(Keynote address delivered at the Saint Ignatius High School Minority Student Reception, March 2, 2005)
Back in what for some of you might as well be the Stone Age, the fall of 1976, my mother conspired with my grade school principal and forced me to travel to a foreign land called "The West Side" and to take the admissions test for this strange school I never heard of called Saint Ignatius. As an eighth grade student at Saint Henry Elementary School, I had thought that young men only had three options for high school: St. Peter Chanel for the smart kids, Benedictine for the athletes, and Cleveland Central Catholic for everyone else. I loved books and writing so I fell mostly in the "smart kid" category. I assumed that I would be going to Chanel.
But those two co-conspirators, my mother and principal, were not confined by the limits of my thirteen year old world view. They were open to a possibility I could not even imagine. They insisted that I apply to Ignatius.
So in August 1977, I arrived on campus as a freshman not knowing a soul. I cannot truthfully say that I encountered a hostile climate, but nor can I honestly say that it was completely welcoming. The best word to describe it is probably intimidating. Freshman year was a difficult adjustment and a lot of hard work. But fearing the wrath of that pair of co-conspirators, I knew that failure was not an option.
As you will hear many times over the course of the next four years, we hope that Saint Ignatius graduates will exhibit the five characteristics-we hope that they will be loving, religious, intellectually competent, open to growth, and committed to doing justice. My mother and principal were open to growth, open to new possibilities. Because of them and because of my studies at Ignatius, a thirteen year old who had rarely crossed the Cuyahoga River could be open to imagining greater opportunities for himself. My love of reading and English soon developed into a love of French. This in turn allowed me to pursue studies in languages at Georgetown University where I discovered Linguistics-the scientific study of languages. As a student of French and Linguistics, I have been fortunate enough to study and travel in Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Asia. By allowing myself to be open to growth, the world literally opened up to me.
It's amazing where that first trip in 1976 across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge eventually led.
During my first course in linguistics, I was fascinated by the fact that infants acquire language. Notice I did not use the word learn. Infants do not learn their native languages. No one teaches them language. They acquire it. They teach themselves naturally the same way they teach themselves to crawl, then to walk, and eventually to run. But as amazing a process as acquisition is, it is often not enough by itself. It is only half the story.
Learning in contrast is a collaborative effort, a joint venture, a two-way street. You are all endowed with many natural gifts and all of you have acquired many skills and talents. We invite you to join us here on this journey of learning, in this collaboration of learning. The American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees International Secretary Treasurer William Lucy recently noted, "We're the only developed nation where education is mandatory and learning is optional." I find this quote enlightening because it shows how crucial the active participation and cooperation of both the teacher and the learner are to the learning process. Just teaching or just studying is not enough. That's just education. Working together, we get learning.
British historian Sir Lewis Namier said, “The crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense-an intuitive understanding of how things do not happen.” I believe the crowning achievement of learning should be the development of this "historical sense" or what I like to call a "nonsense meter." More important than just learning a bunch of facts and information is learning to recognize what I will politely call "nonsense" when you hear it.
But learning is not always easy. There will be challenges. There may obstacles in our way. Some obstacles will be placed there by others. Some we may place there ourselves. Therefore, the first thing we must do is get rid of the obstacles of our own making. We must get rid of the obstacles that prevent us from being open to the possibilities.
Studying Linguistics made me appreciate the power of words. There is an entire field called pragmatics that studies how words can become something more than symbols—they can become true actions in and of themselves. For example, if you say, "it's cold outside," you are merely reporting about something else. But when you say, "I promise," "I swear," "I bet," or "I apologize," you are no longer just reporting about something, you are actually doing something. During a wedding, when the bride and groom say "I do," they did!
Because of this power, there are also certain words that automatically raise hackles in me. Words like tolerance. You tolerate bad weather, pain, or traffic delays, but you don't just tolerate people. Tolerance is no great goal for an institution or a community-to just say, OK, we'll put up with you… if we have to. Instead, our goal should be to treat everyone with respect and dignity. I get the same reaction to the word colorblind. We should not hope for a world where an individual's heritage and identity are at best deemed insignificant or invisible or at worst ignored. Instead, we should work for a colorful society that recognizes, includes, and embraces all. Words like those bother me so much because they limit or shut out future possibilities and the potential for growth.
In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. William Casement extolled the virtues of university courses over what he considers to be inferior high school Advanced Placement courses by saying that certain college courses "often function purposely as 'weed out' courses to determine who has the intellectual right stuff to make it."
I immediately got ticked off by the expressions "weed out" and "right stuff." I had an immediate emotional reaction to these ideas because they imply that there are too many of the "wrong" students and these "wrong" students must be eliminated. My "nonsense meter" flew off the chart. As an educator, I hope I will never see the day when my primary mission will be "to weed out" students. I have always firmly held the view that my job is exactly the opposite: to cultivate students. Not to exclude as many people as possible from our table of knowledge, but to invite, nurture, and include as many people as possible.
As I learned in linguistics, no two people speak exactly the same language in exactly the same way. All of us speak personal dialects or technically "idiolects" that overlap in varying degrees with the "standard" language. No one speaks "standard English" natively—if we did we wouldn't need English courses. We don't have classes in breathing or walking because we are fairly certain that students already possess these skills. All students, of all colors and backgrounds, have to learn to bridge the difference between their own speech and the standard. Some of our bridges are just longer than others'.
Whether it is a question of knowing vocabulary or math or science, of developing a sense of social justice, or of improving our relationships with others, God, and Jesus Christ, all of us fall short of the "standard." But that is not a reason to give up and it certainly is no excuse for not even trying. It should merely serve as a reminder of the importance of building those bridges, however long or short they may be.
The good news is you do not have to build your bridge alone. There is an entire community of friends, family, graduates, and teachers that is here to help you in this endeavor. You young men have access to a resource I would have loved to have had as a student. You have access to people who have already been where you will soon go. You have access to Mr. Johnson, Rev. Sanders, Fr. Guiao, Mr. Fujimoto, and me. We can share with you our successes and our failures. We can help you build the sturdiest bridge possible. Please take advantage of this resource!
Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace said that the Caribbean "experience has had as its central theme not slavery and colonialism, as is often thought, but the struggle against enslavement and colonialism." I would similarly submit that the American minority experience is similarly not rooted in racism, but in the struggle against racism.
It is imperative that we not confuse the struggle with the obstacle. The obstacle is not what defines you. It is how you learn to deal with and eventually overcome the obstacle that will define you.
Do not allow yourself to be weeded out. Do not close yourself to the possibilities. Do however leave yourself open to the possibilities you may have yet to imagine. Do let yourself be open to growth. Allow your talents to blossom, thrive, and flourish. Then build a strong bridge to a productive future.