They sat in a half-circle that spanned out towards the back of the classroom, each inmate garbed in the classic jail two-piece: the stiff khaki pants, and the beige top that fountained over some of their thin upper bodies. It was a cold, cold afternoon in Rikers Island Jail Facility.
Jacob stood at 6’4", and a ruined tattoo of a flaming basketball sat between his collarbones. He was only 18 years old facing a 17-year prison sentence for a non-violent drug offense, but his wide smile would always distract me from the urgency of his upcoming trial. On his desk, tucked between the pages of his notebook, so that the Correctional Officer standing at the door wouldn’t notice, Jacob kept a standard Double A battery. In between taking notes, he methodically peeled away the batteries cover, leaving its positive and negative charge points exposed.
Later on that evening, Jacob used a door in his housing unit to chip off the uppermost piece of the battery — what a young scientist over at the college might appropriately call, the anode. I could be entirely wrong about that. In his cell, Jacob then cut a small strip of aluminum foil from his soup box—a purchase he made at commissary of course. He held the thin strip against the two ends of the battery, and when the aluminum foil ignited, when it finally caught fire, Jacob swiftly moved the strip of aluminum foil near some toilet tissue he positioned just a few inches away. When the toilet tissue sparked, Jacob quickly reached into his crotch area, and produced a cigarette. He held the cigarette’s tip to the fire, and when it lit, Jacob took a deep, relaxing pull. This, my friends, was how he got by.
Today we are graduating, and not just from any middle-of-the-road university — today friends, we are graduating from Harvard University. At this institution, we have everything anyone could ever need to start a fire. We have the books, the capacious libraries, the academic instruction; we have the famed visitors and preeminent fellows, and next year, students will have the very first black woman serving as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education — Bridget Terry Long. We have all of those things, and we also have each other, so in the end, my fellow graduates, one might dare say we have it all.
But you see, there’s something we might not have that Jacob had. He was desperate. So today I challenge you all with this question: what are you desperate for? What are you desperate for? We talk about equity in education for all, but are we desperate for it? We talk about candor in curriculums, but are we desperate for it? We talk about liberation pedagogy; we talk about freedom — but friends, are we truly desperate for it? You see, when you have nothing, and you find yourself in a position of great necessity, you must find a way to produce exactly what it is that you need. You must. Because where there is great need, without a desperate will, there is often tragedy. But I see that desperation in all of your faces. We have shared it in the classroom, on all floors of the Gutman Library — I even see that desperation today. Some of you are ready to start your fulltime jobs tomorrow! And so if you are willing, I ask that you raise your right hand, and take this pledge with me: I will start a fire, whether you give me everything, or you give me nothing — because, I am desperate for change.
Class of 2018, go out into the world and let your desperate show. Congratulations!