Academic Awards Banquet Keynote AddressBelow is a transcript of Brown University President Ruth Simmons’ keynote address presented at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Academic Awards Banquet on May 19, 2007. Simmons appeared at the invitation of David Boren, founder and chairman of the foundation. Her appearance was made possible in part by the Chickasaw Nation, which provided for her air transportation.
Thank you so much. It’s been such a moving evening and I must say, watching all these wonderful achievers and hearing their powerful words, I began to think David (Boren) needed a little advice from me and I kept thinking the last thing in the world you need to tonight is a speech. You have had some wonderful, extraordinary words.
It reminded me of a time when I was set to deliver the commencement address at the University of Vermont. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Vermont in May, but it’s cold and rainy. And that day I was all set to give my address, and there was a horrendous downpour.
As I looked out at all the parents and students sitting in the pouring rain, I felt very bad because I was about to get up and give a very long speech. So leaned over to the president and I said, “I don’t think you should have a commencement speech today because the students and parents are drowning.” He insisted, “No, they would be very disappointed if they didn’t hear a speech today.” I was very doubtful about that.
Finally, when I did get up, I thanked everybody for coming, and I said, “I’m very sorry, but I cannot look out at you sitting in the rain and deliver a speech. So I will not be giving my speech today. You may find it on the Web immediately following the ceremony.” Whereupon, for the first time in my life, for not giving a speech, I received a standing ovation.
But it’s not raining in here tonight. David, thank you so much for inviting me to this occasion. I thought you invited me to give a speech, but I know you invited me for another reason. You invited me because you knew how moved and how inspired I would be by these young people and these wonderful educators because they reflect so movingly for me what I have experienced in my life.
I want to acknowledge, of course, your tremendous leadership of this state and all that you represent in the country. With everything I’ve seen about you since I’ve been here, I keep thinking you should have been president of the country, David. That would have been something.
Molly (Boren), thank you so much for receiving me so warmly. It’s always a pleasure to be with you. I want to thank my Brown student, Alisa Ballard, for hosting me today. She’s from Oklahoma.
I want to acknowledge all the wonderful leaders who are here tonight –Gov and Mrs. Henry, Lt. Gov. Askins. There are so many distinguished people in this room. What moves me about that is the fact that you are here honoring the young people who have achieved academically at the highest level. There are so many more things you could be doing, but that you are here to say among the most important things we can do as a country, as a state, is to honor the young people who develop their minds. That is a powerful thing and, to me, an indication of the path that this great state is on.
I admire what you are doing here and I thank you for having me here tonight.
It was certainly appropriate to adopt the term All-Staters for the honorees for this ceremony. That term signals that among the achievers in the state they are the most select group – those who can soar higher, achieve more and of course pursue a winning course. That’s a wonderful recognition, not only of what you have already accomplished, you young people, but it’s also likely to be predictive of what your talented potential, if nurtured and developed further, will enable you to do throughout your life.
I loved seeing them (the All-Staters) come up here and announce their (teacher) guests! It was powerful to see how diverse the group you have to honor. And I mean that in every conceivable way. I don’t just mean in terms of race and ethnicity or in terms of gender. I mean the styles, the poise, the way they express themselves. What a wonderful array of young people. I’d be so happy to have any of them at Brown.
By the way, we had a bull session with them this afternoon. I asked how many were going to the University of Oklahoma and a huge number of them raised their hands. Then how many were going to OSU and a huge number of them raised their hands. And I forgot to ask them how many were going to A&M and UT, but perhaps I can find that later on.
I want to congratulate the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence for the terrific work they’re doing to encourage academic achievement and exceptional teaching. I know that this work has resulted in hundreds of young people receiving scholarships and scores of teachers being rewarding for outstanding efforts in the classroom. But keep in mind for young people striving to achieve, particular those striving to achieve at great odds, the most important thing you can do for them is to show that you care.
It was touching to see in that video, a young person saying his teacher made him feel happy and smart. If anyone has been lucky enough to have a teacher who made him feel happy and smart, they’ve gotten the best of education.
I left Houston in 1963 to take advantage of a scholarship I had been awarded to attend this small college in New Orleans – Dillard University. I recognize today how extraordinary and important a step that was in my life. I had grown up in a close-knit, devoted family – the youngest of 12 children. Up until the time I graduated from high school, I probably hadn’t ventured outside the immediate community more than a handful of times. My parents had built for us a sphere of safety and love. That made us impervious to the frightening and uncertain world beyond our neighborhood. That world was alien to us because at the time the country was deeply segregated, and blacks were not allowed to enter many mainstream establishments, schools and professions.
People like to make a good deal of the fact that times have changed, and I am the first to say it is true. On the other hand, if we don’t remember how close a time that is, my childhood for example, we are likely to repeat the same problems that we had before.
We lived in a deeply segregated nation and that meant that we could not go outside our neighborhood, so we lived in a cocoon. Going to school at that time was an extension of the cocoon I found at home because the school was segregated too. It was linked to everything I knew and understood. And that included the extraordinary culture that I was a product of – the people who shared this culture, the streets where my family lived and shopped and socialized and worshipped. This familiar terrain provided a daily affirmation of who I was and where I belonged, or so I thought.
My teachers understood the limitations of this environment in every sense. The first time in my life that I heard that my life didn’t have to be the same was from my teachers. They understood the world would change and that we needed to be ready for that change. They encouraged us to learn, to work hard and to understand this new world — to look beyond our neighborhood and our limited circumstances.
It’s not too much to say that had it not been for their interest and determination, I would never have finished high school and certainly never gone to college. Having inspired me to love learning and pushed me to excel, they insisted that I could go to college when I didn’t believe it was possible. They sent me money to keep me in college and encourage my persistence at every turn. And that is why I can barely stand to watch those videos (of Medal for Excellence-winning teachers) without sobbing because of what I remember of what teachers did for me.
No matter where one is born or what one’s circumstances, every community has a set of expectations that it imposes on young people. Some are reasonable and good. Some are likely to be restrictive and less good. I grew up at a time when women and minorities were discouraged from achieving. In spite of this, my teachers insisted that I didn’t have to be bound by those limitations. They insisted that I could set aspirations for myself that went well beyond the conventions of that time and place. So I was lucky as many students are to find an oasis from the belief that everything had to remain the same. This encouragement to pursue unfettered achievement gave me the desire to experience more and to expand greatly on what I knew of the broader world. So despite my fear of leaving that cocoon, the risk was worth taking. Leaving my neighborhood could enlarge the experience of learning.
My willingness to separate myself from my family in this way, to take advantage of a chance to attend college was, I see now, the pivotal opportunity of my life. So I went off to college, made a career, had a family and became a college president. But after all this time, somehow, I wanted to go back to my old neighborhood to see where I grew up and to try to learn something about why I became the person that I am today. (I wanted to do so) partly because, to be honest with you, when I became president of Brown, everybody was so fascinated with the idea of not so much a black person becoming president of an Ivy League university but it was more, in some ways, about class. How could it be that someone who was reared in a sharecropper’s shack could become president of an Ivy League university?
So I started getting those questions and they seemed odd to me at first because I couldn’t answer them. I couldn’t tell them anything other than what my story was. So I’ve been trying to understand why did I manage to come through my circumstances and to achieve what I did. So I went back to take a look and I was not heartened by what I found.
I remember a time of safety and freedom and empowerment because of these wonderful teachers that I had. I found that had all but disappeared in my old neighborhood. I went to my old high school and the walls were pockmarked with bullet holes. Trash was piled up inside. Police officers patrolled. I see far back into the carefree days where we floated through the halls under the stern eye of the principal and stayed late to build sets for upcoming plays. And I guess the time and distance could have conspired to embellish much of these memories but one doesn’t forget the feeling of the fear. There are two things one never forgets, and those are hunger and fear. I never remember being afraid when I was a child in school, but today many young people across this country go to school in fear. They are fearful in school; they return home in fear to go to bed in fear. Extraordinary change.
We’ve got to do something about our neighborhoods in this country if one believes that the neighborhood is key to the vitality and of health of families and society, the neighborhood school delivers multiple benefits. They reinforce neighborhood identity and pride and place that can often be lacking with our central institutions that provide shared experiences and identity.
As impoverished as my neighborhood was when I was growing up there, those who attended schools in that neighborhood pointed proudly to them as central to their becoming the successful people that they are today and I am among those who voice this view.
My neighborhood school did what we want schools to do today – to rescue individual children and families in need by exemplifying care and concern for them, by providing opportunities that families often cannot provide, by instilling pride in their membership in the community, by being a safe place to focus on intellectual development and by offering a raft of opportunities that children otherwise miss. Providing social benefits is, I think, an all-important dimension of public education.
I almost feel a little bereft when I hear teachers say, “I’m not a social worker. I went to school to learn to teach. I’m a professional. It’s not my responsibility to solve these kinds of problems.”
But in truth, I have to say, that often between a child of want and rescue there is only a teacher, so you have to be everything for them. You have to be a social worker. You have to be a parent. You have to be someone who cares because you are the only one standing between them and failure.
So I feel very passionately about what all of you are doing who are trying to not only work toward the highest level of achievement for students but also intervene with students who have different needs … I think increasingly we see more and more students who cannot fit into our structure, more and more students who cannot fit into the ideal structure that we create for learning.
I guess when I went to school I was happy to be there, and because I was happy to be there, I excelled. I wanted to go back for more, and when I left school, I wanted to go on to college because I never wanted to leave school. When I left college, I went on to graduate school because I didn’t want to leave school. And when I left graduate school, I went on to be a professor because I couldn’t bear to leave school.
I want to say this to you parents who are thrilled with the achievement of your children. When they come back to you and they say, “Mom, Dad, I want to be a teacher,” don’t discourage them. Teaching is the highest calling. It truly is.
If you believe a teacher has done something for your child and brought out the best in them, if you believe they can do it for other children, don’t deprive those children of that. Because today, one of the things we find is that parents often say to their children, “don’t become a teacher.” If everybody does that, this country will soon find itself in the most non-competitive position in the developed world in terms of the performance of its students because we need excellent teachers.
If I’ve succeeded in my life, it was not because of where I was born and the culture that the neighborhood I lived in spawned. I succeeded because of the way I was taught to appreciate who I am and why I am here. And if we’re lucky, our roots invariably lead us to understand not only who but also what we can make of our lives.
I love the theme of this occasion – “Roots and Wings.” Education, it seems to me, fails us if it does not help us understand the ways in which we can take the most unique part of ourselves and apply that to the good of society. Understanding the importance of our own ties to our beginnings, we can understand better how important it is to care about others, to be environmentally responsible, to respect people who differ from us, and to participate actively in creating and maintaining strong communities.
If this is not one of the highest aims of education in a democratic society, what on Earth is? As a university president, it has always saddened me to see high achieving students mistake achievement as the equivalent of out-performing others. A well-grounded scholar is one who works to attain excellence, but does not do so at the sacrifice of his or her humanity. Learning for the sake of proving one’s superiority offers a false sense of accomplishment. I know you’ve taught your students that. Learning for the sake of understanding all things that benefit to the advancement of society is the most compelling reason for learning.
Now my parents were uneducated, but they understood this very well. They didn’t condemn education by any means, but they didn’t see it either as a source of all good. They advocated that there is no greater salve for what afflicts the world than a healthy mind and spirit.
Here, I’m talking to the young people tonight who are being honored. Your education helps you to understand better the benefit and burden of intelligence. The most important entitlement your talent and intellect give you is an acute sense of the freedom you possess and that freedom means that you are, in human terms, equal to any other. Recognizing and embracing that equality, one that cannot be constrained or taken away, is the source of immense empowerment in the learning environment.
Academic achievement is the result of this empowerment and through it you are able to play your full role in society. I hope your education and achievement do not lead you to believe you are better than others and to act on that foolish assumption. And I hope too that your inevitable success does not lead you to distance yourself from your roots and the very people who made your success possible.
You will all understand this. Of course, when I say this in the East, they don’t understand but when I go to Texas and perhaps here you’ll understand this. I meet a lot of people in the East who I guess would fall into this category. They are entranced with their intelligence and they believe that their opinions are superior to all others. I hope for goodness sakes, that you don’t end up that way. Successful people sometimes of course are inclined to express their superiority in these various ways – boastfulness, arrogance. I hope that in exhibiting justified pride in who you are you will not succumb to these habits.
I applaud your teachers and parents and all that they’ve done to instill important values into your learning. I applaud all you’ve done thus far to be worthy of the great care and concern they have shown you. Again, their concern gives you a good deal of freedom – a freedom to push yourself further than you thought possible. The freedom to be daring in your aspirations. The freedom to soar.
In revisiting my old neighborhood, I knew after a time that there was nothing per se in those streets and buildings that made me accomplish what I have. It wasn’t the streets. It wasn’t the wonderful buildings. It really wasn’t even that marvelous school building that I loved so much. It wasn’t that at all. It was the care and concern and the inspiration that I was privileged to have that led me to excel.
While you can certainly be anchored by where you come from, your horizon of excellence will be shaped by the degree to which that potential is nurtured and developed by the aid and concern of others and the habits of mind and spirit that they have imparted to you. And you know the important things that they have imparted to you: a dedication to demanding effort; an open-minded disposition; a sense of fairness, honesty and truthfulness; a deep and genuine respect for others; the capacity of commitment, to engage with others in a civil and respectful fashion; and, most of all, the courage to be faithful to these virtues.
When I go back to my old neighborhood, I can see children playing aimlessly, in grass-bare yards heaped with junk. Abandoned cars litter vacant lots, loud music filters through windows. The children consigned to grow up in this place have far fewer choices in life, but there is a lifeline for children of poverty, and that is education.
I hope that even as you are celebrated for your achievements today you remember that learning is a great and glorious privilege for anyone, but it is a lifesaving opportunity for the truly disadvantaged. Cherish this privilege. Enjoy the life of the mind and all the understanding that it gives you of the freedom you enjoy.
And as you go through life, enjoying your success, soaring from one achievement to the next, recall the roots that link you to this great community of which you are a part. You achieve because others make it possible through their hard work. You achieve because of a long history of devoted effort by reformers, public figures, family and community members. And as you soar, make an effort to extend the privilege of learning to the least of our citizens. Support excellence in all of our schools for all of our children.
Thank you very much and best of luck.