The Best Baltimore High School Graduation Speech That No One’s Given Yet

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2011 Aspen Ideas Festival - Day 5

I’m a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic columnist/memoirist/all around sharp guy. Late last week, someone wrote in and asked him what he’d tell the graduating class at Poly, his alma mater, if he was invited back to give a speech. First, Coates points out that while at Poly he failed English, got suspended for assaulting a teacher, and was eventually asked to leave the school (twice!). “So, you see, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be invited back to Poly to address the students,” he writes. (In his stead, he nominates his older brother Malik, a Poly grad who now works for Dreamworks.) But then he goes on to sketch out the sort of speech he would give, if presented with the chance to speak to a class of Baltimore high school students — and it’s pretty rad.

Here’s an excerpted version; check out Coates’ full column at the Atlantic:

What I generally try to do is avoid messages about “hard work” and “homework,” not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse. The two words I try to use with them are “excitement” and “entrepreneurial.” I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination. My belief is that, if I can get them to understand the “why?” of education, then the effort and hard work and long study hours will come after. I don’t know how true that is in practice, but given that I am asked to speak from my own experience, that is the lesson I have drawn.

This will come as somewhat depressing news, but one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Poly was to get away from the violence that dogged virtually every other Baltimore city high school. That didn’t exactly work out as I planned it. But my point is that my childhood — and my education — was largely guided by the need to negotiate violence. When teachers talked to us about why we needed to succeed, they talked about not ending up dead, or not ending up in jail…. [but] not getting shot and not going to jail simply wasn’t enough to make want to succeed in school. No one ever told me about Paris. No one I knew had ever been.

What I have come to believe is that children are more than what their circumstance put upon them. So my goal is to get kids to own their education. I don’t think I can hector them into doing this. I don’t think I can shame them into doing it. I do think that might be able to affect some sort of internal motivation. So I try to get them to see that every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe. I really mean this.

So when I talk to young black kids, I try to talk about the “why?” as much as the “what?” And, for the record, I do the same thing at MIT. I start my class explaining that learning to write is their moral duty. I told them they had access to more information that 99 percent of all humans who have ever lived. It is a moral duty to learn how to communicate that information, clearly and compellingly. I think everyone should own their education.

I don’t know if any of that works. But I am convinced that my problem was not mere laziness nor a lack of work ethic. Work ethics don’t magically appear. Mine is most evidenced when I understand why I am working and when I find that “Why” compelling. I never really had that as a student. “Try harder” has to have some actual meaning beyond sloganeering.


One problem with being from highly segregated communities (as most black kids are) is that you tend to have less exposure to the world. I had more exposure than virtually any of my friends, and that still wasn’t much. When you don’t have much exposure to the world the options you see for yourself tend to be limited–you can’t really dream about that which you don’t know exists. I would argue that the exposure granted by education is a potent antidote to the kind of provincialism that you must necessarily see in segregated communities. So my argument to black twelve year-old boy isn’t that he should stop dreaming of being a rapper or a ball player, but that he should understand that that isn’t the end of their possibilities. And one way to see more of what it is possible is education.

I would not urge you simply to get off the PlayStation. I would urge you to understand who made the game. I would not urge you to take down your King James poster. I would urge you to think about the business that makes him possible. Perhaps you’d like to be part of that business some day. I would urge you think about what Kendrick is doing in his lyrics, to think about music. Do you know how to read music? Have you learned an instrument? Would that interest you? How about poetry? Have you ever read any? Would you consider trying to write some of your own?

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