Tufts University

Commencement Address: Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick

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Commencement 2009

Chairman Stern and members of the Board of Trustees, President Bacow, and members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, proud family members and friends, and especially deserving, and in one or two cases loud, graduates, I thank you all so much for the very warm welcome to your special occasion and for this wonderful and generous honor. I hope one day to become the man that the president just described.

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I am very, very pleased to be here, even though I have few illusions, by the way, that any of you will remember a single word that I say. I am due to address five commencements this spring, so I am facing the daunting prospect of five gatherings of smart and well prepared graduates, just like you, eager to get their degrees and go, who are paying hardly any attention at all to anything that anyone says from this podium today. I know this because I once sat where you are sitting now. I know your mind has already wandered off from this place and time to what's ahead. And that is exactly as it should be. For there is a lot to think about. It's an extraordinary time.

A few months ago Americans went to the polls and elected a young, gifted and black lawyer and community organizer to be President of the United States, and it gives me personally such pride to see your enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of people around the country and around the world for our new leader.

I don't know how many of you were there in Washington on inauguration day, but the view from the platform where the governors get to sit was a thing I will not soon forget. Two million people visited Washington for the occasion, and yet there was not a single unbecoming incident. Only joy and solemnity and hope. I think we will all look back on this time and recall in very personal terms where we were and what we were doing when it hit us that profound change was afoot.

One moment of my own that I will especially recall was at a dinner for governors at the White House in February. Now, it turns out that governors get invited to the White House every February for a very formal and elegant evening and each of these occasions follows a certain pattern. First there is a reception in the foyer, then a receiving line where you have your photograph made with the President and the First Lady in the Blue Room, then a multi-course dinner in the State Dining Room and then entertainment in the East Room.

The previous occasions with President and Mrs. Bush were no less elegant, but they did tend to move right along. We were all out and down with that and back in our cars by about 9:15. This year there was a certain electricity about the occasion. This year after dinner, when we moved into the East Room, to was Earth, Wind and Fire. And this year, when the slow dance began, which as you know is the universal signal that the evening is winding down, when the President leaned over to me, while holding the First Lady, and said, "Deval, this is when we make our move."

That's when I knew that change had come. And yet, the real work has just begun, because in truth, all the people on that mall in January knew that America did not change just because Barack Obama was elected president, any more than Massachusetts changed just because I was elected governor. You know that, too. And, by the way, so does the President.

The sweat and toil and setbacks and heartbreak of lasting change is just starting. The scope of the change we voted for and the nature of change itself guarantees that an uneven and sometimes bumpy road lies ahead. So we had better be clear about where we are going.

I see that journey in very, very personal terms. Our youngest daughter Catherine graduated from high school a couple years ago. And sitting at her graduation, I couldn't help but reflect on the difference of her journey to that milestone and my own to the same milestone nearly 35 years before.

I grew up on welfare on the south side of Chicago in my grandparents' two-bedroom tenement. I shared a room there and a set of bunk beds with my mother and my sister so you go from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor--every third night on the floor.

I went to overcrowded and sometimes violent public schools. I can't think of a time when I didn't love to read. But I don't remember actually owning a book until I got my break in 1970, at age 14 to Massachusetts on a scholarship to boarding school. For me, that was like landing on a different planet.

Now, Catherine, by contrast, has always had her own room, most of that time in a house in a leafy neighborhood outside of Boston where I used to deliver newspapers when I was a student in boarding school. By the time she got to high school she had already traveled on four continents, she knew how to use and pronounce a "concierge," and she had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.

When Catherine was in kindergarten, her class was studying the changes in the seasons. Their homework assignment was to come home and describe to Mom and Dad the four seasons. So she proceeded to describe to us, by the way in accurate detail, her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. She said, "First you drive up, and the doorman takes your car." Five years old. One generation.

Do you understand? One generation. And the circumstances of my life and my family's life were profoundly transformed.

Now, that story doesn't get told as often as we'd like in this country, but it gets told more often in this country than any other place on earth. That is the American story. That is who we are. Who we are is that simple idea that through hard work, tenacity, preparation and faith each of us has a chance at the American story.

Well, that American story is at risk today. More and more families are working harder and still losing ground. Homeowners are losing their homes. Some 5.7 million people have lost their jobs in the last two years and many of those, their way and their hope. Every individual, family, business and not-for-profit in nearly every corner of the country is hurting or worried that soon they will be.

From mighty firms like General Motors and Lehman Brothers, to small companies run by families, plans are disrupted, dreams are broken. The poor are in terrible shape and have been for some while. But the difference is that now the middle class is one pay check away, one serious illness away from being poor and deeply anxious about it. That, beloved graduates, is the world you are about to inhabit. A society in many ways in anguish, and an economy in crisis. And want you to embrace it, and to embrace it all, because crisis is a platform for change.

Here at Tufts you have been intentionally exposed to differences in thought and culture, to new ideas and new ways of thinking about old ideas; to wise and maybe sometimes odd professors and classmates alike, whose wisdom and oddities you may only have come to appreciate on the eve of this graduation. You have been trained to value service in the common good, and to see leadership as service. You have been encouraged to imagine better tomorrows, and then to reach for them, to be what I call pragmatic idealists.

Well, the world needs pragmatic idealists today, in spite of the crisis around us, and maybe especially because of it--because the world you are about to inhabit is filled, in the same instant, with extravagant beauty and utter devastation, with both glamorous comforts and abject suffering.

With your training and credentials you could choose, if you wanted, to spend your whole lives averting your eyes from the daily calamity of less fortunate souls and circumstances, focused exclusively on your own achievement or survival, or just lost, like so many impractical idealists that I have known, in that existential turmoil of why bad things happen to good people. Or, you could look clearly at what's wrong, as pragmatic idealists do, and set yourselves to make it right. And by the way, we've done it before.

An earlier generation facing dangers abroad and widespread suffering at home summoned American aspirations and answered a call to serve and to sacrifice. And that generation, what we now call the "Greatest Generation," fought and won the war, rebuilt Europe and Japan, built the federal highway system, great public universities and other institutions, expanded the middle class and ignited the modern civil rights struggle. That generation, through their service and their sacrifice, made it possible for many of the rest of us to live the American story.

We need to answer that call again and renew our commitment to the American story. I ask you, out of this crisis, to make a change. Make an economy that expands opportunity out to the marginalized, not just up to the well-connected. Make schools that ignite a love of learning in every child and that honor and support teachers. Make accessible and affordable health care a public good. Make streets and homes free from violence and a community that helps feed, clothe and house our most fragile neighbors. Heal the planet.

In another time Mahatma Gandhi challenged us "to be the change that you want to see in the world." He called on those who yearned for change to dedicate ourselves to an authentic ideal. Achieving any given ideal may demand more than any one individual’s contribution; but surely demands no less.

No challenge, it turns out, is beyond our capacity to care about and to solve – so long as you, our practical idealists, can imagine a better tomorrow and then reach for it.

What I am asking of you, what I am hoping for and counting on from you, is not easy. But it is simpler than you might think. Because I believe that Americans in this moment in time are ready, even in the unexpected corners of our country, to serve and to sacrifice.

The high school in Brockton, Massachusetts is the largest in our Commonwealth. 4100 young people attend that school. Sixty-four percent are on the free lunch program. For nearly half, English is a second language. I visited the school a few weeks ago to announce some of the federal stimulus funding for education and I arranged to meet beforehand with parents of special needs students.

We sat with about a dozen of the parents in the school library, surrounded by members of the student council who had been invited just to come and observe. At first we talked about policies and programs and information, but the conversation got personal, when one parent said "Governor, I wonder if you can imagine what it is like to have a high school student here in this school who has no friends." As a parent, I found that comment absolutely searing. She went on to describe that her child had such profound learning issues that he was shunned by the other kids in the school.

At which point, one of the kids sitting at the margins, one of the student council members raised her hand and said, "I'd like to be your kid's buddy."

At that point another parent said, "Well, that's nice, but my child is in the grammar school not here at the high school." Whereupon another student raised her hand and said, "Why don't we have a program where high school students can be buddies for special needs kids in whatever Brockton school they go to?" I loved it.

Now the school superintendent had a natural reaction; he started to wring his hands and worry aloud about how he could pay for such a program. And in these times of scarce resources, he said he wasn't sure he could. To which another student replied, "We don't have to be paid. This is our community." And his message was plain and powerful: "If there is a need, send me." Send me.

My point is that even in the bleakest places, young people crave a reason to hope. You, you the graduates, must offer that reason. There is a new generation, even we here, who are ready to answer the call for service and sacrifice. That is the opportunity today's crisis presents. Seize it. And if we do, I am confident that our best days lie ahead.

Good luck to you all. Thank you very much for this honor, and thank you for having me today.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.