Commencement Remarks at MS 51's Class of 2017 Graduation

Commencement Remarks at MS 51's Class of 2017 Graduation

Who here has seen America’s Got Talent? I thought so.

There are some good reasons to watch. Did anyone see 9-year-old Celine Tam sing “My Heart Will Go On” this year? Many of the contestants are impressive. Some are really cute. Some are deeply inspiring. When they fail, there is something horribly thrilling about it.

And even though there are expert judges, people get to vote. So I guess it’s a little bit like democracy.

But not too much. In the end, one person wins. The teams aren’t really teams. And the rest of us are spectators, caught up in a world of celebrity. Obviously, that’s better than the Roman Colosseum, where the crowd chose a loser, who was condemned to death, rather than a winner, who gets 1 millions dollars. But in other ways, it serves the same purpose. We call it a reality show … but it is designed to distract us from reality.  

Now, MS 51’s got talent, too. Am I right?

You’ve wowed Brooklyn with your 80s music medley, with photos of subway musicians and stunning art shows, by writing and staging your own strikingly powerful plays, with dances that seem like optical illusions, even through very competitive games of “Cahoot.”

MS 51 class of 2017, watching each of you grow & develop has been just extraordinary. I know I speak for all the parents in this room when I say how deeply proud we are of you today. And I’d like to ask you to start by thanking your parents as well. You all know it’s not easy to be the parents of adolescents, so they deserve some praise today as well.

The way the talents work at MS 51 is pretty different from America’s Got Talent.

I had the chance to sit down with a few MS 51 students earlier this spring and they told me some stories that helped me understand why (big thanks to Gazelle, Ilana, Kai, Marissa, Mattia, and Toby).

That 80s medley? Well, at first most kids couldn’t even play their instruments, and the first few dozens rounds of Jingle Bills was a horrible screech. But Mr. Gozo both inspired and taught you, until today, a bunch of 13-year-olds sound like a professional band. 

And the same happened in all the other talents. Ms. Flateau helped build a sense of family in the photo room, so that you can push & critique each other. On the dance floor, the students told me, Ms. Gibson helps make a piece look “like togetherness,” so much that the dancers become capable of new ways of moving, both on your own & together.

Unlike America’s Got Talent, I think the MS 51 talents really do have something to teach us about building an inclusive democracy: 

  • That every one of us has talents -- sometimes visible right away, sometimes buried deep inside, that take a while to develop. So it’s not all who scores best on a Math or ELA test, but where there are so many different ways of succeeding.  

  • It takes courage to find and develop your own voice. I hope in high school & beyond you’ll keep pushing yourself. For many of you, the talents you find will launch careers. For all of you, they are a path to finding your freest & fullest selves.

  • Individuals can grow & thrive, while being part of a greater group effort. This might be the biggest difference from America’s Got Talent. Of course some individuals have great singing voice, more likely to sell record albums & gain celebrity. But helping make an ensemble is usually a more fulfilling way to be human.

  • And today especially, I’m mindful of the extraordinary power of public education to help us develop talent together -- through guidance & pushing & discipline & patience. You are pretty special kids … but it’s also a special kind of magic that turns our tax dollars and clunky old school building into the place that helped you do this. Public education may actually be the deepest talent of all.  

So let’s take a minute to thank MS 51 faculty and staff.

Meg & I personally want to thank John McEneny -- for 6 years of dealing with Marek & Rosa, helping them to write & perform in some pretty bizarre plays, that somehow brought out their best, most tender, most bold, most collaborative selves. And Rosa, let me take one moment to tell you just how proud your mom & I are of you. You’ve done some really incredible work over the past three years -- in your classes, on the stage, as an activist, and with your friends -- and we feel deeply blessed, in awe really, to be your parents.  

Just like putting on a play is an extraordinary group effort, so is public education. You have been blessed with incredible classroom teachers, guidance counselors, school safety agents.

Even if you’re not as gangsta as Mr. Strecco, or you can’t rock a propeller hat as well as Mr. Goldstein, or sing a science review as harmoniously as Mr. Sandman, or be the valedictorian like Ms. Berner … MS 51 has taught us both that we’ve all got the courage & talents it takes to succeed, and also that we do it better together than we could alone.

Of course, there are some other ways that our country has been turned into a reality show.

Democracy is supposed to be how we come together, across lines of difference, to solve problems & make our lives in common better. To recognize that we have a shared fate, and to improve it together. Something like a really great ensemble talent performance.

But the current reality-TV style of politics is converting democracy from something noble into an absurd, narcissistic individual competition -- about who has the biggest crowds or the most viral tweets.

That has very real risks for our country. Like reality TV, it threatens to distract us from what matters. They hope if we don’t see the health care bill, we won’t notice that it would take health care away from more than 20 million Americans, just to fund a giant tax break. Or that we’ll stop worrying about the reality of climate change, likely to wreak havoc on the planet you will inherit.

But just like you've shown that developing talent is deeper than a reality show, you know that's true of democracy too. And that we have the responsibility to work together to defend it.

I know you’ve learned a few things about protest & resistance in your time here. You prayed for Paris after the attacks there, connected by the French dual-language program.

You joined Black Lives Matter marches. 

So many of you joined the Women’s March that when Rosa climbed up a fence on the Mall in Washington and looked out over the crowd, she was able to see classmates about a half-mile away.

You discovered that the bodega owners across the street -- maybe the only people who actually seem to like every single one of you (maybe they’re just pretending but still) -- are Yemenis, with their own history & identity & talents.  So you joined them for the Bodega Strike, or put notes on their door to make sure they know that, just like generations of immigrants, including so many of our parents & grandparents, they are welcome here too.

You’ve seen that protest, like performance, can bring out solidarity, help us find people’s gifts, help you find your voice.

And, sometimes, of course, the place where you chose to express your voice got you in some trouble [a large group of MS 51 girls wrote on the wall of the girls locker room, in protest of dress code rules].

But sometimes trouble -- as civil rights activist, Congressmember and American hero John Lewis reminds us -- is “good trouble.” As he teaches us, “good trouble” is nonviolent, rooted in ways of peace in what is often a violent world. Good trouble is humble, and listens to diverse opinions. And sometimes, you still have to pay the consequences. He was beaten and bloodied … so missing field day really isn’t much.  

Causing “good trouble” is a talent of its own, and I think many of you have developed it here. You've learned a lot here about how to make change -- not just in the dress code, or through political protest, but also through the kids walk, the anti-bullying campaign, changing attitudes to that lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender students can also be their free & full selves.

And by being the spark for a citywide movement for school A/C that began on the third floor but ended with the Mayor committing to out A/C in all 11,000 classrooms citywide that don't have it (I want to give a special shout-out to Sam Levine for his work in this). 

Learning to work together to make change is a pretty powerful talent -- and one that our society urgently needs if we’re going to survive. So I sincerely hope it is one you’ll keep developing.

Good trouble is also honest, and forces us to acknowledge our own privileges. So I want to end by posing a hard question to you.

Can the MS 51 view of talent be extended to everyone, or only to an elite few?

It’s not an easy question. You got into 51 through a talent audition, which suggests that some people have it, and some people don’t.

We know from America’s Got Talent that some people have better singing voices than others. But if it was possible for everyone here to find some success, is is possible for everyone? Do we believe that everyone has the potential to unlock hidden talents, or just some people? Can the kind of success you’ve seen here be extended to everyone, or is it just a bubble?

The same can be asked of our neighborhood. We live in a pretty special place. People from all around the world. Prospect Park. Public transportation that allows access to the best the world has to offer. Locally owned businesses. Enormous talent. But can it be extended, or is it just a bubble? 

A recent book by Richard Reeves called Dream Hoarders asks this question. He argues that it's not just the 99% vs the 1%, as we have chanted in the streets -- but that in some ways we might better see it as the upper 20% versus the rest -- that we hoard the best schools, the best homes, the best neighborhoods, in the hope of passing them on to our kids.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think we have something pretty special here, in this school and in this community. Something we work hard for, and want everyone to have. 

But if we really believe in the secret of the talents -- that everyone has the ability to develop their freest and fullest selves, and deserves an equal chance to find them -- then we have some pretty serious work to do.  

Together, we saw that the A/C problem shouldn't be solved just for MS 51. Can we do the same on a broader scale?

That’s why some of us have been asking hard questions about school segregation. Most of us believe that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” And yet we continue to accept segregated schools and segregated neighborhoods, where opportunity is rationed by race, by who you parents are, by where you come from.

Just like you’ve found courage in your talents, the ability to ask hard questions, camaraderie in working together, solidarity in raising your voices -- I hope as you move on to high school, you’ll find the courage to recognize that our shared fates are truly tied together in this country & in this planet in ways it is sometimes really hard to acknowledge. And to work together to do something about it.

The talents you have developed at MS 51 are impressive -- and it’s important to take time to celebrate today, to take joy & pride in what you’ve done so far.

But those same talents are ones that this country and this planet will sorely need in the years ahead.

Don’t hoard them.

Don’t even just share them with the world.

Demand a world where everyone has a real chance to develop theirs, too.  

That’s a big responsibility. But class of 2017, I believe deeply that you’re up to it.

Thank you, good luck, and congratulations.


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