for good in the world. Just as we stood here years ago, wondering what you might do in a school that still needed to be built, today we wonder what you’ll do in a world that needs to be rebuilt. And once again our minds reel, because there’s no telling what cures you’ll find, what inventions you’ll make, what trails you’ll blaze, what books and poems and screenplays you’ll write, what prizes and honors and accolades you’ll earn.
We’ve done our best to teach you, but let’s face it, we’ve taught each other. In building this school and keeping it alive, we’ve met roadblocks and detours and setbacks. Sometimes things looked very grim. Sometimes we took wrong turns. We’ve been pioneers, after all, and pioneers always get lost.

Still, we’ve pressed on. We’ve overcome. And we’re all smarter and mentally tougher for it. Still, I want to promise you that we’ll take the lessons learned from your time here and we’ll use those lessons to make this place better. We’ll make the necessary changes and adjustments. You’re the first class, the Class of 2009, so we congratulate you. But know that because of what you went through, the class of 2109 will enshrine you.

Each of you closes an important chapter in your life today. A happy chapter. But the larger story into which this chapter fits is still a mystery to you. If I could tell you one thing and have you write it down and keep it in your pocket, it’s this: Don’t be afraid of the mystery. Don’t be impatient with it. You’ll figure out your story, your larger narrative, eventually, but it might not be on your timetable. In the future, when your life story seems to have no focus, no meaning, no momentum, refer back to this chapter. Reread this chapter. Tell yourself again the story of how you were a pioneer, how you proved the nay-sayers wrong, how you defied the odds and made your families and teachers and that one old tennis player so very proud.

At one point in my past, I didn’t know the story of my own life. I had to flip back to early chapters, remind myself who I wanted to be when I was about your age. I realized I’d lost the plot of my own story, in part because I’d let other people write it and tell it. The result of that one realization was my personal liberation. I finally took ownership, became the author of my life. From that moment on, I didn’t always make smarter choices, but I made sure that I was the one making the choices.

I realized that tennis wasn’t my life, tennis was my job. Life was my life. And doing work that could impact other lives, work that could help others to change their lives, was what made me feel good and hopeful in the ten minutes before I fell asleep each night. I began living for those ten minutes. Mindful always of those ten minutes, I started a new chapter, a chapter that brought together all my other chapters-a chapter that culminates today.

Something you don’t know about your alma mater: The first thing we ever did on this site, back when it was a vacant lot, was plant a Tree of Hope. Hope was the symbol and the cornerstone of this school, so that tree was the first thing we put here. Young, fragile, it was a holly tree, a traditional symbol of renewal in many cultures. Then we not only asked the construction workers to build this school around the tree, we asked them to keep the tree lighted and watered while they worked.

And they did.

But still, with all the dust and disruption, during the building of this school the tree died.

We could have been devastated. We could have seen this as a sign that we were doomed to fail. Instead, we planted another tree. And that Tree of Hope is the one you see blossoming today-just as you’re blossoming today.

Like people, hope takes a while to grow strong roots.

I hope you’ll remember that Tree of Hope throughout your long, long lives. When your personal Tree of Hope wilts, or droops, or dies, be brave enough, stubborn enough, to plant a new one.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. But that’s a cynical view. Be bold enough to tell God your plans. Tell your friends. Tell each other. Tell yourself, every night, in those ten minutes. It will seem at times that life is trying to thwart your plans, but that’s not life, or God, that’s just the nature of plans. They unravel. They’re manmade. You’ll be fine as long as you remember that you don’t need to unravel: You’re not manmade.

You’re miracles.

I know this about you. We all know this about you. How? Because years ago, standing here, we had to imagine you. Some told us we were getting carried away in our imagination. That we were idealizing you. And now you’ve grown up to exceed our imagination and our ideals.

So, Class of 2009, in closing:

Stay strong in your faith.

Have faith in your strength.

When you doubt yourself-and you will doubt yourselves at times, it’s normal-remember that all these smiling adults you see around you have no doubts about you. Be assured: We’ll be following your progress, and basically following you. Shadowing you. When you’re lost, look over your shoulder. There we’ll be, still smiling, offering the three things every traveler needs. Directions, love and food.

Finally, I want to say one last thing, something I’ve been waiting to say to you for so long.

I want to say two words to you that have been on my lips all these years, two words that, when I was a kid, made me as happy as any two words in the English language.

Along with the word miracle, these are two words that I don’t use lightly, two words I’ve been saving for this most special of occasions.

Class dismissed.