Governor Deval L. Patrick
Commencement Address at Bridgewater State College
Saturday, May 16, 2009
As prepared for delivery
Prime Minister Neves;
Chairman Ricciardi and Members of the Board of Trustees;
President Mohler-Faria and Members of the Faculty and Staff;
Distinguished Guests, Proud Family Members, Friends; and especially
Thank you so much for the warm welcome to your special occasion, and for this wonderful and generous honor. I hope one day to become the man you describe.
I am very pleased to be here - even though I have few illusions that any of you graduates will remember much of what I say here today. I am due to address five commencements this spring, so I am facing the daunting prospect of five gatherings of smart and well-prepared graduates, eager to get their degrees and go, and who are paying hardly any attention at all to what any of us say from this podium. I know -- I once sat where you are sitting. I know your mind has already wandered off from this place and time to what's ahead. And that is exactly as it should be. For there is a lot to think about.
What an extraordinary time it is! A few months ago, Americans went to the polls and elected a young, gifted and Black lawyer and community organizer to be President of the United States. It gives me such pride to see the enthusiasm people have around the country and around the world for our new leadership.
I don't know how many of you were there in Washington on Inauguration Day. But the view from the platform out over the Mall was a thing I will not soon forget. Two million people visited Washington for the occasion, yet there was not a single unbecoming incident. Only joy and solemnity and hope.
I think we will all look back on this time and recall, in very personal terms, where we were and what we were doing when it hit us that profound change was afoot. One moment of my own I especially enjoyed was at a dinner for governors at the White House in February. Now, it turns out that governors get invited to the White House every February for a very formal and elegant evening. Each of these occasions follows a certain pattern. First, there is a reception in the foyer. Then a receiving line through the Blue Room where we and our spouses have our photographs taken with the President and First Lady. Then a multi-course dinner in the State Dining Room. Then entertainment in the East Room.
The previous occasions with President and Mrs. Bush were no less elegant - but we tended to be through all that and back in the cars by 9:15. This year, there was an electricity about the occasion. This year, after dinner, when we moved into the East Room, there was Earth Wind and Fire. And when the slow dance started -- the universal signal that the evening is ending -- the President leaned over to me and said, "Deval, this is when we make our move." That's when I knew that things had changed!
And yet the real work has just begun. Because in truth the people on that Mall in January knew that America did not change just because Barack Obama was elected president, any more than Massachusetts changed just because I was elected Governor. You know that, too. And so, by the way, does the President.
The sweat and toil and setbacks and heartbreak of lasting change is just starting. The scope of change we voted for, and the nature of change itself, guarantees that an uneven and sometimes bumpy road lies ahead. So we had better be clear about where we are going.
I see that journey in very personal terms.
Our youngest daughter, Katherine, graduated from high school a couple of years ago. Sitting at her graduation, I couldn't help but reflect on the difference between her journey to that milestone, and my own nearly 35 years earlier.
I grew up on welfare on the South Side of Chicago - in my grandparents' two-bedroom tenement. I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and sister, so we would rotate from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor, every third night on the floor. I went to overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. I can't think of a time when I didn't enjoy reading, but I don't remember actually ever owning a book as a child. I got my break in 1970 when I came to Massachusetts on a scholarship to boarding school. For me, that was like landing on a different planet.
Now, our Katherine, by contrast, has always had her own room -- most of that time in a house in a leafy neighborhood outside of Boston where I used to deliver newspapers as a student in boarding school. By the time she got to high school, she had already traveled on four continents, knew how to use and pronounce a "concierge," and had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.
When Katherine was in kindergarten, her class was studying the changes in the seasons. And her homework assignment was to describe to mom and dad the four seasons. So, she proceeded to describe to us, in accurate detail, her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC. "First you drive up and the doorman takes your car!" Five years old!
One generation. One generation and the circumstances of my life and family were profoundly transformed. And though that story is not told as often as we'd like, it's told more often in this country than any other place on earth. That is the American story. That is who we are -- that simple idea that through hard work, tenacity, preparation and faith each of us has a chance at the American story.
Well, that American story is at risk today. More and more families are working harder and still losing ground. Homeowners are losing their homes. Some 5.7 million people have lost their jobs in the last two years, and many of those their way and their hope. Every individual, family, business and not-for-profit in nearly every corner of the country is hurting or worried that soon they will be. From mighty firms like General Motors and Lehman Brothers to small companies, plans are disrupted. Dreams are broken. The poor are in terrible shape and have been for some time. Now the middle class are one paycheck away, one serious illness away from being poor and deeply anxious about it.
That is the world you are about to inhabit - a society in many ways in anguish and an economy in crisis. And I want you to embrace it. Because crisis is a platform for change.
You need look no further than this college for living proof. Bridgewater State was established by one of the greatest education reformers in American history, Horace Mann. The school he established in 1840 has become an academic powerhouse offering dozens of graduate and undergraduate programs to 10,000 students in four schools on 270 acres.
But it was not always so grand or so probable. Horace Mann launched his new college in the midst of a depression. In 1837, following an economic bubble built in part upon investor and land speculation, the money ran out, the banking system seized up and the economy stalled. Sound familiar?
Mann had plenty of opposition, too. Religious leaders opposed a system of secular education. Politicians worried that the new Board of Education would spread the ideology of the party in control. Locals feared a centralized school system would crimp their independence. Fiscal conservatives railed against spending money in a time of depression. And there were petty detractors in government, like the member of the House of Representatives who was opposed because the arithmetic books he had written were rejected for use in the schools!
But Mann went forward anyway. And what started in one room in the town hall basement has become the intellectual and regional centerpiece Bridgewater State is today. And that, my dear graduates, is the point. Horace Mann looked reality in the eye, and still let his ideals light his path. He called idealism the "avant-courier" of the mind. In the days long before mobile phones and twitter, an avant-courier ran ahead to announce the approach of another person. In other words, Mann believed that idealism announced the approach of thought and from that flowed action. Idealism was, to his thinking, the avant-courier of change. He was a pragmatic idealist.
Well, the world needs pragmatic idealists today - in spite of the crisis around us, and perhaps because of it. Because the world you will soon inhabit is filled - in the same instant - with both breathtaking beauty and utter devastation; with both glamorous comforts and abject suffering. With your training and credentials, you could, if you wanted, spend your whole lives averting your eyes from the daily calamity of less fortunate souls and circumstances, focused exclusively on your own achievement or survival, or just locked (like so many impractical idealists I have known) in existential turmoil over why bad things happen to good people. Or you could look clearly at what's wrong, as a pragmatic idealist, and set yourselves to make it right.
We've done it before.
An earlier generation, facing dangers abroad and widespread suffering at home, summoned American aspirations and answered a call to serve and to sacrifice. And that generation, what we now call the "Greatest Generation," fought and won the War; rebuilt Europe and Japan; built the federal highway system and great public universities and other institutions; expanded the middle class; and ignited the civil rights revolution. That generation - through their service and their sacrifice - made it possible for many of the rest of us to live the American story.
We need to answer that call again and renew our commitment to the American story. From out of this crisis, make a change.
Make an economy that expands opportunity out to the marginalized, not just up to the well-connected.
Make schools that ignite a love of learning in every kid and that honor and support teachers.
Make accessible and affordable health care a public good.
Make a planet that is healed, and streets and homes free from violence, and a community that helps feed, clothe and house our most fragile neighbors.
No challenge is beyond our capacity to care about and to solve - so long as you, our pragmatic idealists, can imagine a better tomorrow and then will reach for it.
What I am asking of you, what I am hoping for and counting on from you, is not easy. But it is simpler than you might think. Because I believe that Americans are ready, even in the unexpected corners of our country, to serve and to sacrifice.
The high school in Brockton, Massachusetts is the largest in our Commonwealth. 4100 young people go to that school. Sixty-four percent are on the free lunch program. For nearly half, English is a foreign language. Their visionary principal, Dr. Susan Szachowicz, serves on your Board of Trustees. I visited the school a few weeks ago to announce some of the federal stimulus funding for education and arranged to meet beforehand with parents of special needs students.
I sat with about a dozen of them in the school library, surrounded by members of the student council who had come to observe. At first we talked about programs and policies and information, but soon the conversation got personal, when one mother asked me to imagine what it is like to have a child in school who has no friends. As a parent myself, the comment was searing. Her child's learning issues were so profound that other kids just shunned him.
At that point, one of the student council members raised her hand and said, "I want to be your child's buddy here in the school."
Another parent then said, "Well, that's nice, but my child is in the grammar school." Whereupon another student raised her hand and said, "Why don't we have a program where high school students can be buddies for special needs kids in whatever Brockton school they attend?"
The school superintendent had a natural reaction; he began to worry aloud about how he could pay for such a program. In these times of scarce resources, he said he wasn't sure he could. To which another student replied, "We don't have to be paid. This is our community." His message was plain and powerful: "If there is a need, send me."
My point is that even in the bleakest places, young people still look for a reason to hope. You must offer that reason. There is a new generation, even we here, who understand the need for service and sacrifice. That is the opportunity today's crisis presents us. Let's seize it. For if we do, I am certain that our best days lie ahead.
God bless you all and good luck. Thank you very much.