Below are the remarks delivered by President Porterfield at the North Star Academy Charter School of Newark Graduation Ceremony in Newark, NJ on June 12, 2014.
Thank you, Pat, for that gracious introduction, and Amir and Michelle, for your eloquent speeches.
It is a profound pleasure to be here at the 10th graduation ceremony of North Star Academy, which I’ve visited twice before and is one of the finest educational communities I’ve ever seen. It is such a joy to walk the halls and just breath the air of aspiration and love with all these talented, motivated students and teachers -- and to witness first-hand the death stare of Mr. Mann.
It’s no wonder that Mr. Mann just won the most prestigious school leadership honor in the country -- the Ryan Award -- from the Accelerate Institute in Chicago. Nor is it a surprise that the Uncommon Schools network that you’re a part of last year won one of the most impressive awards given out in American education -- the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools -- that recognized its “steadfast commitment to ensuring that every child -- regardless of family income or background -- deserves a world-class education.”
I’ve used Uncommon legend Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like A Champion to improve my own teaching techniques as a college professor, and I have been mentored by your founder, Mr. Norman Atkins, one of the greatest education change-makers in the country.
Several of my own students have taught in Uncommon Schools -- Dena Sofer, Alejandra Palomino, and Jeff Morshed. And, most important, I’ve had a chance to become a teacher and mentor of more than 10 students who are graduating today or who graduated last year.
From last year -- Kamani Christian, now at Bucknell; Shawn Heyward, now at Trinity; Tianna Mack, now at Howard; Donovan Odelugo, now at Temple; Kurt Stenson, now at Florida International University, and Brandon Smith and Muata Nkosi now at my school, Franklin & Marshall College -- each of whom spent 3 weeks at F&M with us before their senior year. Muata, it’s fitting that the Audible Scholarship you just won includes a Kindle Fire since, ladies and gentlemen, I know first hand that’s just what Muata’s brain does every day at F&M – kindles fire…
And then last year we were so excited to host on our campus some of tonight’s graduates -- Jessica Debrah, going to Pomona; Jonathan Aquino, going to Boston College; Sandra Osei-Frimpong, going to Wellesley; Amir Ballard, going to Brown – I call him Cornel West…. And, of course, Charisma Lambert, going to F&M, along with Reinoldo Cotto, who it was a pleasure to meet today.
To all of the students here tonight, congratulations! Each of you has developed together the knowledge and the skills needed for college success. As you head off to great colleges and universities like Lehigh, Wellesley, and Middlebury, we’re confident that you’ll succeed. You’ve learned how to learn, how to manage time, how to ask for help, how to draw on your passion, how to put your head down with tenacity to do the hard work of learning. And you’ve learned to give your trust to those who teach you, which is a crucial part of college success.
Your families, your teachers, and your mentors all have faith in you. Never forget that, during the ups and downs of college. Those who taught you the best and love the most have faith in you. They believe in you, and you can believe in that.
I think North Star is the perfect name for a change-making school – because education in its truest sense is always about freedom, and that’s what I’d like to talk about tonight – the connection between learning and liberty.
We often celebrate our country’s tradition as a birthplace of democracy. But make no mistake, for all the philosophical beauty of the Constitution, the struggles of real people to achieve freedom has always been the vital force that brings American reality closer to American ideals. The first spark of the American freedom struggle wasn’t important incidents like the Boston Tea Party of 1773. American freedom began much earlier when the first enslaved Africans fought back and followed the North Star to move from captivity to liberty. The full story of American democracy has chapters about the Reconstruction era, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, and it extends, I would argue, into today’s era of education reform, which takes so many different forms -- none more beautiful than your remarkable school.
So, what does it all mean today? How does the idea of freedom relate to the next stage of your education and your lives?
Three ways: I’m going to talk about how a North Star education creates freedom for the one, the many, and the whole. And to express this idea, I’m going to refer to and quote the inspiring words of three great Americans.
First, education and freedom for the one – namely, each one of you.
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Kansas to the granddaughter of a woman who escaped slavery. She would later become one of the most influential writers in American history and was selected as America’s Poet Laureate in 1985 -- and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sandra, or Jessica, or Charisma, or Muata following her footsteps.
Ms. Brooks wrote a poem called “Life for my Child is Simple.” It celebrates a toddler who takes joy in tipping over an icebox pan or snatching down curtains or generally causing havoc in the house, because he’s an adventurer. I love the last four lines:
Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible.
But never has he been afraid to reach.
His lesions are legion.
But reaching is his rule.
Each of you is that child. Freely reaching. Freely becoming what Amir just called “the architect of your identity” and the choices you make. Education is your way of reaching. It’s the surest power we all have. We could re-write Ms. Brooks’ last two lines: “Her lesions are legion. But EDUCATION is her rule.”
Through your college education, you will feel and live fully your ability to make free choices. Remember that college is your experience, no one else’s. When you arrive on your new campus, whether it’s George Washington or Gettysburg or Rutgers or Rowan, take a look in the mirror and ask if you’re ready to truly challenge yourself to make it count. And the better you educate yourself, the more choices you’ll have later. Remember, it’s up to you and no one else to create the education that you seek. Freedom for the one—you.
And then there’s the way education creates freedom for the many.
Take the example of Frederick Douglass, who was a fugitive slave in the 1830s. Learning was literally his ticket to freedom because his rebellious act of secretly becoming literate helped him escape on a Northbound train by pretending to be a porter. He then used his intellectual ability to keep learning in his early years as a free man -- lecturing on the evils of the Southern chattel system, editing, yes, The North Star, publishing his memoirs, advocating for African Americans to be allowed to serve as Union soldiers, and eventually representing America as a diplomat.
I love the fact that Mr. Douglass took issue with many of the white abolitionists who helped him when he made the intellectual argument that the American Constitution did not legitimize the slave system, but was, in fact, an anti-slavery instrument. He used his mind to interpret America’s founding document and conclude for himself that the Constitution needed to be preserved as the philosophical glue making America one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. He used his brainpower to empower all African Americans, the many.
Maybe you’ve heard of his trademark line with which he’d close his essays and speeches:
“Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.”
Education was Frederick Douglass’s fist and sword and hammer to forge freedom for the many. That has always been the tradition of the African American freedom struggle and every other call for equality -- Latino empowerment, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, the disability movement. Learning together forms the foundation -- and then we work together, resist together, sit in together, march together, donate together, teach together, and study together -- all in the name of a larger learning and a public love that we call justice.
As so, as you begin your college journeys -- Amir and Jonathan and Michelle and Reinaldo -- I hope you will make the effort to learn even more about your own beautiful cultural histories -- the lives and stories of your parents and grandparents -- the generations that came before you – all those in this audience, on whose shoulders you stand, and all those upon whose shoulders they stand, all the way back -- the identities and values and struggles and trials and traditions and practices that can be such a reservoir of strength for you.
And I hope, as Michelle said in her speech, that in college that you’ll dig deeper into your own cultures – learn them still more deeply – then share them, and learn about others’ cultures., so you that you can all expand together, like the branches of great oak trees – able to reach and stretch and grow outward precisely because your rooted deeply in the good earth of your own background.
And finally, my third point: Education creates freedom for everyone, the entire social whole.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once gave a speech called “The Other America” in which lamented that segregation, overcrowding, and underfunding were depriving thousands of children of a quality education. As a result, “the best in these minds can never come out.” And that diminishes everyone, the entire world: Isn’t it tragic that a 21st century novel as good as Their Eyes Were Watching God or the cure we need for cancer might remain trapped in the mind of a low-income child who we never let learn?
And, in his final Sunday sermon in March, 1968, Dr. King preached:
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
I know, sometimes it doesn’t seem like our larger society really believes in that “inescapable network of mutuality....” or the idea that each child’s education matters to every person’s future.
Not when we read about failing schools that cause students to forget more than they learn. Or when we hear about companies that won’t pay a fair wages or people demonizing immigrants who are really no different than their own ancestors. Or, when we see national politicians pointing fingers but failing to deal with issues like guns in the streets, while celebrities party in their selfies and do nothing else but glorify themselves.
Where are we to look for and find Dr. King’s beautiful network of mutuality?
My answer is in the lives of everyday people who have the courage to believe we can become more when we’re together than when we are apart:
Everyday people like Rosa Parks, who one day decided not to sit in the back of the bus, launching a movement for civil rights.
Everyday people like Edith Windsor whose story helped sway the U.S. Supreme Court last summer to find unconstitutional the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act.
Everyday people like Mr. Nash and Mr. Katz and my friend Brett Harwood here tonight – a proud graduate of F&M who gives back to his alma mater and his home city of Newark the same way you will some day so the next generations of Charismas and Reinaldos can claim their futures and improve everyone’s.
These people are great examples, and there are many more right here in Newark, and right here in this room, helping send you to college.
And what’s the spark that all authentic agents of change have in common?
They inspire and educate others to accept that the “network of mutuality” – what Amir called “the thread that binds us together” -- is indeed real, relevant, and “inescapable.”
And once that awareness grows, we see whites and blacks standing up together to end segregation. We see young and old building Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act to protect the vulnerable. We see people in power creating fair labor standards, controlling gun access, protecting the environment, and standing up for the DREAMers.
The network of mutuality is one of the most powerful ideas we have in a democracy, but we humans don’t grasp it reflexively, like breathing or sleeping. We have to be educated by the words of a Dr. King or the actions of a Michael Mann to realize that education for each person elevates and ennobles all people. Once we see ourselves as parts of that larger whole, and act socially and politically on that knowledge, everyone benefits: With education, life gets better for the whole, for the many, and for the one.
And college is about that, too. Whether it’s Bowdoin or Temple or Dickinson, in your new schools, you can weave new networks of mutuality. You’ll confront obstacles along the way. There will be people who may not immediately “get” where you come from. Maybe they never heard of a public charter school. Consider your job to be the teacher they never had. At the same time, you must also be, as Michelle said, the open-minded and curious student of lessons you have yet to learn.
Each night when you go to bed, and each morning when you wake up, you must re-make the commitment to make college count. North Star and your families have prepared you do that. We expect that of you. You are trailblazers. You are part of a living tradition of education for freedom. Your job is to share it, to become North Stars for everyone else.