Thematic Speech for Commencement
By Kammy Webb
Do you remember Miss Rumphius? Did your parents or your godmother read her story to you when you were five? Or perhaps a teacher, when you were seven?
Miss Rumphius lives in a house by the sea. She has traveled to far-off places and made friends she will never forget. She has intended to do these things all of her life, ever since she was a little girl, sitting with her grandfather in his house by the sea, listening to his stories of his travels to exotic lands. Little Alice Rumphius would say to him, “When I grow up, I will do all the things you have done!” And her grandfather would reply, “That is all very well, little Alice, but there is a third thing you must do.” “What is that?” Alice would ask. And he would answer, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “All right,” Alice would say. But she did not know what that could be.
We, the graduating students of 2006, have reached a turning point in our lives. This summer will be slightly different from the rest – next year will be very different from the past eighteen years. Many of us will not be living at home anymore. We are now adults, responsible for ourselves. And with this responsibility comes another – a responsibility to our fellow people, and to this earth.
Every generation has the opportunity to change the world it lives in. One generation fought World War Two, another finally gave women the right to vote, yet another saw justice done when the Civil Rights Acts were passed in the 1960s. One generation started the Revolutionary War, another ended the Vietnam War.
This world that we have right here today, this is the world our parents have given us. Now it is our turn, our opportunity, to make our difference.
Go off school, to work, wherever you’ve decided to start this new part of your life, but don’t let yourself be lost and secluded in a university bubble, or bogged down in your work, and certainly don’t let yourself be defined by your past. Be aware of the world around you. Your mind is so open and fresh – absorb all that you can, open yourself up to new experiences and ways of thinking, and most importantly, make yourself heard.
Too often in this time, people keep their mouths shut when they see something that they know is wrong. If it does not affect them personally, they don’t care enough to act. Such living can prove to be dangerous, as reflected in the words of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who was arrested by the Nazis in the 1930s:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Solidarity is one of the most powerful forces known to humankind. Solidarity in American streets ended the Vietnam War. Solidarity in Red Square crumbled the government. Solidarity in Birmingham, Alabama forced the United States government, and the country, to pay attention to civil rights. Solidarity in Seneca Falls and outside the White House brought women the right to vote.
History has proven time and again that solidarity is necessary for any momentous change to occur in this world. So often, it’s the college kids who mobilize the movement, who make the effort, who show the solidarity. For years in our history classes, we’ve learned about the students at Kent State, the Greensboro four – freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College – and the sit-ins at Columbia University.
Starting next year, we are those students. We are the college kids, the young adults, with the ability and the power to shape the earth, to make a history. Now it is our time. Let’s take advantage of it, make the most of it, so when we’re the ones sitting in the audience, watching our kids walk across the graduation stage, we can be pleased with the world we are handing to them. Don’t let these years pass you by – our minds are still unmolded, we still have a past to create.
Do you remember when we came here for freshmen orientation? And Mr. Ivory told us to forget about our middle school grades, because they didn’t matter anymore? High school was an opportunity to start afresh. So is today. Use it. Turn the world upside down! Make your footprint. Rabbi Hillel said:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?
As a young girl, little Alice Rumphius did not know what she would do to make the world more beautiful – she only knew that she must live her life to the fullest, and one day, she would accomplish that final goal, and then she would be truly happy. Today we are on the verge of setting out into the world. We may not yet know how, but somewhere along the line – whether it be a four year struggle to end a war, a lifelong effort to save the rainforests, or a summer in which you, like Miss Rumphius, plant beautiful blue and purple and rose-colored lupines over all the fields and lanes and highways of your neighborhood -- each of us will someday do something to make this world more beautiful.