Sunday, June 4, 2017

Off Topic: "The Gift of Being An Eagle" - Margot Rogers' Speech at the Prince Edward County High School Graduation

"Here’s where many graduation speakers would tell you that the future is bright because of bright young people like you who will make the world better.  That’s true. But I want to go one step further. Because you have grown up in Prince Edward County, because you have grown up in this diverse and special community, with a difficult history about which and from which we have all learned, you have a better chance than most to make a difference in the American conversation, regardless of where you end up, what you believe, and what you choose to do with your life."   -Margot Rogers

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My wife, Margot Rogers, grew up in Southside Virginia, just a few miles east of Appomattox.  A few weeks ago, she gave the graduation speech at her alma mater, Prince Edward County High School. She cherishes her time there in the 70's and 80's and was thrilled and honored to be asked to speak. In my opinion, her speech was thoughtful, moving, and timely. But of course, I am hopelessly biased. Anyway, I am thankful to have the opportunity to share her words here.
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  Margot Rogers, 2017 Graduation Speech, Prince Edward County High School, Farmville, Virginia, May 20, 2017

Thank you so much, Dr. Smith, for that wonderful introduction. And thanks to the band for your terrific contributions this morning. Dr. Johnson, School Board members, teachers, families, friends, and most importantly members of the Prince Edward County High School graduating class of 2017. 

 I realize that I am the only thing standing between you, your diploma, and a party in your honor. I totally get that I am not Will Ferrell or Michelle Obama or anyone famous at all. I am just like you are – a Prince Edward County eagle. 

The truth is I might be as excited about being here today as you are.  I admit to having a flood of memories standing here facing the road where I spent countless hours marching up and down the pavement in the hot sun – for miles and miles  – while our loveable band director, Frank Williams, rode along beside us in his air conditioned Cadillac yelling at us.  Or when our principal, Mr. Townes, heard that I had left my physics homework at home and told me that I could borrow his car—a white Ford Escort with burgundy interior -- to go get my homework as long as I picked up food for him from the relatively new McDonalds in town on my way back to school. Or to the time that our physics teacher, Mr. Sommers, told us our assignment was to figure out how tall the flag pole was – using vectors. We all stood around the flag pole staring at each other, secretly wondering if there was some way we could climb up it to measure because we had no idea what we were doing – before diving in and figuring out we’d better use vectors somehow. Or the conversations I had with my friends about growing up in this diverse school we all called home.

My time growing up in Prince Edward County – and my years attending the Prince Edward County Public Schools – impacted me fundamentally – how I view the world, how I choose to participate in it, my profession, and what I value in life.  So being back here is a real honor, and I thank so much for having me.

Graduates, today is one of the BIG days in your life. Others will vary depending on the path you take: marriage, the births of children, a big job promotion, graduating from college, completing basic training.  But today is a moment you share with about 83% of your peers nationwide, a number that has risen about ten percent in the last decade.  It is a real accomplishment, and you all should be very proud of yourselves. And all across the country, your peers – seniors graduating from high school -- will sit in a ceremony something like this, surrounded by people they love, people who have helped them get to this moment. And they will listen to a speech that will try to impart some bit of wisdom about life ahead: be kind, work hard, make good decisions, follow your passion, be good to yourself and others, remember those who have helped you, be happy, change the world. Those are all good and important messages – each is worthy of its own speech (or a realllllly long one, which I promise this isn’t!) -- and I hope you commit to doing all of those things.

But because you and I have something in common, and because this is a special school in a special community in an important moment in time, you all have a particular opportunity going forward. And that is what I want to focus on today.

We are living in fractious times. Regardless of how you get your news – twitter, radio, television, on-line, or even in a newspaper for the few of you who might actually like to get the ink on your hands -– you likely agree that the news is a little overwhelming. There is lots of anger from all corners of our country and across the political spectrum, and seemingly little room for those who seek reasonable conversation about what we all admit are hard issues. There is more focus on “making sure the other guy doesn’t succeed” than there is on finding common ground. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about whether we will ever be able to listen to one another effectively enough to move forward in a way that benefits all people -- whether we can always be a nation worthy of its promise. But there are also reasons to be optimistic – and YOU are at the top of my list.

Here’s where many graduation speakers would tell you that the future is bright because of bright young people like you who will make the world better. That’s true. But I want to go one step further. Because you have grown up in Prince Edward County, because you have grown up in this diverse and special community, with a difficult history about which and from which we have all learned, you have a better chance than most to make a difference in the American conversation, regardless of where you end up, what you believe, and what you choose to do with your life.  Whether you realize it or not, you are especially equipped with experiences and knowledge that our nation desperately needs.  Let me explain.

How many of you talked about the Presidential election in the week after November 8th? In the days and weeks that followed our 2016 Presidential election, virtually everyone engaged in conversation about what it all meant, what this said about our nation. And, certainly related questions persist today, as the news comes at a head-spinning rate. Except for the TV talk shows – which are set up to be arguments, by design – the vast majority of those conversations were – and are -- among people who agree with one another.  And in the instances when people don’t agree, the conversations often quickly devolve into name calling, generalizations, enough finger pointing and blame to go around, unfriending and unfollowing, as people retreat into their individual comfort zones.  My own Facebook feed (I am old so I am on Facebook way more than Instagram or Snapchat) tends to mimic the national conversation – people who mostly agree with each other, and who dismiss people who disagree with them….except for my friends from high school, from this community. Our conversations have been richer, more honest, and much more respectful than most. Why is that?

The media tells us that many Americans live in bubbles – surrounded by people who think and usually look just like them.  If you attend the Prince Edward County public schools, that simply isn’t true.  You don’t live in a bubble – and that…. Is a gift.

We graduates of the Prince Edward County public schools learned with and from people who aren’t just like us.  We don’t all look alike, we don’t all attend the same churches, we don’t all agree on everything, and we have different ideas about where we want to live and what we want our future plans to be. 

Here, inside of and outside of the classroom, we learned to trust each other not because we set out to build trust, but because we grew up together, won and lost together, laughed and cried together, we had each other’s backs. When you perform on national television, as the band did this year, you can’t do so without everyone doing his or her parts – you need each other. When you answer a hard question in class, or dig deeply to think about your response to a passage in a book, you put yourself out there with your classmates. You trusted them enough to speak up.  When you are taking a Fire Science Technology or an EMT class, you learn to rely on each other in a moment of crisis, each person focused on a critical job. Relay teams don’t win state indoor track championships without trust – that baton has to be passed just right from one person to the next.  When you celebrate one of your classmate’s Forensics or Debate or FBLA or FCCLA or Golf, Art, Soccer or Swimming success – as you all have this year – you do it as Eagles – one school, one class of 2017. And when you sit in the back seat of a driver’s ed car when a classmate is driving – as I did with Raymond Wiley, with Mr. Scott all those years ago – now that is trust that you NEVER forget!

Today after you walk across this stage, you will walk out of those doors and into a new part of your life – some of you will travel the world in the military, others will head to Southside Virginia Community College, some to work, others to schools across Virginia and in places as far away as New York. With you, you will take memories of your time here, and the people who made it special – teachers, friends, teammates….

My challenge to you is to use the trust you have built here – with people not just like you – to add to the conversation in a world that desperately needs you. The nightly news shows are full of people who are calling each other awful names based on race, gender, class, and political views.  YOU – because you grew up in this special place and attended this school, our school – you know that you can’t label all white people, or African-American people, or Hispanic people in a single way. You know that you can’t say “all women this or all men that.” You know that it is impossible to label any entire group of people who share an immutable characteristic. You know that because you know each other.  And many people across our country aren’t that lucky – they did grow up in a bubble, surrounded by people who reinforce their ideas about the world and who don’t question each other’s beliefs.

You are the lucky ones. Because of your experiences here, you have the opportunity to be more receptive to all that the world offers. But you have also have some responsibility -- You have to lead us to the future. You have to be the brave and the strong who stand up and say “that isn’t true …that isn’t right. I disagree with you – not because of who you are, or what you look like, but because I disagree with your argument.” That’s okay. That is what our nation promises us… the ability to speak freely about our views. But it is what we all shared here – at Prince Edward County High School –that  prepared us for that… that enables us to respect people we disagree with, to say “wow, man, I don’t agree with you”, but to do so without disdain, without hate … to fight fairly -- because growing up here allowed us to know each other, to trust each other, to love each other, to understand – just a little bit more than most people – what it is like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

It won’t always be easy … I know from experience. In fact, in February, I almost walked away from an on-line conversation with a former classmate with whom I vehemently disagree. He made a point, and I posted what I thought was a rational and thoughtful response.  And then I deleted it. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to engage in such a public way.  Within five minutes, another PECHS classmate messaged me.  Why did you delete your response? I’m not sure I’m up to it, I said. You HAVE to be up to it, he said. This is our classmate, asking questions, inviting response. Engage! Sometimes the democratic process – of sharing and learning, and disagreeing and pushing – is hard.  But it is what can make our nation great.  I was reminded of that point on that cold winter day. And I hope you will remember it on this warmer summery one.  

Over the next few months, you will sit in classrooms and workplaces with a new set of peers, and you will make new friends. You will do so in a time in our nation’s history when most of us are asking what it all means, and how we move forward. I don’t expect you to solve all of that (!) – but I do hope that you will be a voice of reason, a person who, based on your experience here at Prince Edward County High School, will stand up for people not just like you…who will remember your friends here and know that the judgments others will inevitably make about groups of people simply are not right, and that you will say something – because you know the truth.  It will not be easy. Others might judge you for it. But remember that your experience here is something that many people in the country simply don’t have. And, as a result, you have something to say that most people can’t. That is the gift – indeed the responsibility -- of being an Eagle.

 And I bet that if you do this – you will be happy, true to yourself, and maybe, just maybe, you will change the world.
Congratulations to you, Prince Edward County High School Class of 2017!  We are all very proud of you.