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Grounded, or Random Pieces of Advice Set to Music

By James Ryan on May 24, 2018 1:48 PM
James Ryan delivers his last Commencement address as HGSE dean — and makes the graduates a mixtape.

Watch Dean Ryan's full speech.

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends. Congratulations to you all.

I’d like to begin by thanking all of the families and friends in the audience today. Each year, I am amazed to hear your stories and to learn about the distances and obstacles you overcame to be here. I share your pride in the accomplishments of our graduating students and your joy at the prospects that lie ahead.

At the same time, I share in the gratitude that I know our graduating students feel toward all of you.

No one makes it to graduation alone. For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to those who helped you on this journey.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout this year to help all of us, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you all. They are the heart and soul of this place, and they deserve a huge round of applause.

I would like to thank our faculty, who have served not simply as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends. I would like to extend a special thanks to several faculty who are departing this year — Terry Tivnan, Kay Merseth, Kitty Boles, Helen Haste, Andres Alonso, and Steve Mahoney. Thank you for your passion and your service and best of luck to all of you.

Last but not least, I would like to recognize and thank Bridget Terry Long, who will succeed me as dean in every sense of the term succeed.

Now, to our graduating students. To those in the Ed.D. Program, the C.A.S., Ed.L.D., and master’s programs: I say this every year, but only because it’s worth repeating. I believe you are the luckiest graduates of the entire university because you are going to work in education, and there is no higher calling, no more rewarding or meaningful field in which to work. I hope and trust you feel prepared and inspired for the tasks that lie ahead. I have seen your passion, your commitment to social justice, and your enormous talents on display all year, and while I am sad to bid you farewell, I take solace in knowing that you are leaving here to make the world a better place.

Before you can leave, however, you need to come up to the stage to receive your diploma. And before you do that, alas, you have to listen to a short speech from me. Consider it the last price you need to pay for your Harvard degree, aside from the loan repayments.

This is a bittersweet occasion, as I am graduating with you today, and this is my last speech as dean of this amazing school.

To mark the occasion, instead of delivering a typical graduation speech, I decided to make you what I would have called, back in the day, a mixtape. Those of you in the younger crowd, I realize, might call this a “Spotify playlist,” something that you might share virtually over the interwebs with your fortnight, facegram, or instachat friends… or whatever. In any event, back in my day we often made mixed tapes as gifts to express our affection or appreciation, recognizing that songs — through their lyrics and their music — can both express a message and evoke emotion in a way that our typical conversations can’t. Kind of like this song: ["Feelings" by Morris Albert].

The title of the mixtape that I have made for you is Grounded. The alternative title is Random Pieces of Advice Set to Music.

The great philosopher Casey Kasem — who also happened to be the voice of Shaggy on Scooby-Doo and a disc jockey who hosted the American Top 40 radio program that we used to listen to on our transistor radios — often said: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

That might sound like a cliché at first, because it is a cliché. But Mr. Kasem was onto something. In order to stretch yourself, in order to grow, you need to have a firm foundation and a clear footing in this world, a clear sense of yourself. This is especially true in times of transition, which you and I are both confronting. It’s important to remember who you are, what you believe, and what and who matter to you. In short, it’s important to remain grounded. In a world that is often uncertain and chaotic, staying grounded will help you maintain the calm strength of mind and heart to connect with and serve others, especially the students who need you the most.

The songs that follow are ones that I hope will help you stay grounded. I offer them to you with a mixture of excitement that you will like them and trepidation that you won’t. But it’s the categories that the songs represent that matter more than the specific songs. Even if it's not a song, I suggest you find something for each category so that you remain in contact with the emotions, memories, beliefs, and aspirations that will help you stay grounded.

The first category is sadness. You need a sad song on your mixtape. Trust me; it’s kind of a thing. When I was younger, some mixtapes were filled with nothing but sad songs — these were breakup tapes that sixth-to-eighth-graders in my school would make and pass around like Tic Tacs. In addition to break-up tapes, sometimes, hypothetically speaking, an eighth-grade boy might make a mixtape for a crush and, hoping to impress her with his depth of feeling, he might include a slightly cheesy sad song or two. Hypothetically speaking, that is. “Feelings, nothing more than feelings . . .”

The song I’ve chosen is an instrumental piece entitled "Gabriel’s Oboe," featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello. It’s not an obviously and unambiguously sad song, but I’ve always found it to be so — with the lone cello that starts by expressing a longing that is answered, but only in part, by the oboe that eventually joins the cello, with the two then entwined in a deeply moving duet, which amplifies rather than mollifies the sense of longing. But the real reason I’ve found this piece sad is because the first time I heard it, I had the uplifting thought that I’d like this to be played at my funeral. Anyway, you might hear Laurel where I hear Yanny, even though it’s definitely Yanny, but I think you’ll like this piece. Here it is, picking up where the oboe comes in. ...

Why start with a sad song? It’s not just because it’s a required feature on mixed tapes, but because sadness is a profound emotion, connected as it is to catharsis and the wisdom that comes with the recognition of loss. In sadness also lies empathy, and that’s really why I think you should start here.

To open yourself up to sadness, rather than fleeing from it, is to open yourself up to the sorrow of others, which in turn helps you see the world as it really is — a place that is and always will be filled with suffering large and small. This is not meant to depress you or make you feel hopeless. Instead, opening your eyes to the suffering of others will eventually, I believe, get you thinking about what you might do to alleviate that suffering. And that’s not a bad thing to think about.

But life is not all sadness and suffering, of course, which is why I think the next song on your list should be one that brings you joy, in order to capture the yin and yang of life. For me, the song that currently brings me great joy is this one by Alicia Keys: "Girl on Fire."

This song brings me joy because I play it for my daughter, Phebe, when I drive her to her soccer games. Phebe just turned 12, has three older brothers, and is a fierce but not always confident soccer player. We play music on the way to her games, and I always try to find a song to get her fired up, so to speak, for the game. I came across this one and told her she should play like she’s on fire — not literally, I had to explain in response to her confused expression. She acted annoyed at first, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight smile when the song got to this point. ...

Whenever I hear this song, I see that slight smile on Phebe’s face, and to me it’s a moment of connection, a moment where I know that, despite my embarrassing or annoying her on occasion — OK, on many occasions — Phebe loves me. As parents in the audience can surely appreciate, there is nothing that brings a parent more joy than to know that, to feel that love from a child, even, and perhaps especially, when offered somewhat grudgingly.

Now, I suggest a joyous song to follow a sad one because if you sit at the intersection of sorrow and joy — if you pause and park yourself right in that intersection — you can feel the deepest currents of life. Sorrow and joy represent a fundamental paradox of our existence. How can anyone with a conscience and some empathy not be overwhelmed by the sorrow in the world? How can anyone feel joy without guilt? But, at the same time, how can anyone imagine willfully living a life without joy? My best guess, and it’s only a guess, is this: I think there is no joy without love, and love is the only force powerful enough to take on sorrow. This is, I think, how joy and sorrow co-exist; joy is necessary because sorrow is inevitable. I realize that’s a lot of meaning to pack into the first two songs on a mixtape, but there you have it.

Moving down the playlist, you will also need a song that reminds you where you’re from. Maybe that means your family, your home, or an experience or friend that shaped you. To stay grounded, you need to remember your roots. For me, it’s this song by The Boss: "Thunder Road."

I grew up in New Jersey, where Bruce Springsteen songs are required listening. I’m tempted to say everyone should have a little Jersey in them, but I’ll simply say that this song brings me right back, in my mind’s eye, to my tiny, one-mile-square hometown in northern New Jersey, the modest houses clustered together on side streets, the Midland auto parts store at the end of my street, and the kids in my neighborhood, my friends, all of us riding bikes to play pickup baseball in a school lot as our mothers shouted from their porches or stoops to come home when the streetlights came on. I encourage you to find a song that evokes your own past, or a least a piece of it that you want to remember, a piece that connects who you are now to who you were then. (But in the meantime, you can always enjoy "Thunder Road" and wish, maybe just a little, that you, too, were from New Jersey.)

In addition to remembering where you’re from, you should also have a song that reminds you who you are at your core, or at least who you aspire to be. For me, it’s a song by the Avett Brothers called “Ain’t No Man.”

This song in its entirety speaks to me on a lot of levels, but I often find myself repeating the lines, as an internal pep talk, that “there ain’t nobody here, who can cause me pain or raise my fear, cause I got only love to share.” To me it’s a reminder of how I would like to live my life: by acting out of love rather than fear. It sounds simple, and in some ways it is, but if you take that idea seriously, it has some profound consequences for how you behave and approach the world. I would go so far as to suggest you give it a try, if you haven’t already. But my main point is that you remind yourself, at least occasionally and perhaps with a song, what is core to who you are as a person.

Make sure to add to your list a song that reminds you why you do what you do. For me it’s a song about encouraging those without a voice to speak, which to me — and perhaps to some of you as well — captures the essence of education and especially the education of those too often ignored or marginalized. When I hear the opening stanza of this song, "Read All About It," by Emili Sandé, I think of teachers, the very best ones — committed, passionate, soulful teachers. And in this song, I hear them speaking to their students. ...

The song continues:

You've got a heart as loud as lions
So why let your voice be tamed?
Baby we're a little different
There's no need to be ashamed
You've got the light to fight the shadows
So stop hiding it away.

I’m in education, I do what I do, because I’m compelled by, I’m drawn to those left out, those who are different. I think of education — whether in schools around the world or right here at HGSE — as giving those forced to the margins a chance to have their voices heard. And that compulsion to give voice to others is personal. Despite appearances — meaning I, too, get that I am a straight, white male in a position of power — I have always felt a little different, a little on the outside, which I’m sure traces back to being adopted. It was my adoptive parents who always told me, when I was teased for being adopted, that, as the song says, “We’re a little different, but there’s no need to be ashamed.”

In suggesting that you think hard about why it is you do what you do, I’m suggesting you follow a path that I hope will lead you to find not just your job or career, but your calling — the thing that you feel deeply and passionately about at an emotional, personal level. If you can find that, and if you can live it, I can’t guarantee that your path will be easy, but I can guarantee it will be filled with meaning. For me, as I’ve said, I feel like my calling is to help others hear the same message my parents told me, so that, in the end, they will have the confidence expressed in the chorus of this song, which, when I hear it, I imagine students who have found their voice singing back to their teachers. ...

Flipping the tape to the B side, I also think you need a song that reminds you to remain a little rebellious. If nothing else, it will keep your professional life interesting, and it may help you cope when you are feeling constrained. It can also help you push boundaries and to speak up when something feels wrong. The song I’ve put on this mixtape is "Wild Things," by Alessia Cara, which I sometimes thought about as I was walking from meetings in Harvard Yard back to Appian Way.

Like any large institution, there are a number of traditional rules and conventions here that sometimes bind or at least chafe, and, at the same time, I don’t think that the genuine awesomeness of the Ed School is always fully recognized or appreciated. If I were ever discouraged or frustrated, this song would pop into my head, part of which goes like this... .

Ok, maybe a little melodramatic, but it always brought a smile to my face to think of the Ed School as at Harvard, but not totally of Harvard, if you know what I mean. And it reminded me that it’s OK to push back against bureaucracy a little, to question, to forge our own path and to rely on our own creativity and talent on Appian Way. A small act of rebellion, perhaps, and in some ways just a mindset, but trust me when I tell you that to remain a little rebellious is a good way to hang onto your soul.

Two more songs. The next one is nominally about a couple, but I think it’s also about friendship. It’s this 1961 classic by Ben E. King, "Stand by Me." Friendships are among the sweetest relationships we can form, shorn of the obligations that attend family and free of the uncertain and sometimes shifting terrain of romance. Cultivate friendships, devote time to them, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t need a lot of friends, but you do need some rock solid ones. And a good way to remain grounded is to think about those rock solid friends — the ones who stand by you and always will, and the ones you stand by and always will.

Finally, you need a goodbye song, because life, for better or worse, is one long series of goodbyes. Today is just one poignant example. And as my dear and wise friend, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot reminds us in her book, Exit, getting goodbyes right matters both for those who are leaving and for those who remain behind.

There are a lot of great goodbye songs out there, but my current favorite is a song by the Lumineers, “Nobody Knows How to Say Goodbye.” It’s the theme song for a delightful and fanciful movie, Pete’s Dragon, which features a boy who gets lost in the woods, discovers a friendly dragon and then they eventually, and predictably, have to part ways. It’s a little like if they made Game of Thrones into a kid’s movie.

The song begins with these lines ... . The song continues in a melancholy way for another stanza but then brightens, with lines that convey that a physical departure is not necessarily a spiritual one. So the song continues:

Through the darkness to the dawn
When I looked back you were gone
Heard your voice leading me on
Through the darkness to the dawn

And then the song comes back, appropriately, to love, which outlasts the act of saying goodbye:

Love is deep as the road is long
Moves my feet to carry on
Beats my heart when you are gone
Love is deep as the road is long

And, finally, the song ends with a recognition of the mystery that awaits all of us when we part ways, including the mystery of when our paths will cross again. I can’t think of a more fitting way to bid you all farewell. ...

* * * *
In conclusion, and in sum, I hope you find a way to keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars. I hope, through songs or otherwise, that you stay in touch with both sorrow and joy; that you take time to remind yourself where you’re from, who you are, why you do what you do and who your friends are; that you remain a little rebellious; and that you always remember, especially as you prepare to leave Appian Way, that nobody knows how the story ends.