By Pat Berry
This class and my principalship here at Stevens are exactly the same age and so I ask that you indulge me for a few moments so I can share some last thoughts with these young adults while I have their undivided attention.
When I was spending a wonderful week in our nation’s capitol –– Washington D.C. –– this past April, with a number of these seniors, a t-shirt in the Newseum gift shop caught my eye –– show shirt. At that moment I knew what I would say at graduation.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
My favorite song of all time is The Sound of Silence and you might ask why that song? Well, I remember when I was 11 years old my music teacher was working with me in chorus and I read these lyrics for the first time and they just hit me somewhere in my soul, somewhere deep inside, but I was too young to understand why. As an only child hearing the lyrics:
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
That described me. Often alone, but comfortable in the silence into which I had been born, many nights simply having conversations with myself in the dark, my world often played itself out entirely in the recesses of my imagination. I could not have known then how valuable that would be –– to be comfortable, even to NEED silence, in order to maintain my equilibrium, my inner peace. The preciousness of quiet, the beauty of no sound, the value of listening only to one’s own thoughts or just hearing bird song, waves or simply the wind was something I valued.
As I grew older, I came to realize, however, that silence often had far more disastrous results. That silence, in times of trouble or turmoil, could actually be deadly.
Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
It was the first time I heard, or read, the word cancer. Long before my own father would succumb to it when I was only 19.
And so here is the point in the speech when I tell you that My grandfather was a Nazi. Ah, I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Why is that relevant? Well it has to do with silence, with the difference between empathy (to feel with someone) sympathy (to feel for someone) and apathy (to feel nothing at all).
I have always been proud to say that I am a first generation American, born to two off-the-boat Germans, who came to this country, to find a freedom and a life that had been destroyed by two world wars in their own homeland. I didn’t realize that their accents set them apart. I didn’t understand why my mother wasn’t welcomed into certain social circles, why my dad couldn’t get into some of organizations, or the reason my first grade teacher hated me so was because my parents were foreign. To me they were my parents, who worked from dawn to dusk to give me all the things that had never been an option for them.
My dad told me stories of WWI and how why he would never eat a turnip again because that’s all he had to eat for four years. My mom told me about how her dad was the first decorated soldier of WWII, set apart by Hitler himself, with his portrait in all the newspapers and awarded the Iron Cross. Stories of how when the Jewish students started to disappear from their classroom, they were simply told they were being “relocated.”
She told me about having polio when she was 10 and she was “invited” to the hospital and at the last minute her father, my grandfather, no. 800 in the Nazi party, was alerted that she would be one of thousands of imperfect children who would be experimented on, and that he would never see her again. He had to sneak her out of the hospital in the middle of the night, otherwise I would not be here with you tonight.
That same Nazi officer, my grandfather, took my 10 year old mother by the hand on November 10th, 1938, after the Night of Crystal to see the ruins of the synagogue in their small town of Hanau and stood on the corner with tears streaming down his face repeating, “This is not what it was supposed to be.”
That same Nazi was put into a concentration camp for German officers. Why? Because he would not stay silent. Once his eyes were open, he couldn’t close them again. He survived the war and lived to a hearty 81 years old and I had the chance to meet him many times, to learn what a loving and good man he was.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because in all the noise and chaos and politics of that time there was an awful lot of silence about what was really happening and it led to an entire generation believing in something that wasn’t real. They listened to the hype, the propaganda, to the fake news and they took it all in and then, when it was too late, they stood and watched the ruins of an entire civilization and shook their heads wondering how it could have happened to them.
How could it after the world had witnessed such horrors? I visit my 90 year old mother every weekend. She is now in a wheelchair, the polio has come back, and I listen to the stories she tells and watch as she shakes her head at seeing some of those same prejudices rearing their ugly heads.
Here we are in 2018 and your generation is faced with the same challenges. You are being asked to decide things like whose lives matter most? Black lives or blue lives. Why are we in a place where we need to pick one over the other?
You are asked about immigration, about walls, about who should stay and who should go and what is right and what is left, who is right, the red side or the blue, and no one is talking about the middle, about the moderate about how we can come together and compromise, as if compromise is a dirty word. We are sitting in our living rooms in complete silence, shouting through Facebook at each other and the irony comes back to me in those lyrics from 50 years ago.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
I could not have imagined when I was 11 that there would be a world where silence and sound would have such very different meanings and messages. That there would be ways for us to argue with each other over a wireless world, a world that would have become more at war with itself than it was in that most turbulent of years in 1968.
And so, another reminder from MLK. We need to make sure we say the things that are in our heart.
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” MLK
Someone took a chance on me –– gave me a job, a job that turned out to be the passion I was looking for, a job that put me in a place called Claremont, a place that was too far away from my home that I needed to rent an apartment so I could do the job that was my passion.
Then I got a diagnosis that changed my world but because I had that apartment in a place called Claremont I decided to go to another place called Dartmouth Hitchcock –– there they found a second tumor that the first diagnosis had overlooked. Today I am healthy because someone gave me a job in a place called Claremont. Someone took a chance on me. Thank you, Dr. McGoodwin. I truly owe you my life.
So what do you do with a life that has been given to you, not once but twice? This is what I have learned.
We started this school year with a crazy thing called Chaos and Kindness and I want you to remember their message –– to be kind. That in a world of chaos it is important to spread kindness.
Don’t be a bystander. Don’t be the person with your phone out videotaping. Be the person in there helping, doing, saving. BE in your world. Live it, breath it, experience it. Look into the eyes of those around you and have conversations that are face to face.
Don’t be silent. SPEAK. SPEAK UP AND OUT AND LOUDLY about the things you care about. Your generation has enormous power, more so than any generation since the Baby Boomers. The power to set the policy, laws and the future of this country. You have our attention. Use it wisely.
Speak up about student debt, safe schools, saving the planet, helping those less fortunate, gays rights, PEOPLE rights, reduced funding for public education and the arts, whatever is your passion yell it from the rooftops and then go out and fix it. Because, the alternative is apathy and apathy is “silence like a cancer grows.” Apathy is the lack of all feeling. Awaken. Awaken to a life of giving, of doing, of changing, of spreading kindness and light.
Here my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you,
And the original song ends,
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel felt that their words were falling on deaf ears. The war in Vietnam was raging, young people wanted peace and love and freedom but they were fighting against a world that said they had no choice.
Give your song a different ending. Make a noise class of 2018. Make a great and mighty noise that is so loud that no one will ever be able to drown you out. Make that noise through your music, your acting, your sport, your writing, your speaking, your working, your loving, your giving, your kindness.
We will be here and we will be listening and we will be waiting to hear the roar that is the legacy of the Class of 2018.
Pat Berry is the principal at Stevens High School in Claremont. Her speech is shared with her permission.
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