A very special school

David Bryant is  the principal at New Roads School in Santa Monica. He has  managed to infuse the school with the kind of spirit one  wished could spread around and permeate  modern society, a spirit of kindness, acceptance and tolerance that yet insists on personal responsibility, truth, curiosity and hard work. I have been very impressed with the way he runs New Roads, and I was very honored when he asked me to give the commencement speech at the Graduation Ceremony of the Class of 2009.

The ceremony was a happy gathering, filled with sincere cheer, it was relaxed and colorful. Maybe because these kinds of ceremonies tend to be stiff and pompous, it felt so refreshing to be in one that felt so right, that managed to balance solemnity with simplicity, depth of thought with lightness of spirit. I had  feared the graduates might be bored or uninterested in what I had to say. Instead I was surprised at the attention they so kindly bestowed on me, at the fact that they seemed to react to my words in a mature and understanding way. To feel that kind of response from a large group of young people is rare these days. It moved me and made me realize that the reason why I like that school is not just the atmosphere of camaraderie I sense, but the fact that there is something different, special, in the way students are taught there.

Here is my speech:


I should start by congratulating you. Getting up early for twelve years is no small achievement. I seem to remember that for me the only thing that was clear when I graduated was that I wouldn’t have to get up early every day. It didn’t work out exactly like that, but somehow getting up early afterwards had a different flavor. It felt like something I had decided to do, instead of what somebody else had decided I should do.

And this is exactly the meaning of today. This day marks the beginning of your life as a free entity. Up to now it has fallen to your parents or other adults in your life to make most of the big decisions concerning you. The burden of whatever worked or not worked could be attributed in large measure to them. From now on, however, your life will be increasingly in your own hands. It will be up to you to decide what you want to make of it. It will be your responsibility to make it a life you can feel proud of.

Having said that, I have another reason to feel excited and hopeful for this journey you are undertaking: you are graduating in the midst of one of the biggest global crisis of the last thirty years. This sure doesn’t sound like a reason to rejoice, but I am convinced it is. You know why? Because for some reason, when we feel threatened, we tend to come out of our individual spaces; it is at times of crisis, that the best features of our humanity come through. We are forced to act together, to take big steps, to summon our collective creativity. Our strength can multiply tenfold when it ceases to be a lone effort. And no individual effort can deal with such large needs as we have today. If we are able to abandon the I and embrace the we, this crisis can turn into an opportunity to realize and express the full potential of our humanity and to achieve what could have seemed impossible.

I know this because like you I graduated at a time of crisis.

My country, Nicaragua, was ruled by a dynasty of dictators. Somoza was their last name. The father had been president, and he was followed by his oldest son, and then his younger son. The same family was in power for 45 years. We had no free elections, no free press. The Somoza’s owned 60% of Nicaragua; they ruled it as their own hacienda, and they imprisoned, tortured or killed anybody who opposed them.

When I was growing up, adults use to speak of regime change as the impossible thing they all wanted to see happen. The generation that preceded mine was despondent, cynical and resigned. Individuals would rebel from time to time. People would admire them in silence, but do little else.

Then in 1972 an earthshaking event took place –literally- we had an earthquake, which destroyed the capital city, Managua. In the wake of the earthquake and the anarchy that followed, the tyrant’s greed became exposed and the patience of the people became exhausted. Inspired by other revolutionary struggles in Latin America, by the example of Che Guevara and other equally heroic figures, my generation took it upon itself to oust the tyrant. We chose to give up on political parties and an electoral process which was always rigged to elect a member of the Somoza dynasty, and instead we decided to resort to armed struggle and embark on a clandestine, guerrilla movement, which eventually grew and was capable of leading the people into a general popular upraising which deposed Somoza on the 19th of July, 1979.

At the time that I joined the Sandinistas in 1970, however, the idea of victory was almost unimaginable. Of the ten people who were in my clandestine cell when the last stage of the revolutionary war began, only two of us survived. The struggle was hard and bloody but the day I returned to Nicaragua from Costa Rica where I had been working in the diplomatic and logistic operations until July 20th, I went through the streets of Managua, and while I watched people celebrate joyously the end of 45 years of dictatorship, I thought that the most important thing I would inherit my children was the faith that impossible things could come to pass and that one could attain one’s dreams.

This coming 19th of July it will be the thirty year anniversary of the revolution.

Many things have happened in my country since then, some good, and some bad. We are still poor, but we have recovered our sense of dignity as a people. We now have a sense of our own collective power, we know what we were able to accomplish.

I am no hero. I was also a young girl who enjoyed partying and wanted to fall in love and have nice things, but not for one minute do I regret giving that up during the years of the struggle. In spite of all the hardships and grief we endured, those were the happiest days of my life. It was then I realized that there is no greater happiness than joining others in achieving an objective that is greater than oneself.

As you go about your lives, you will also have to decide between being an active participant of your world and leaving behind a meaningful legacy, or just going along for the ride telling yourselves you are too small to make a difference. And like somebody said, very wisely: If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never been in bed with a mosquito. It is persistence not size that matters.

The challenges you face are in many respects more difficult. After all to decide to fight tyranny and oppression was a clear cut choice. I am sure many of you would have done the same thing I did. Yet to know what to do in our world today is much more complex. This crisis, however, simplifies the task. Because this crisis is not just economical; it is not just about jobs and banks and Ponzi schemes. It is a crisis that at its core is questioning the way we live: the short sightedness vis a vis our planet; the mentality of immediate gratification that led to so much careless spending and debt; the lack of solidarity of a rich part of the world with the thousands of humans that suffer and die around the globe for lack of food or the most essential need; it is questioning our lack of vision and responsibility towards the future.

It will be your generation’s quest to think differently, to oppose the philosophy that tries to make you think you have to be a certain way to belong and succeed. Instead of “what kind of person does society want, your challenge will be to ask: what kind of society do people need in order to preserve and enrich their humanity, those qualities like caring, solidarity, friendship, love, balance, creativity, curiosity, intimacy…” Because the way society has developed has led us to confuse who we are with what we have, has led to an “ideology of having”. I cringe every time I hear people mention how much this person or that is worth when speaking about their wealth. I refuse to accept that any human being’s worth can be measured in those terms. Yet we live in a society that has come to hold those values. Instead of valuing our uniqueness it compels us to seek refuge in anonymity, to be like everybody else. Being different is either ridiculed or only allowed to people who have become successful by accumulating wealth or flashy notoriety. Our society leaves it up to celebrities to be different. It entices us to live vicariously through them. It sets up as role models people whose work it is to act the roles somebody else designs for them. It is quite strange when you think of it, strange and scary in so much as it tends to devalue the rest of us and make us feel ordinary, devoid of our own self-worth.

So your challenge in these times of crisis is not, in my opinion, to think about what is to be done about the economy, but what is to be done to refocus our attention and care in our humanity, to rediscover each other and the joys we can give to one another, to come out of our little worlds and look at the big world we all share. Your challenge, I would like to think, will be to revive the faith –that somehow seems to have been lost- that another world is possible, that the same imagination that can come up with smart bombs and ever more sophisticated weapons can be turned into the imagination that dreams of ways to end hunger, discrimination, inequality and the growing indifference we have come in a way to accept as normal.

More than any other generation, yours has amazing means to be in touch and connect with one another. With a stroke on your keyboard you can reach millions of people. But these tools are often set up in ways that can lead us to overlook their potential. Because it is easier for the market to think of us as demographics many people spend a lot of time trying to tame us, to channel our energies in ways that benefit them but dehumanize us, that make us passive, and further removed from the world.

But you have the capacity to turn things around. You are young, you can do whatever you strive for, and you can do it not just the good of others, but for your own good as well, because let me tell you that in looking for the happiness of others, the first one we find is our own. Because it is exhilarating to dream big, it is fantastic to experience the full force of our human ingenuity and potential, to experience how unique and powerful our minds are, how far our ideas can travel if we are willing to give them a chance, if we dare to dare.

Jeffrey Sachs says this about the cost of dealing with the health crisis in the most impoverished regions of the world:

“…The rich world, at a tiny cost to itself, could save around eight million people each year in the poorest countries, a large proportion of whom are children dying before their fifth birthday….We grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, with its six million martyrs. So could we even consider, for a moment, that ten cents per one hundred dollars of income would be too much to rescue the poor world from its current misery, especially since that misery is washing up on our shores in so many ways?”

Like this, there are so many changes this world needs that can be achieved if enough people band together and work and struggle to make them happen. Changes such as these would go a long way in bringing about a more humane existence for all.

Let me quote from Alice in Wonderland:

“-There is no use trying, said Alice, one can’t believe in impossible things.

-I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen, when I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

You are entering a world that is not just asking, but crying for those “impossible dreams”, so as you leave this wonderful school that you have been so privileged to attend, please be rebels, dare to dream not only of individual success but of all that you can do to improve the substance of human life for future generations. Refuse to live those lives of quiet desperation that Thoreau talked about. Do not settle for less than the kind of happiness that makes life worth living.

May 31st, 2009

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11 thoughts on “A very special school

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