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Fall 2012

Commencement 2012: Dean McCartney's Remarks

Graduates, today is your day! All of us here applaud you, the class of 2012.

Graduates, many people have helped you to arrive at this special moment in your lives. Your parents, grandparents, partners, friends, and others are cheering you on today, as they have throughout your time here. Graduates, I invite you to thank the many people who have supported your studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

And I notice that many of the graduates have brought their children with them. I invite all the children here to comment on today’s ceremony in whatever way they see fit! This is an Ed School after all!

There are 358 staff members who have supported you, and many of them are volunteer Commencement staff today – they are the folks wearing white polo shirts. Graduates, I invite you to thank the assistant deans, program coordinators, librarians, the team in Enrollment and Student Services, Operations, and more.

And let’s give a special thanks to the Office of Student Affairs, which has planned and hosted Commencement Week for all of us.

There are 75 faculty members who have taught and mentored you. I invite you to thank the faculty.

There are three faculty who are retiring this year. I ask them to stand so we can thank them for their incredible contributions to our academic mission: Eleanor Duckworth, Tom Payzant, and Stone Wiske.

Today is a day of celebration – of your passion for learning and your commitment to serve others as educators. Commencement is a ritual that honors all that you have accomplished. And what a ritual it is! The regalia, the flags and banners, the music, and the speeches. Take it all in and enjoy this moment.

You are now alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You are now a member of a community like no other I know. You will take sustenance from this place, for it will serve as your intellectual home now and always. All of us here on Appian Way will take pride as we learn about the impact of your work in the years to come.

As dean, I have the honor of sharing a few words with you before you leave us. The first words I will share are not mine. Rather, they belong to one of you, who told me “we have to hit the ground listening.” This is a good lesson for the class of 2012 as you as you embark on the next phase of your brilliant careers.

I say this because sometimes when we listen, we hear a call to action. I heard a call on October 15, 2009. I begin most mornings with a 40-minute workout on my elliptical machine. While I exercise, I watch the news to pass the time. That morning, I heard Meredith Viera interview a mother named Valerie Brewer. Three days earlier, Valerie’s 15-year old son, Michael, had been doused in rubbing alcohol and set on fire by three former friends, all 15 years of age. They were bullies who claimed Michael owed them $40 for a DVD.[1] Two other boys were bystanders.

Michael survived, but he was fighting for his life when his mother agreed to the interview. The most poignant moment occurred when Viera asked Brewer, “Do you know these boys? And what would you like to say to them or about them?” Brewer spoke not only as a mother, but also as an advocate for all children. This was her response:

“I do not know them but I really don’t want to discuss it. It’s too heart-wrenching. I can’t even think about it, but what I would like to say is that this violence has got to stop. People around the world have got to do something…. Our children are our future. We have got to get a hold of this, please. Everybody in this world, please do what you can to work with your neighbors and help our children.”[2]

I remember thinking: she is talking to me.

Bullying is a human rights issue. Bullying is not just kids being kids. It is wrong to ridicule others, to threaten others, and to physically harm others. It is as simple as that. And the consequences can be devastating — poor learning, truancy, and humiliation that can last a lifetime.

Our job, as educators and parents, is to support our children in their efforts to create community standards where they work and play. We need to help them own this problem, and we can start by modeling the way forward. This means we must create our own community standards for them to emulate. We can do this by building environments where we don’t shun people who disagree with us; where we engage in constructive dialogue; where we don’t make negative attributions about the intents of others; where we ask people to help us understand their point of view; where we compliment and credit our colleagues for their good ideas; and where we forgive and ask for forgiveness.

And then we need to talk honestly about these efforts with the children in our lives. Here are three ways to start the conversation.

Maybe we talk about how hard it can be to take the perspective of another person. Last February, we premiered a new documentary, titled Bully, at an Askwith Forum. This documentary is receiving a great deal of attention for good reason: it provides an unflinching look at children who are bullied. One of the children profiled shared how he learned to take the perspective of the peers he had bullied. Trey Wallace confessed:

“Bullying’s not cool. And I’ll tell you, in the 2nd grade, I tried to fit in with so many people that I was probably the biggest bully in the whole school…But once I got to 3rd, I started to realize what a jerk I was being to kids and what it could do. And in 4th, I really started realizing it’s going to hurt someone, so I decided to be cool with everyone.”

Powerful testimony from Trey.

Second, maybe we talk about how hard it is not to fight anger with anger. Last month, I attended the first International Symposium on Contemplative Studies, where I learned about the work of three young men from Baltimore who are teaching children anger management through yoga. Two brothers, Ali and Atman Smith, and a friend, Andres Gonzalez, run the Holistic Life Foundation, dedicated “to demonstrating the interconnectedness people have with the environment in which they live.”[3] In an NBC profile of their organization, a 9-year old girl shares, “When someone wants to fight me, I just – I start – I start to do deep breathing. I just start breathing so I can calm myself down.”[4] There are other tools and curricula we can use to help children learn to regulate their emotions, but I confess I loved learning about this work because I also practice yoga. Trust me, I sometimes rely on deep breathing, too.

Finally, maybe we talk about the hardest lesson of all – why we can’t be bystanders. Faculty members Rick Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones hosted a Youth Summit last February, which brought together more than 100 students who are engaged in bullying prevention work at their schools. Student presenters shared public service announcements, performed a skit, and engaged in open discussions. It was clear that the audience took the lessons of their peers to heart. One eighth grader who attended the Summit wrote to me, and I want to share her moving words:

“There is this one girl that my friends really don’t like, and I always feel sort of bad when they make fun of her. I normally don’t tell them to stop because I don’t want [them] to turn against or argue with me…I went to the Youth Summit and [a student] talked about how he used to bully and act as a bystander with his friends…The Friday after the Youth Summit before I got out of school for spring break, I tried to get to know the girl my friends make fun of. I asked her if she was doing anything fun for vacation, and at first she just looked really shocked that I was talking to her. Then she told me . . . and we had a nice conversation. When I was done talking with her I had a talk with my closest friend about [how] I thought we should lay off her. I plan on helping girls  . . . whether it costs me a friend or not.”[5]

We can teach children to be upstanders instead of bystanders.

I’ve been reflecting on the fact that we are exposed to a culture of cruelty and disrespect on a daily basis. I’m not just referring to popular music and reality television, where violence and mean-spirited acts often pass for entertainment. I’m talking about the fact that our presidential candidates accuse one another of being liars[6]; and that a New York Times opinion writer referred to Supreme Court Justices as hacks[7]; and that some National Football League coaches give bonuses for “cart-offs,” a term used when a player is removed from the field on a stretcher or cart.[8]

But there is a counter-narrative. This was Lady Gaga’s message to us when she and her mother launched the Born This Way Foundation here at Harvard. The Foundation’s mission is “to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.”[9] This is a big goal, nothing short of a cry for a cultural revolution. Can we make it cool to be kind? I am inspired by this 26-year old cultural icon, who has said to the world, “use me” to get this message out.

Recently, I told one of my best friends that I was going to talk about bullying in my Commencement speech, and he asked me, “You don’t really think you can stop kids from bullying, do you?” Yes, I do – along with committed educators, parents, policymakers, entertainers, and especially young people. My mother taught me that whenever you are given a choice between optimism and pessimism, choose optimism.

I hope all of you have heard Valerie Brewer’s call today. And know that I will be listening for your calls to action in the years ahead.

Thank you.