University of Vermont

Fishman_Opening Reflection

Opening Reflection

Laura T. Fishman,
Associate Professor of Sociology

Today, I must share with you an important reflection. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to open my Chinese Fortune cookies which informed me that, I quote, "your principles mean more to you than money or success." How fortuitous! It summed up the theme of my reflections which I intend to present you. But first, since learning that 127 people have won the power ball lotteries by using the numbers taken from the messages in their Chinese fortune cookie, I believe, as a fully actualized person that it is my duty to share the numbers I received. These numbers are "lotto size #s 15 35 30 18 40 17. Although I pride myself on adhering to some non-materialistic principles for living, I expect that if you do win the lottery, you will enthusiastically share a portion of your winnings with me.

More seriously now, my dear graduates, I can feel, standing here, the strong vibrations emanating from you. These vibrations tell me that you want to get on with it Now!! Get to the Real Life awaiting you. Ok, go, but first hear a few guidelines I turn to whenever I face the challenges of the unbearable, the uncertainties, the fears, the joys and the ecstasies of passing through life.

Today, you are rushing into the Real World which is going to confront you with a lot of messes for instance, wars, famines, disease, genocide, global warming, social inequalities and jobs that don't offer you any more than slave labor. You also will confront the prison system is the fastest growing industry in our country and subsequently, more black men between the ages of 18 and 22 are incarcerated rather than attending schools of higher learning. You will live in a
society in which too many of our brothers and sisters live in distressed inner city communities which offer its inhabitants joblessness, schools that teach ignorance rather than knowledge, the HIV/AIDS virus and premature death. You will live in a society in which these people's voices have been silenced by the media and, consequently, live with a public pervasive indifference to the burdens they carry.

In turn, most of you will most certainly maintain a life of privilege, knowing no wants but instead at least obtaining the ability to consume much of what our society offers.

I grew up in Harlem, confronted with the likelihood that neither I nor my peers would have the kinds of material and job opportunities offered to you. But I received a gift of how to persevere and become my own unique person from such African American "heroes" as Thurgood Marshall, W.E. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Romare Beardon and Malcolm X as well as some triumphant ordinary black survivors. Persistently, they instructed me and my friends that we did not have the luxury to argue that we were powerless to make any positive changes for African Americans. They did not allow us to buy into the position that the process of changing anything was beyond our capacity. Instead, they insisted, in the words of Marian Edelman "that doing service, being capable of speaking up against social inequities, is the rent we pay for living." And as Edelman contended, it is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time. Given this, I needed to first of all own my mind and shape my mind through formal education to prepare myself to not only be black and strong but to extend my hand to those who are less fortunate. Thus, I implore you, the graduates of the Class of 2005, to stay vigilantly aware of the messes we have made in our society and within the global community. Your education has provided you to obtain much of the "good life." But your education provides some of the tools to not leave behind those, in our society, who are less fortunate to you.

My second lesson has been a very important guide for me since I attended predominantly Jewish junior high schools and high schools in New York City. Sometimes I joke and say that during this phase of my life, I was a Jew from Mondays to Fridays and an African American on weekends. Within this milieu, my Jewish peers as well as their family members, many of them Holocaust survivors, imparted a similar lesson upon us. In my own words, taken from memory, I hold fast to two lessons. The first, "whoever destroys a soul, destroys an entire world." And whoever saves a life saves an entire world. The source of this lesson is found in the Jerusalem Talmod, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a). The second lesson has been stated by Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Pirkei Avot 1:14.

My friends and adults have helped us to understand that it is not necessary to be heroic like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, that we could save a person, as long as we do not turn away from the intolerable suffering of people. Participating in acts of kindness, speaking out as well as actively acting to undermine inequities, making the effort to inform the public about the suffering which lives next door to us, and so on. You, dear graduates, have the power to make a positive difference in our world of so much sorrow. So remember, as you reach for The Real Life, as long as you also can, by your decisions to refuse to turn away from our turbulent world and its troubled people, save at least one person and, subsequently, help save our world.

Let me conclude my lessons by paraphrasing Mona Hendry, a singer of the darker persuasion. She says, "Live! Get your thing together, your feet on the ground and do it! Go past the crap, the lies, the distortions our society offers us, go past the craziness in the system, on your job, and just actualize yourself. Get off on being you because that is the best getting off of all."

To you, my dear graduates, all I can say is "Go girls go!" and "Go boys go!"

Last modified June 11 2005 08:07 AM

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