June 10, 2010

Monday, President Obama spoke at the graduation ceremonies for Kalamazoo High School. The school won the privilege of having him give a speech through the Race to the Top Commencement challenge in March.

It make the evening news because there was so much news about the oil spill, the primaries, local politics and local graduations, but it probably ranks as one of the most influential speeches I've heard him give. Not because he said anything new, or different than he did before. It wasn't what he said, it was who he was speaking to and where he was speaking.

I don't remember the last United States President to speak at a high school graduation, do you? But read what Kalamazoo student Kelsey Socha wrote about her experience:

When the big day finally came and President Obama surprised us and arrived in our holding room a few hours before schedule, it was surreal, not only for the chance to hear the President speak but to have him mere inches away from us in a private setting. It was more than anyone could have dreamed of. The initial excitement never faded. Later, seeing him on stage joking with our principal, listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian speak, and finally giving us a speech that showed that he had read our essays and paid attention to our community was incredible; an experience none of us graduates or our families will soon forget. The honor went far beyond the President simply coming to our graduation or even shaking our hands. It was the fact that he made the experience wholly about us, using no political campaigns or agendas, that made it a truly special ceremony.

When Barack Obama the candidate began to rise in the 2008 primaries, one of the very first reasons I took him seriously was because I saw a man who could stand and be a role model. Whatever your politics are, whatever your disappointments are with him, I hope you'll set them aside long enough to let the thoughts he shared with those young people sink in just a little, and consider the good they do.

They are not all, they are not community, they are not food on the table. But example is important. And what he says is what he lives, whether you agree with his approach or not.

On instant gratification

But meaningful achievement, lasting success – that doesn't happen in an instant. It's not just about the twist of fate, or the lucky break, or the sudden stroke of genius. Rather, it's about the daily efforts, the choices large and small that add up over time. It's about the skills you build, the knowledge you accumulate, the energy you invest in every task, no matter how trivial or menial it may seem at the time.

On giving back

And once you start juggling those classes and activities and that campus job; and you get caught up in your own dramas and anxieties; you may feel like you've got enough on your plate just dealing with your own life. It might just be easier to turn the channel when the news disturbs you; to avert your eyes when you pass the homeless man on the street; to tell yourself that other people's problems really aren't your responsibility.

But think for a minute about the consequences of that approach here in this community. What if those Kalamazoo Promise donors had said to themselves, “Well, I can pay for my kid to go to college, why should I pay for other people's kids too?”

Think about the consequences for our country. What if our Founding Fathers had said, “You know, colonialism is pretty oppressive, but I'm doing OK, my family's doing OK, so why should I spend my summer in Philadelphia arguing about a Constitution?”

What if those abolitionists or those civil rights workers had said, “You know, slavery is wrong, segregation is wrong, but I just don't have time for all those meetings and marches, so I think I'll take a pass.”

And I want you to think for a minute about the extraordinary men and women who've worn our country's uniform and given their last full measure of devotion to keep us safe and free. What if they had said, “You know, I really do love this country, but why should I sacrifice so much for people I've never even met?”

You and I are here today because these people made a different choice. They chose to step up. They chose to serve. And I hope you'll follow their example. Because there is work to be done, and your country needs you.

My hope: That all of the anger, conflict and disappointment felt right now between liberals and progressives and in-betweens and sometimes-liberal-sometimes-nots can be set aside long enough to remember to serve side-by-side, together.

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