Harvard Commencement Speech

Thank you, Mr. Provost, members of the faculty, distinguished visitors and graduating seniors of the Class of 1998!

It is always an honor to be asked to be the keynote Commencement speaker here at Harvard, and as in the past, I will attempt to be worthy of your invitation and your trust.

As I have stated before, I do not believe that in reality anyone is graduating here today. While you are widely and obviously considered the most elite students in the United States and I am confident that the various courses and other programs – curricular and extracurricular – that you have studied and participated so faithfully for these past three or four years, have well prepared you for the jubilation that you are now feeling at this exciting and inflective moment of your transition from childhood to adulthood. But, as always, I am here, not to dampen, but to expand that jubilation through imagination and perspective, with two examples for you to consider.

Tomorrow, in Memphis, Diara Hodges, 17, will graduate as valedictorian of her senior class at East High School. She is a young African-American woman, who like all of you, looks to the future with hope and fear, with anticipation and trepidation. But, she has those visions mixed in blood and betrayal. On May 9, 1995 she was dragged from the hallway into an empty classroom where she was intentionally beaten to death, and to finish the job, her estranged boyfriend, 14, stabbed her in the neck and chest 21 times before he left her there in the warm oozing of her own blood and went on to take an algebra test, which he aced. Diara amazingly regained consciousness and dragged herself out into the hall where a classmate helped her. She spent the next month in a hospital, including two weeks in ICU. Now, as she graduates, accepted to attend Vanderbilt University in premed (gynecology), she is poised, joyful, and confident. But she is not unaffected by her trauma. Trust has a different meaning for her now. “Before this happened, if I cried, it was because something happened to a dog. Maybe I was in a fantasy world. But this opened my eyes. Now I know now that violence is out there and it always will be.” She also offered an insight into the racial issues of violence and a slowly awakening societal awareness of it: “In my case it was a young black man who did this, so people didn’t pay as much attention. Then,” she stated referring to the recent rash of school shootings and attacks, “white people started doing it. Now, I think people are seeing that it can happen anywhere, to anyone.” So, despite all of the potential excuses deservedly open to her and her sadly and irrevocably validated fears, she rose to life’s great occasion and challenge: in spite of everything, in full view of reality, setting aside the obvious darkness, she decided to go forth and help others.

The second example is even more to the point. He was the greatest of all time in a sport that fosters greatness. Many consider him to be one of the most revered sports figures of all time: Jack Nicholas. After winning every tournament and setting all the records, at the height of his success, the pinnacle of what so many dream of, he began another career that has spanned over 20 years and has broadened the game he loves so much in a way that nothing else ever could. He has been the chief architect of over 100 of the most glorious and expansive public golf courses in history. (The most recent now underway in one of the poorest areas of New York City). In this he is bringing to the ordinary person the same thrilling holes of play that, before him, were the private reserve of the financially and culturally elite. Jack knew that the perseverance and self-sacrifice that great golf demands also requires the self-restraint and control of all except the most fundamentally positive human traits: honesty, character, and above all, trust. To play golf the way it was intended you must trust yourself (or you will fail with the first swing), you must trust the other players (or you will drive yourself nuts), and you must continue without hesitation trusting despite everything that happens. Golf is a game of trust, and of faith. Jack Nicholas is a student of the game and its greatest and most generous alumni. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, despite his supreme status in sports and wealth, despite his enormous success and talent, if you ask him, his greatest achievement has been his hard-earned ability to help others.

So, as you graduate here today, let me remind you that you are not receiving a license to go forth and steal; simply to make money, rather you have the credentials now to truly help others. You do not have bragging rights for the rest of your life about the college you attended, and in fact, I admonish you to never mention it. Let your works attest the value of your education and wait for people to inquire: “How did you become so giving and so non-self-referential and so unselfish?” Too often graduates of this university are known for mentioning Harvard in the first ten minutes of every conversation, and to me that disqualifies you for true alumni status. Your education should stand as a testament to the value of giving, of helping others, and, most of all, to the final principles that all intelligent people come to understand as the two most important: humility and charity.

If the two examples I have mentioned here today, and other things I have said, serve to spur you on and encourage you in your service to others, and to see in yourself that amazing potential, then you will suddenly see what too many others cannot see: a multitude of examples all around you, in every direction, in every nook and cranny of human existence, of people who are also doing their best to serve others in grand and in everyday ways. Because it is by those examples and many more, that surely we, as men and women and as the human race, are truly defined.

God bless you all, your families, and God bless the freedom and the liberty we all enjoy. Thank you for inviting me again to speak before this student body of infinite promise. May each of you, in his her or her own way, change that promise into performance.