Woodward Graduation Marked By Thought-Provoking Commencement Address

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Despite threatening weather forecasts, Woodward managed to celebrate its 2019 graduates under relatively blue skies on May 11. The ceremony was beautiful as always, but it was marked in particular by an excellent student speech from Malachi Robinson. The soon-to-be Harvard student has excelled throughout his time at Woodward in speech and debate, and he brought that persuasive and poetic style to the graduation stage on Saturday. Enjoy video of the speech and full text below.

"My story, your story, and indeed the American story are not our own. Our faces, as James Baldwin put it to his nephew, are “filled with the faces of [our] forefathers.” So I begin, in untraditional yet necessary fashion, with gratitude for the resilience and tenacity of my ancestors.

To those innumerable Africans—yes—to those Unwilling Americans whose names I don’t know and never will, who were ripped from their homeland and in Langston Hughes’s words “caged in the circus of civilization,” who built this nation and my future Alma Mater, I say thank you.

I say thank you to my great-great-great grandmother Sarah, who with savvy and grit bought my family’s first land with cash earned hard through farm labor, in spite of society telling her, at every given opportunity, that she was insufficient and inhuman.

I am forever indebted to my great-grandmother Helen, who scrubbed floors for a living and yet faced the bitter world with a smile and unyielding love, whose house, though little more than an immobile trailer with a few added rooms, was a haven for the broken and a site of spiritual rejuvenation for my mother, brother, and I after my father left.

I am thankful for the courage of my grandfather, who left the farmlands of Snellville, Georgia, at the age of 16, the first in my family to go to college, and raised my mother as a single father. He, like his father before him, who moved north to escape execution by the Klan, faced and faces the world with audacity and stubborn individuality, even when pressured not to leave home by his own mother.

I am thankful for my stepfather, who truly has earned the title “Dad” these last 10 years through his thoughtful presence.

And more than anyone else, I am beholden to and appreciative of my mother. She has shaped me in every way imaginable: through the astounding example she sets, through her energetic yet often unsolicited encouragement to reach past mediocrity for something  greater, and through her unconditional and unimaginable love.

I am the living dream of these bold and beautiful souls.

All of us, likewise, are reflections of the desires and labor of those who came before us. We are walking scrapbooks: ever-expanding compilations of the stories, passions, and hopes of our genealogy and those few pages we frantically fill with our lives. And at this monumental point in them, at the cusp of the next great chapter, at the brink of discovering our agency, we have cause to reflect and rejoice. We have every reason to celebrate the amazing contributions we have made to our personal and collective histories.

For we have achieved much. We have led assemblies and discussions, excelled in the classroom and on the court, scaled mountains both physical and mental, won STEM competitions and debate tournaments, ridden horses, conquered calculus, shot rifles and rockets, put our pain and pleasure into poetry, ran fast and ran long, read, played music, written, sung, thought, and learned. We have built relationships with each other and with teachers, shared notes and studied together long and late in coffee shops, driven friends home after football games, shared victories and defeats, spread love, and created. And though we may not all be the best of friends, we have done all of this, in our own way, together.

Yet more than just because of what we ourselves have done, we have every reason to celebrate the truly unique institution we have all been a part of. I myself could not have pictured the vast world of opportunity that is Woodward before ninth grade. Coming from a Title 1 middle school, where 60% of the students are on free or reduced lunch, Woodward at first sight was as realistic as Hogwarts. And my time in the sprawling halls that lie before us—reading in Carlos, researching in Brand, and playing ping pong in Tyler Brown—has been just shy of magical. In these halls, particularly in the history and English departments, I have undergone a metamorphosis from a prospective engineer to  a politics and poetry lover, in no small part due to amazing faculty members like Ms. Bounds, Dr. Burbridge, Ms. Szymanski, Ms. Green, Ms. Lee, Ms. Ratliff, Ms. Berthiaume, Bill Batterman, and so many others.

That is in no way to say that my time here has been perfect. Far from it. Woodward, like the society we live in, has its fair share of problems. But Woodward has repeatedly shown that in the midst of its lingering issues, it will always make efforts to improve, to re-evaluate its  guidelines and positions in the name of progress. As a result, what began as a school designed solely to further the military’s missions has become so much more—it has become a community of innovators with a student body more reflective of the world we live in than any other independent high school I know of. That is cause for celebration.

However, in the midst of our cheers and confetti, we must not forget how fortunate we are, and the great responsibility that comes with what we have been given. While at Woodward I have learned, perhaps more than anything else, just how privileged I and everyone else around me truly is.

We all are exceptionally lucky.

As I learned in biology, the processes so fundamental to life that they go unnoticed, like how two of the thousands of haploid cells in our parents happen to meet in precisely the proper manner, the trillions of cells in our body manage to grow and divide every instant, every inhalation of oxygen is exchanged for waste, and numerous other reactions occur in a scale so rapid, so immense, and so complex that every second we are alive borders on miraculous.

But even more than the serendipity of life alone, we have been offered the immense privilege, by virtue of our birth, of citizenship in the richest and most powerful nation on earth, homes in a world where 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing, and food in a world where 815 million people are undernourished. Look around. This school itself is a manifestation of our blessings.

When faced with the humbling and brutal reality of this privilege we have been given, we usually do one of two things. The first is to ignore it, and fall back into the slumber of ignorance.

The second is to question our entitlement to such exorbitance and responsibility for or with it.

Though forcefully awakened by stories and statistics, I have been processing the second most of my high school career. I have thought a great deal, even more so in the wake of college acceptances, about why and if I deserve the privileges I have been given. I, like everyone else, am far from intellectually or morally perfect, and yet I have been given great advantages and opportunities pursued by yet denied to many others, several of whom are qualified to receive them. After getting into Harvard, I wondered whether who my parents are and my zip code provided me an unfair advantage, placing me in a privileged position that was unearned and undeserved.

In response to these common and difficult doubts, I offer a simple maxim: what matters most is not whether we deserve what we have, but what we do with it.

Our lives are winning lottery tickets. But the question we must answer is this: will we cash them in? Will we strive to maximize our potential and positive influence in the world? If we are to secure a better future for ourselves and the hopeful generations to come, we must respond in the affirmative with vigor.

So even as we celebrate our accomplishments and our institution this day, we mustn’t neglect the challenges of our time.

We must learn to be a bit more grateful for the privileges we have been given, more humble, more receptive to the struggles of others, and more willing to fight for what is right. To realize that, even as we revere and honor our histories, not every legacy of our forefathers is worthy of celebration.

We must daringly act against deprivation even when it is uncomfortable or challenging.

As Ralph Ellison implored us all through the timeless voice of his Invisible Man’s grandfather, we must learn to “live [our lives] with [our heads] in the lion’s mouth,” and have faith that, as Daniel, we will emerge from the daunting fight for justice unharmed. Even in the midst of uncertainty and darkness we must proceed, must recognize and act with what Dr. King called “The fierce urgency of now,” must subject ourselves every moment of every day to what Robert Penn Warren termed “the awful responsibility of Time.” For our world, though filled with so much beauty and prosperity, is in peril of destruction by the undefeated demons of the past and the falling angels of the present.

And the fire is fast approaching.

We are the generation that must carry the heavy burden left by centuries of languid progression. We are the generation that must redefine American race relations. We are the generation that must tackle climate change, decrease the prevalence of war and violence, build social tolerance, and combat inequality in all its forms. And though the task ahead is daunting and the empirics aren’t pretty, by learning to accept our history, having faith in ourselves, and believing in the fortuity the future offers, we can change the world."

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