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Brave Awakenings in an Age of Bullies

The prepared remarks of student-selected faculty speaker Timothy McCarthy

I want to speak directly to the students: I see you.

No, I mean, I see what you did here: after a semester of getting critical feedback from me on your speeches in REAL TALK, you picked me to give a speech at your graduation. When Junlei spoke last year, I thought this was an honor — now it just feels like a set up!

Dean Long: you know my husband CJ, a distinguished HGSE alum, calls you “the dean who came to get me.” Thank you for that.

HGSE Colleagues and Students: much love and respect.

President Simmons: it is an honor to share space with you.

Cole and Ebonée: A+! 

PART ONE: Lifelong Learning

What I most love about days like this is meeting the people you love.

We all bring people with us into places like this — the teachers who inspired us to follow in their footsteps; the friends and families, given and chosen, who have nurtured our journeys; the elders and ancestors whose shoulders lift us up. 

Some of my people are here today, too. Four generations — from my folks, Michelle and Coach Mac, passionate public school educators for a combined 79 years, to my niece Malia, a brilliant scholar-athlete who turned 14 last week. 

In addition to being a grateful son and glowing uncle, I am also a Grandma’s Boy.

In 1971, the year I was born and adopted, Grandma McCarthy retired after 41 years as a trailblazing teacher. That fall, her district honored her by re-naming the street to the new high school “McCarthy Way.”
Grandma McCarthy had an old wooden swing in her backyard. It had two wide benches facing each other. On the weekends whenever the weather was nice, Grandma made a big pitcher of Lipton Iced Tea and we would take our positions across from one other, swinging sweetly like a suspended scale. She asked me a million questions. Two stick with me: What did you learn this week? and What questions do you have about what you learned? In retrospect, I realize she was trying to get me to talk about what I was being taught, and to think critically about it as well. She was always interested in what I was learning, what I was asking, what I had to say. Every child should have an adult like this in their life — a teacher who still wants to learn. That swing was my favorite school.

Gram Bobrinitz was also hungry to learn. Unlike Grandma McCarthy, who was a first-generation college student, Gram left high school when she was 16 to work in a garment factory in upstate New York. She was a “cuffer,” which means she put the cuffs on men’s dress shirts. Like her three Italian sisters, Gram could cook! When I wasn’t on that swing, I was in her kitchen — smelling the sauce, marveling at the meatballs, and hovering over the homemade pasta that seemed to stretch across every surface. When I was in middle school and she was close to 60, Gram decided to go back to school. That meant that she had to clear some space to study in the midst of all that macaroni. Sometimes, we studied together — I helped her with spelling, she helped me with math — and she beat me to high school graduation. 

When Gram passed on in 2012, I buried my Ph.D. diploma with her so she could show it to my other grandparents when she joined them at the afterlife-party.     

My grandmothers cherished education for different reasons — Grandma McCarthy because she was among the first in our family to go to college, Gram Bobrinitz because she went back to high school to finish what she started. I stand here today because these women taught their only grandchild to work hard, dream big, and never take any of this for granted. If you come visit my Gutman office, you will see that “McCarthy Way” sign and that GED in the place where my Ph.D. would be.

My grandmothers were great at raising educators. I remember the day I returned from a summer in Ireland after my second year of graduate school. On the coffee table in our living room were earmarked copies of W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My parents were reading them so they could better talk with me about what I was studying. This was not a surprise to me. After all, my father started his career in mid-60s co-teaching the first Black History class at George Washington Carver Middle School in Albany, New York. And my mother, often on her own dime, stacked the classroom library at her rural elementary school with diverse children’s books that would be banned in many states today. My parents, too, have always been open to learning new things, a practice that helped save their only son’s life when he said “I’m gay”— to them — for the very first time.    

I come from a legacy of lifelong learners, teachers who lead with curiosity, generosity, empathy, and love.

PART TWO: Brave Awakenings 

Given the role models who raised me, it’s no surprise that I, too, became a teacher who loves to learn. And I have learned so much from all of you. 

In our classroom communities and way outside of them, we have done good work together. We should be proud of the fruits of our shared labor.

These last few years have been quite a crucible. A racial reckoning, treasonous insurrection, and global pandemic — just three of the many challenges we face, any one of which could be our undoing. These are not the best of times. I know many of you feel stressed out, checked out, and burned out, poised precariously on the precipice of an unpromised future.

But in the midst of this madness, we are also bearing witness to brave awakenings — stirrings of kind and kindred souls that beckon a more beloved world. There are precedents for this throughout history. Crucibles like slavery and segregation, apartheid and genocide have been unlikely incubators for some of the greatest revolutions the world has ever known. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminded us: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

At the risk of sounding gauzy and grand — and perhaps a bit mad myself — I believe these recent world-historical disruptions have changed us for good. 

I say that because I have learned this from all of you.

You’ve shown me how to listen more deeply and speak more lovingly.

You’ve encouraged me to live in the intersections and sit with discomfort.

You’ve engaged me in real talk when the classroom isn’t yet safe enough for you to be brave. 
You’ve challenged me to make our classrooms more accessible and inclusive.

You’ve checked me when my walk and my talk are misaligned.

You’ve helped me to see that self-care is revolutionary and rest is resistance.

You’ve reminded me that equity and justice must be actions — not just aspirations.

And you’ve convinced me that your widespread impatience with the status quo you’ve inherited is not some sort of “woke” intolerance, but rather a powerful antidote to our persistent pathologies of racism and ableism, misogyny and xenophobia, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
People often ask me about you. Some of their questions are sweetly curious: What’s it like to teach Harvard students? Others are blunt and crude: Are they really all entitled snowflakes? The first kind of question prompts a Proud Papa Bear response: They’re fabulous! The latter turns me quickly into a Cranky Old Queen.

There are a lot of misperceptions out there about places like this and people like us. Some are willful in their ignorance, others less so. The challenge before us right now is to prove to the world that we are part of the solution not the root of the problem.

This shouldn’t be hard for you. The things I have learned from you have made me a better professor and person. You have much to teach this world. As you set out to do just that, commit yourselves to being lifelong learners —people who lead with curiosity, generosity, empathy, and love. 

After all, brave awakenings must be ongoing. Let us not be so awakened that we lure ourselves into the lie that we have nothing left to learn. 

PART THREE: Beating the Bullies

We have our work cut out for us because we are living in an age of bullies.

Some of these bullies ban books and hate history.

Some of these bullies cancel drag queens and won’t say gay.

Some of these bullies control where we pee and what sports we can play.

Some of these bullies revoke our rights and control our bodies.

Some of these bullies push us out of schools and into prisons.

Some of these bullies build walls and send them back.

Some of these bullies put kids in cages and separate migrant families. 

Some of these bullies are running for office — and some of the worst of them win.

Some of these bullies want to be President, including the one who was already twice impeached, who wants to be President again.   

Some of these bullies want to vanquish our votes and destroy our democracy. 
And more and more, they are armed with weapons of war.

There are many kinds of bullies. But the one thing they all have in common is that they are broke and afraid. These are hurt people who hurt people because they refuse to make peace with their own pain.

So they go to war — and schools have become their battlefield.

As educators, we teach and we learn. We are lovers in this regard.

But we must also become fighters — for truth, for justice, for our future.

We did not pick these fights. They picked us. But fight them we must. And we will win. Because we must win. We can beat the bullies yet again by standing up to them with love. I’m talking about love in the way James Baldwin understood it: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up.”

As I was preparing this speech, I got to thinking about the word bully. A few weeks ago, I posted this question on Facebook: What is the opposite of bully? The responses were fascinating. People came up with many antonyms for the verb (to bully), but precious few for the noun (the bully). 

And then it dawned on me: you are the antidote to the bullies. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. You are the future we need. When I look out at this diverse crowd of curious, generous, empathetic, loving teachers and lifelong learners, my heart swells with hope. Because this future — the future we should all be able to share — is brilliant and beautiful and brave.

Enough of this talk: HGSE Class of 2023 — go change the world!


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