Banneker High School Commencement Address

Thank you. Thank you very much, Nicole. I asked her as she was leaving the podium where she was going to college next year, and she said Georgetown, which will make the President very happy since he’s a graduate. (Applause.)

I want to thank you for inviting me to be part of this ceremony of graduation and celebration. I want to thank Principal Adams and Vice Principal Reed (phonetic), Assistant Superintendent Neal (phonetic), Mayor Barry, Councilwoman Mason, Representatives of the Trustee Board and the Board of Education. I want to commend Derek McGinty (phonetic) for his excellent address. I enjoy listening to Derek on the radio and in person was even better. (Applause.)

I also want to greet the parents and other relatives and friends of the graduates. And I want to say a special word of appreciation to the teachers of Banneker and ask them please to stand so we can thank every one of you. (Applause.)

But particularly am I pleased that I can be here to be part of this recognition for the graduates themselves. This is an auspicious occasion for you as it is for this school and this city. I have many reasons for wanting to speak here at Banneker and most of them are sitting right in front of you — the graduates of this class. I come to salute each and every one of them. (Applause.)

Together, they have won thousands of dollars in scholarships and academic awards. Over the past four years, these young men and women have learned the language of Ancient Rome and visited the streets of Renaissance Verona with Romeo and Juliet. They’ve traveled to Walden Pond and scaled the Eiffel Tower. They’ve studied the laws of gravity as well as the laws of our 200-year-old democracy. And they’ve made this community a better place to live through many hours of volunteer service in child care centers, schools and hospitals.

So I am truly honored to be addressing a group of graduates who have not only met, but exceeded, the high expectations set by your teachers and your families. You have traveled far, both literally and figuratively, and you are the pride of this city.

But you know what? As Derek has told you, your job is not by any means done yet. There is much further you need to go. There are countless more challenges and obstacles that you will have to overcome.

I understand that many of you in the course of your high school academic career have studied the Ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey.” Well, just imagine today that you are Odysseus. With your smarts, you’ve just helped your country win the Trojan War. But now you have a long journey ahead of you before you can return home. You will face many more tests — physical, emotional, and mental. You may be tempted to stray from your cherished goals. You may be tempted to stray from that path of personal integrity. And there will be days, months, and even years when you’ll feel as though the Fates are conspiring against you.

But every single teacher, administrator, mentor, parent, grandparent, and friend in this room knows that you can make it. We have complete faith in your abilities because we know of the daily sacrifices and tough choices you have made to succeed at this demanding school. Whether it’s waking up at the crack of down to travel across town to arrive at school on time, giving up Friday nights to get a jump start on a paper, finding the energy to finish a very tough problem while babysitting a younger sibling, forcing yourself to study harder the minute any doubt about your abilities crept into your mind — these choices demonstrate your discipline, your wisdom, and your maturity.

As the mother of another newly minted high school graduate, I know that you’ve probably been getting more advice than you ever thought you needed. And, if like some graduates I know, it might be going in one ear and out the other — (laughter ) — you will have to indulge us because part of the reason we hold graduations is so that we can hold forth with all this advice.

And so I have to join that time-honored and, I think, important kind of responsibility. And so there are a few things that I want to share with you. First, I hope you will always be proud of having attended Banneker. And I hope you will help more of your fellow citizens in Washington and across America understand what it takes to raise the quality of public education, about what it takes to create and maintain great and successful public schools such as Banneker.

We all know what Washington’s public school system is not and what it could be. We know that many things about our school system are broken and that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us if we are to rectify the shortcomings. I have been in and out of schools throughout this district, and I can tell when I walk in the door whether there is learning going on, whether teachers and administrators believe that every child can succeed if set with high expectations. I have seen teachers working miracles and I have seen teachers just marking time. I have seen administrators who get up at the crack of dawn and don’t rest until midnight because there’s so much to be done to pull together teachers and work on behalf of students, and I’ve seen administrators just waiting for retirement. I have been in schools that are as clean and sparkling as anyplace you can find in the world, and I’ve been in schools where the ceilings and the walls are literally falling down — and children shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of atmosphere. (Applause.)

So I have seen with my own eyes the best and the worst of our public school system. And what bothers and frustrates me is that when we know what works, when we know what it takes to motivate young people, to give teachers the respect they need to continue to stretch themselves to do the best job they’re capable of, then why don’t we do that in every single school in this city? (Applause.)

We’ve heard a lot this evening about how special and wonderful Banneker is, and it is. But I have to be honest with you. I wish that in five or 10 years at the outside, we could say about every high school in Washington, D.C., what we can say about Banneker today. (Applause.)

Banneker can be a model. Sure it’s successful because it is academically selective — and to become frustrated because you can’t keep up to do the work at the level you would like to see yourself doing. The other is to seek as much help as you need and to be unashamed in asking for it.

I want to tell you about some research that I think is very significant. The University of California at Berkeley, some years ago, the engineering department became puzzled because they had these young people admitted from schools like Banneker and others around the country, and they had all the credentials — they had done well and they had the motivation — but young African American students were not succeeding at the same level as Caucasian and Asian American students.

Well, instead of saying, well, you know, that’s a problem, we’re sorry about it, they had some faculty members who decided to study the problem. And here is what they found: They found that very often young African American students who arrived at competitive colleges had always done well and had done it by so much work and effort that when they began experiencing difficulty, as every one of you will, as I certainly did, they couldn’t believe it. And so they kept working harder and harder and harder, but they were embarrassed to ask for help.

Whereas white students and Asian American students not only asked for help, they demanded help. And the Asian American students formed study groups where they helped each other, where they quizzed each other, where they had to lose any embarrassment they felt about showing their ignorance in front of each other. They understood that in a new, difficult academic environment, you couldn’t be cool, you just had to really work hard and be willing to make the greatest effort you possibly could.

But so many of the African American students faced with some difficulties went into their rooms, shut the door, and studied even harder on their own because they just couldn’t bear the idea that maybe they needed help since they had done so well in high school.

So let me just ask you, please, when you get to these colleges where you’re going, just think hard about what your ultimate goal is. Seek whatever help you need. Come together to help each other. Look for people who will be good, positive role models and mentors for you. Do not be embarrassed because college may be harder.

I cried for two months when I got to college. I thought I was the dumbest person they’d ever let in because I couldn’t understand half of what was going on. And when I called home collect, my father, who didn’t want me that far away anyway, said, well, come home, honey. And my mother said, don’t you dare, you go back there and keep working. (Applause.)

Finally, I hope that you will carry with you to college and beyond your commitment to service because you have so much to give. The lives you have already led are examples not only to those of us who are older and extolling them today, but to many young people — brothers and sisters and cousins who are in this audience.

Many of you have made it here to this graduation ceremony not only through your own determination, but because you had at least one adult in your lives — a mom, a dad, a grandparent, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, a friend, a coach — who supported and even pushed you along the way. They’ve given generously of their time and love, and I hope that you will take that as an incentive to give it back to others around you, now and into the future.

Finally, let’s remember the example and the words of Benjamin Banneker himself — a great self-taught mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and patron spirit, as well as the descendant of slaves. More than 200 years ago, Mr. Banneker wrote in his almanac, “The most sensible one is he who believes himself the furthest from the goal and who, whatever advances he has made in his road, studies as if he yet knew nothing and marches as if he were only beginning to make his first advance.” In other words, never rest on your laurels, never stop learning, and never give up.

You are the proud possessors of a great education — one that is the product of your own hard work as well as the gift of your family, your school, your city, and your country. It is a tool that you can use to open those doors of opportunity to greater success.

I hope you will use it well. And I hope that you will remember the sacrifice you’ve already made and understand the joy you feel from having done that today and appreciate the continuing sacrifice for your future because you’ll be able to look back and say to yourself, I overcame the odds, I made a contribution, I lived my life in a way that really pays back the faith and trust that so many others put in me.

Thank you and God speed.

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