Sunday, May 17, 2015

On Graduation Night, A Final Lesson for Grads

So if you're heading to the Coliseum on May 28 for NCC's graduation, be prepared for bright lights, music, balloons, selfies, smiles, and nonstop congrats, shout-outs, and applause--all in roughly two hours.

Expect speeches also, including one or two that (with a little luck) will offer some serious thoughts about life.

I can't say for sure the latter will happen, of course.  Many graduation speeches are more bromides than broadsides, talks that neither offend nor, sadly, inspire. Commencement addresses may be heartfelt and sincere, but they're rarely heart-stopping.  

Still, there are exceptions.  On YouTube you'll find Apple founder Steve Jobs telling graduates (not at NCC but at another college) to love what they do, to stay "hungry" and "foolish," and above all, to live their own lives, not someone else's.  

You'll find author J.K. Rowling encouraging grads to use their voice and influence to benefit those who are voiceless: "We don't need magic to change the world," Rowling notes, with a nod to Harry Potter. "We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already--we have the power to imagine better."  

You'll also find my favorite, Stephen King, America's literary bogeyman, reminding his young audience that life doesn't last forever and that the only thing that really matters is what people give to others:

"Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others, and why? All you have is on loan, anyway.  All you want to get at the getting place, from the Maserati you may dream about to the retirement fund some broker will try to sell you on, none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. . . .

Like Rowling, King also reminds graduates that the fate of the world is in their hands:

"Imagine a nice little backyard, surrounded by a board fence.  Dad--a pleasant fellow, a little plump, wearing an apron that says 'You may kiss the cook'--is tending the barbecue. Mom and the kids are setting the picnic table by the backyard pool: fried chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, a chocolate cake for dessert.  And standing around that fence, looking in, are emaciated men and women, starving children. They are silent. They only watch. That family at the picnic table is us, ladies and gentlemen; that backyard is America and those hungry people on the other side of the fence, watching us all sit down to eat, include far too much of the rest of the world.  It's Asia and the subcontinent; it's countries in central Europe, where people live on the edge from one harvest to the next; it's South America, where they're burning down the rain forests to make room for housing developments and for grazing lands where next year's Big Macs are being raised; most of all, it's Africa, where AIDS is pandemic--not epidemic--but pandemic--and starvation is a fact of life. . . .

"What we scrape down the kitchen disposal after Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight would feed a Liberian village for a week . . . . While the national wealth has tripled over the last quarter century, the help we give to the world's poor has sunk back to 1973 levels . . . . In West Africa, the average life span is thirty-nine years. Infant mortality in the first year is fifteen percent. It's not a pretty picture, but we have the power to help, the power to change.  And why should we refuse?"

Will NCC's graduation speakers--students and members of the administration--offer similarly stirring remarks?  Will they remind graduates of their obligations to the world? Will they leave their audience with something substantive to ponder?  

Let's hope so.  You don't have to be famous to be inspirational, after all, only courageous, passionate, and genuine.   

And what better way to bid farewell to our graduates than with a reminder of what really matters in life?  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Be Like Abe

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
                                                         --President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865

                                           *                   *                    *

In his second inaugural address, delivered just five weeks before his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln held out an olive branch to a nation divided and convulsed by war.  Aware that the end of the conflict was near, Lincoln understood that the work ahead involved redemption rather than retribution and healing rather than hatred.

It's not hard to imagine what Lincoln would have thought about the years that followed--the sad collapse of reconstruction, the rise of hate groups, the passage of laws creating two separate but unequal Americas, and the brutal violence accompanying the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's.  And you can easily hear his disappointment and dismay at recent events in America, many of which suggest we've a long way to go before achieving a "just and lasting peace among ourselves."

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, America buried Lincoln, a President for the ages, maybe the best we've known.  Following his assassination on April 14, 1865, Lincoln's body was carried by train from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, passing along the way through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. The funeral procession took a few weeks, with thousands turning out to pay their respects.

Given the racial strife that's sometimes as toxic today as a century and a half ago, it's on all of us to realize that creating a fair and respectful society is everybody's business. Righting wrongs and putting the past to rest isn't just the government's job or schools' job or some other generation's job, but yours and mine as well.  

I know everyone's busy right now, with the semester winding down and summer ahead, but sometime this week, remember Abe Lincoln--someone who put it all on the line for America.  

We could all stand to take a page from Lincoln's life and try, now and then at least, to be a bit like Abe.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow (Or the Day After)

After months of snow, ice, slush, killer winds, and frost-bite temperatures, spring has finally come to town.

Yahoo!  Time to enjoy the May sunshine, watch the flowers come up, and dream of sand dunes and sea gulls.

But before we all start waxing down our surfboards, let's remember that the arrival of nice weather doesn't mean we can put our brains on hold and stop thinking about the world (which as you've probably noticed is in pretty sorry shape these days).  Wars, environmental catastrophes, racial tensions, sexism, economic inequality, poverty, and violence know no season.  Rain or shine, hot or cold, Earth continues to be a planet in crisis.

Which is why all of us, even while enjoying blue skies and balmy temperatures, must continue to pay attention to what's happening in our midst.

Hopefully you got to at least a few of the many programs on social and political issues that NCC sponsored this semester.  They addressed a range of important issues, everything from dealing with global food shortages and containing the Ebola epidemic to bridging America's racial divide and stopping terrorists from wreaking havoc on the world.  Serious subjects to be sure, but ones that clearly deserve our attention.

This week brings even more to ponder. On Thursday, May 7 at club hour, there'll be two programs at NCC on topics that are important to us all.

First, the Women Students Association is holding a Speak Out--a student-led discussion--on relationship violence (11:30 a.m., Nassau Hall, Rm. 222).  Participants can share their thoughts on the telltale signs of a violent relationship (which aren't always clear at first) and discuss actions students can take if they feel they're in such a situation.  Even if you're not in a threatening relationship yourself, listening to others will be educational.

At the same time, in the College Center (Rms. 252-253), NCC's Campus Services Committee is sponsoring a presentation on another critical topic: Fracking.  As you may know, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves drilling deeply into the earth for natural gas reserves. While fracking has its supporters, who tout its economic advantages, it also has its critics, who fear that the process could contaminate water supplies and cause other environmental problems. At Thursday's program, you'll learn more--and maybe make up your own mind.

That's not all that's ahead. On Tuesday, May 12, the Student Government Association is hosting a discussion (11:30 a.m., College Center, Multipurpose Room) on the state of higher education, including recent developments here at NCC.  If you haven't noticed, the winds of change are blowing across college campuses these days, and not everyone thinks what's emerging is all good.  Drop by the CCB at club hour and you'll find out what's happening, how it could impact your education, and what you can do about it.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, can we still enjoy the spring?  Of course--there's no other season quite so innocent and idyllic, no other time so full of promise and possibility.  But while we're taking in these great days, let's not lose sight of the big picture.  Now more than ever, the world needs alert, aware, thoughtful young people--folks like you.  No time to mentally check out . . .