Dr. Poole, members of the Woodson faculty, parents, relatives, friends, Woodson’s graduating class of 2017, I am honored to have been given the opportunity to be here today to congratulate you on this accomplishment, this very significant milestone in your lives. Obtaining your high school diploma is the beginning of what we hope will be a bright future for you as you move on to colleges and careers. In twenty to thirty years you will be assuming the leadership of our businesses, professions, our politics, our country.
Today many refer to you as Generation Z. You are likely to be the last graduating class of kids born in the 1900’s. You are the post Millenials, born in the age of the internet, in your element when it comes to technology and social media. You actually are now the largest portion of the US population at 26%. You are rightfully concerned with student debt and your ability to afford college. You face a growing income gap in what is a shrinking middle class in America. You have grown up with the reality of global terrorism in the post 911 years. You are about to enter adulthood in the midst of one of the most turbulent times in modern American history.
But fear not my young friends because as your parents did, and their parents before them, we have in this country the remarkable opportunity to shape our future, and by your remarkable accomplishment today in earning a high school diploma, you are well on your way.
America is the land of opportunity. It is today and it has always been. I came to this country at the age of nine with my parents, as a young immigrant that did not speak a word of English. I was born on my grandfather’s sugar cane plantation in my native Cuba. My early schooling was in a one room school house that was basically a thatched cottage with a dirt floor. I learned to read and write with the children of the “campesinos”, the mostly Haitian and Jamaican workers that came over to cut the sugar cane.
My father traveled to New York to sell our sugar and one year he came back from a trip and informed my mother that we were going to America.
To this day I remember that airplane ride to Newark, New Jersey. It was in the middle of January and I recall the blast of cold air that engulfed the airplane’s cabin as the doors were opened. I did not have a winter coat so my father wrapped me in a blanket from the plane and carried me down the steps. No bridge ways in the airports in those days.
My father took us to an apartment he had rented on the West side of Manhattan and by the time we reached it was late at night. I remember going to sleep immediately and waking up early the next morning. I rushed to the window to view my new neighborhood and was greeted by the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. It had snowed overnight and everything was a winter wonderland. My father took me shopping that day, buying me a coat, gloves and a hat, and a sled. That day he took me sledding in Central Park.
Those happy days came to an abrupt end when I realized that my parents were about to place me in a boarding school in Terrytown, New York, because they both had jobs and there would be no one home to care for me. I left Cuba as a literate fifth grade student, but here in the States, because I did not speak a word of English, I was placed in a second-grade class. My school was on the shores of the Hudson River and in those days the Tappan zee bridge was being built and I spent my days looking out the window at the bridge construction. I had given names to many of the workers I recognized by their clothes, the red flannel shirt guy was Pedro and the one with the blue overalls was Juan.
One day as I looked at the teacher in the front of the classroom writing numbers on the chalkboard it occurred to me that the numbers and configuration looked familiar. It was a simple single digit division problem to which I knew the answer. Automatically my right hand went up and the teacher looked curiously at me and with a smile she said one of the few terms in English that I understood, “you’re excused”. Up until that point the only time I had raised my hand was to be excused to go to the bathroom.
I shook my head, “no,no” and pointed to the problem on the board. The teacher invited me to the front of the room, handed me the chalk, and I immediately solved the problem. In shock and awe, she proceeded to write problems, up to double digits, and I solved them. She looked at me, wide-eyed, as if she had just discovered a prodigy, and marched me to the principal’s office. I was administered additional math tests after which I found myself promoted from the second grade to a fifth-grade class. In the span of a day I went from the oldest kid in the second grade to the youngest in the fifth.
As it turns out, they did not do me much of a favor because my new classmates did not appreciate that a younger, non-English speaking immigrant kid was sharing their classroom. The bullying became intolerable and I eventually begged my parents to take me out of that school and bring me home.
By the time I started a new school year in my neighborhood school I was proficient enough in English that I could participate in class. With supportive parents and good schools, I eventually graduated high school, went to college and became a teacher. I even went to graduate school and obtained a PhD. I have had a wonderful career. Thirteen years ago, if you were in kindergarten here in Fairfax, I was your superintendent. For the past nine years I have been honored to represent all the superintendents in the nation here in Washington DC.
I am the realization of the American dream. I am a proud American by choice. Some of you in the audience may have had experiences similar to mine but all of you have had the opportunity to receive the quality education that has placed you on the road to success and a bright future.
You are products of the digital age and you can look forward to a reality that was unthinkable at the turn of the century. Soon you will have artificially intelligent personal assistants. Siri and Alexa are mere prototypes of assistants that will carry on a conversation with you. They will be your clones representing you on the internet and able to write your emails, texts, make your appointments and basically anticipate your every need.
Computer chips will be embedded everywhere, in your clothes, contact lenses, accessories, monitoring your vital statistics, a la Fitbit, and adjusting the environment that surrounds you to meet your needs.
That will also lead to personalized medicine where medications will always be adjusted to your individual requirements. You are all familiar with 3D printers. It is conceivable that in the not too distant future we will be able to replicate organs when they need to be replaced without having to rely on donors.
You already see the writing on the wall relative to self-driven cars, cars that convert to airplanes, drones delivering packages to your front door.
The future that awaits you is incredible and exciting. But never lose sight of the fact that you will be called upon to shape the world that will be occupied by all these technological advances. Will we continue to embrace diversity or will we move towards isolationism, creating homogeneous classes that reject differences. Will we honor, respect, and tolerate the beliefs of others or will we persecute them. In a global society will we attempt to learn about the languages and cultures that differ from ours? In a country that is undoubtedly the most powerful in the world, will we reject the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and the many educators responsible for creating a public education system that is second to none, an education system that has taken me and all of you, to where we are today. Thomas Jefferson said, “educate and inform the whole mass of the people, they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty”.
I have total confidence that the Woodson graduates of today will lead us to a bright tomorrow. That you have recognized and respect the value of a quality education and that this great country of ours will always allow those willing to apply themselves, with the opportunity to realize the American dream. Congratulations and best wishes to all.