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Savor the Moment

Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland – Baltimore County, delivered the Convocation address on May 25.

I have been inspired by the enthusiasm of this great class of 2016.  Give them a big round of applause.  [APPLAUSE]  Big round of applause. 

I have been inspired by this 21st-century Dr. Martin Luther King, Donovan.  Please give him a big round of applause.  [APPLAUSE] So inspired, so inspired. 

So much so that I must draw on the wisdom of another woman, a person from North Carolina who also believed in poetry: Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you/Give birth again to the dream/Women, children, men, take it, this dream, into the palms of your hands./Mold it into the image of your most public self./Sculpt it into the shape of your most private need./Here on the pulse of this new day you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes and into your brother’s face and say simply, very simply with hope, good afternoon to Harvard. Give Maya Angelou a round of applause, her poetry. [LAUGHTER] So beautiful. 

I am inspired today, Dean, as I sat there and as I prayed, as I asked for strength as I thought about my own parents, and the fact that they could never have believed that I would be so blessed to be standing here today. I thought about being with my students the other day, and I had said to them, I was giving some special speeches, and this was one of them, and I was feeling a little down. And I said, you know, people don’t really listen to you when you get up to give a speech. Because they really do want to get on with the fun time. Right? And my students can be so inspiring, like the students here today, and they sit back, and they listen. They listen. But I said, OK. Tell me. I asked my president of the LCA, tell me what your high school, tell me what your high school commencement speaker said. And he looked at me, and he laughed, and he said, he talked about blueberry pie. [LAUGHTER] And I said, who was your high school speaker? He said, you were. [LAUGHTER] I had forgotten, and so I’m starting with a blueberry pie speech about my grandmamma. I had been his, I had forgotten. Four years ago he graduated. He’s on his way to Northwestern, to law school, and I told the story that I was a fat little kid growing up. And my mamma was always trying to get me to eat healthily, but I liked to eat a lot of fattening food. In the South, they want to keep you with a little padding.  You know. [LAUGHTER] Right? And all I liked were two things, food and math. I loved math. I got goosebumps doing math, and I loved to eat, a lot of good food. And my grandmother liked my cheeks to be real fat. So my grandmother would cook two pies for the family, two blueberry pies, one for the family and one for Freeman, little fat Freeman. And my mamma would be so upset with her mother for cooking this pie. And she would put a sign there, for Freeman only, all. And she would give me a big piece, and my grandmother would sit there and watch me eat this pie. And I would have pie all over my face. And it would taste so good. But better than the taste was the love I felt for my grandmother, that unconditional love, because she believed in me. Give my grandmamma a hand for that love that she felt. [APPLAUSE] That love that she felt. And it was, I can still taste that pie 50 years later.

And the point, two points, number one, that my students inspired me to believe, believe in yourself, Doc, even when you’re thinking nobody will listen.  They will listen if you have something to say. They will listen to, and educators, whatever you’re doing, you are teachers, and the people, whatever you’re going to do, in policy and higher ed and early child, people will listen to you if you are authentic. If they can feel you, parents and others, you know that if you believe in somebody, people will listen to you. And number two, savor this moment, because you see, when we reach a goal, if we’re not careful, we are on to the next thing. We don’t take the time just to enjoy this moment. This is a special day for the families. Give your families a round of applause for what they’ve done to help you out. It’s a special day. It’s a very special day. It really is. And so savor the good periods, because you know, you’ve already had times when life can be tough. Am I right? For everybody in here, there are times when life is tough. But if you can remember the moments of the blueberry pie [LAUGHTER] when times are tough, when people disappoint you, you can think back to that unconditional love, and those moments will sustain you, because I could get here and talk about theories, and you’d go to sleep on me. But if I talk a moment about the human experience, when you’re having those tough times, you will say, you know, I had a moment that was the blueberry pie.

And then secondly, I want you to remember your stories. I want to tell you several stories, and I’ll sit down. I want to talk about my own experiences and how I got here. And it’s not about being in Time or New York Times. It’s about growing up in Birmingham. And it’s about the people who inspired me to do whatever I did, and it’s about my mamma and my daddy growing up in little country towns. My dad would say, he great up in a little town called Selma, Alabama, and he would say, boy, you know, you’re lucky. You got somebody to take you to school every day. He said, son, when I was growing up, I had to walk five miles to school every day. [LAUGHTER] And I would say, Dad, that’s why your feet so big. You had all that walking. To which he would respond, boy, don’t you get smart with me. Right?

But my mother told a story that I’ve told so many times. And I tell it now because as a child, the story embarrassed me. And yet, the story has great significance. She said, as a child, she had the choice in the little town, Wetumpka, Alabama, outside of Montgomery, of either working in a hot cotton field of working in a wealthy home. And she didn’t want to work out, and she wanted to see how rich people lived. And the significance of this rich white home was that it had a library at a time where there was no public library for children of color. And the significance of this library was that the woman said, Maggie, when you finish your work, you can go in there and read. And the lady would say to my mother, take the book home, choose a book, and as you read it, let’s talk about it. And mother began to do that. And then her girlfriends would say, Maggie, come on outside and play. And sometimes my mother would say, no, I want to keep reading this book. And they would say, you’re not in school. Why do you want to keep reading that book? This is not school time. And my mamma had to think about that for a minute. She would say, why do I want to keep reading that book? And then it hit her. The more she read, the better a reader she became. And the more proficient a reader she became, the more she enjoyed reading. And the more she enjoyed reading, the more she began to dream about the possibilities of what she might do with her life. And she began to forget about being a poor little girl, and to know that maybe the world could be bigger for her. And what was her dream? To become a teacher. Because the more she read, and the better she became, and the more she wrote, the more she could do poetry, and the more she could speak in comfortable ways, and people would say, that’s a special little girl. And she went on, and she became the valedictorian, and she went to college, and she became a teacher of literature. And she always said that education makes the difference.  And her favorite author was Zora Neale Hurston. [APPLAUSE] And she would quote, she’d be washing dishes and quoting. "Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others, they said forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the water turns his head away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men." And she would say, and women.  [LAUGHTER]

And what was her point? Two groups of people in our society, people whose dreams become reality, because they get the skills they need to get a good job.  And then people whose dreams are, in the words of Langston Hughes, forever deferred. And she kept saying, we the teachers make the difference, because we can inspire families to send their kids to school. And she became that teacher. And as a child, all I kept hearing was, you’ve got to get that education. 

And one day my parents said, you’ve got to go hear this guy speak in church. Now, who wants to go to church in the middle of the week? But they said, OK, you can do the two things you like best. What are those two things again? Eating and math. Right? So I’m sitting in the back of church, doing my math, eating M&Ms, the good kind with the peanuts. [LAUGHTER] Right? And the guy is here at the lectern, and he said, and if the children participate in this peaceful protest, all of America will understand that even our babies know the difference between right and wrong, and the kids can get a better education.  And all I knew was I was tired of those hand-me-down books from the white kids. I was tired of getting these books that were given to us after the white kids had used them for years, and my parents couldn’t, were not allowed to buy new books, even new books for me. And I wanted to go to schools where we’d have more resources. And so I went home, and who was the guy? The guy was, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King.

And I went home, and I said in 1963, I was 12 years old. I said, I want to go. I want to march. And we knew that if we marched, we would have to go to jail. And my parents said, absolutely not.  And I said, you guys are hypocrites. You tell me I’ve got to go and listen to this guy. I listened. He wants us to do this. You’re hypocrites. Students, at that time you did not tell your parents they were hypocrites. But the next morning they came in, and they said, if you want to do this, we put you in God’s hands. I went. It was a rich experience. It was an awful experience, but a rich experience. And it led to our city opening up. And all of a sudden, for the first time, we began to look at the possibility of children going to all kinds of schools. Well, that was in 1963. Two thirds of Americans had not been born. In that same period, you people, within a matter of a couple of years, with other marches, we had the Civil Rights movement, and amazingly, we had the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the Higher Education Act in ’65.

I told this story in Georgia, at the Georgia Association of School Boards, and one of the gentlemen over one of the major associations there said, I want to say something to the audience.  He said, you know, when you hear about education and the Civil Rights movement, you’re thinking it helped people of color, blacks, maybe Hispanics now.  And you’re thinking maybe it helped women, and that’s it. He said, you see me? I’m a white guy. You see me? I’m am a CEO of a company. But you think I come from money. He said, nothing could be further from the truth. He said, my father had died. He said, my mother was a sharecropper. But we saw, my mother saw the black kids going off to college in the late ‘60s, after the Higher Education Act, after financial aid for poor people, for low income working people, and she said, I want my kids to get a college education, too. We went to college. I got a good job. All of a sudden, my sister and I were moving to the middle class. We could move, my sister and I moved out of poverty. We moved our mother out of poverty. He said, so when you hear people talking about the Civil Rights Act, don’t you dare think it’s for one group of people. It was for all of America. Harvard, give the Civil Rights Act a round of applause for what it did for everyone. [APPLAUSE] For everyone in America, for everyone it made such a difference. 

And educators, we just teach our children, because you see, in the ‘60s, when I went to jail, only 10 percent of Americans had a college education. Today, 30 percent have a college education. But the challenges for some groups, for low income kids, we still are talking about the majority not going on to college. We still are talking about the majority, when the president of Harvard spoke on my campus last week, she was saying, there’s still a big gap between kids of color and upper middle class white kids, that the majority of upper middle class kids, the top quarter, the majority get a college degree. Kids in the bottom quarter and kids from people of color are still not getting it. You represent the most privileged in the sense that you’re getting the top education in the world. You are the best educated in the world, and you’re there talking about education. And my message to you is that you’re there to talk about education and the expertise we need to help more people succeed. And the achievement gap and the issues involving education will be at the heart of the matter.

And here are the issues we face. Number one, inequality and the idea of helping more people to move into the middle class. Number two, to help more people to learn to read and think well. Number three, to help more Americans understand to learn to listen and to open their hearts and their minds to people who are different from themselves, whatever those differences are. Give me a round of applause for learning to listen to people different points of view. [APPLAUSE] Whether it’s about sexuality, race, income, religion, whatever those differences are, we have been in a 50-year experiment. My campus has students from 140 countries, from different religions and different backgrounds. And what we’re learning to do is to talk about those differences. We must teach Americans to get beyond their comfort zones, to get beyond people who are just like themselves. Give me a hand for that idea also. [APPLAUSE] To open our hearts and our minds to the possibilities. And to listen to different perspectives, if we are to find ways of connecting, not only in this country, but to help people around the world, because we must understand that what happens in our country is directly connected to what happens throughout the world. Give me a round of applause for humankind. [APPLAUSE] Educators who understand the importance of humankind. It is so important. 

And the final two stories, you never know what background a student comes from. One of my students came to me and said, Doc, I’ve just come back from Russia. And I’m now fluent in Russian. And I was so surprised. He was an African American. And I said, how did you happen to get there? And he explained his situation. And I said, well, what kind of work do your parents do? And he said, Doc, I’ve never wanted to tell you this, but I am a ward of the state. He said, I don’t have parents in my life. He said, my father became hooked on drugs when I was a young kid and left us, and then my mother, and I grew up in foster care. I said, well, how did you get here? He said, I had a teacher, and then a social worker who gave me support, and they taught me the importance of reading and staying focused even in that group home. I said, so you don’t see anybody who’s related to you? He said, I have to stay away, because if I get connected, I’m scared I might get hooked on drugs, too. He said, but what I do is to keep focusing on the dream, the vision of making a difference in the lives of other people. I said, so who’s coming to your commencement for you? And he said, I don’t have anybody.  nd at commencement, it was as if my mother was talking to me. She said, say something about him. And I got up, and I said, all of you here today have family members. And yet one of you is here by himself, and yet I know you care about him. And I want you to let him know how much we care. And I called his name, graduating with a 3.5 in language and culture. And when I called his name, there was this gasp in the room, because he had been listening to all of their stories, but he never told them what he had been going through. And they all of a sudden gave him this standing ovation, not a dry eye in the place. And I had him up to the audience, the stage, and he said, I just have never felt this before. And I thought to myself, everybody needs love. And we never know, when you’re dealing with students, when you’re dealing with faculty and teachers, you never know what they’re going through in their homes. And yet all we can do is give each person support in our relationships. He went on with a Fulbright, and then he went on and got a degree from Princeton, and now he’s working with the State Department, helping poor children all over the world. Give him a round of applause for what he’s doing. [APPLAUSE] For what he’s doing. 

And my point to you is that through collaboration, through support, through building community, you can make all the difference in the world. The key to my own research and producing kids and science is that we must get away from a cutthroat approach. You know, most students in America don’t make it in science, because we, as my Ted talk says, we must change the culture of science. We must get away from the idea that we weed students out of science.  Give me a round of applause for that idea. [APPLAUSE] To stop weeding people out of science. You know, when I say, lift up your eyes in the dream, this week, when you go to your commencement, I’ve got graduates of UMBC finishing, of all races, men and women finishing M.D./Ph.D.s and S.T.E.M. Ph.D.s from Harvard University, graduates of UMBC. Give my campus a big round of applause for that. [APPLAUSE] I’m very proud of that. And one of my women of color just because full professor in biochemistry at Harvard University. Give us a big round of applause for that. [APPLAUSE] Very proud of that.

And the idea of dreams that people can do it, I leave you with the vision of a little colored girl from Wetumpka, Alabama, my mamma, who learned to read as a child and became a teacher for 40 years. At the end of her life, we brought her to Baltimore. She was a brilliant woman would say about Emily Dickenson, tell the truth, as she would say, but tell it slant. And one day she said, I know the end is near. You don’t want to hear your mamma say that. I said, what’s important to you?  And she said, what’s important? She didn’t even know who I was. She had developed dementia. But she was so bright, she could almost hide it. And I’m an only child. And she said, what’s important, relationships. She said, what’s important, my relationship with my God. She said to me what she’d said all my life, hold onto your faith. Hold onto your faith. Believe in the relationship with your God. [APPLAUSE] And then she said, my relationship with my husband. She’d forgotten my daddy died, and then she said, you know I have a son. Oh, my God. And I said, oh my God. I got angry. I’m thinking she’s telling me she had a kid when she was a teenager or something. Right? [LAUGHTER] So all of a sudden, as my students were saying, I’m thinking, TMI, too much information. I don’t want a brother at this point. Right? She said, he’s a college president. Thank God, she was talking about me. Right?  [LAUGHTER] But then she said, but you know, and this is the gift to every graduate in the room, she said, you know, but now I really understand. She said, my relationships with my students. She said, teachers touch eternity through their students. Whatever I had to give, my sense of right and wrong, my lust for learning, my belief in my children. I will always live through my students. And that is my point to every one of you. 

Whatever you’re going to do in education, you are a teacher. I went back and spoke in Birmingham, and all these people came up and said, your mamma didn’t teach me to read. She taught me to love to read and to love my students. It would be your relationships with students and your teachers and the people you work with that will be your essence of your work and your life. I challenge you, Harvard, to watch your thoughts. They become your words.  Watch your words. They become your actions. Watch your actions. They become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny. Dreams and values. You are special and you can be even better. Thank you all very much. [APPLAUSE]