Ruth J. Simmons' Commencement Speech
By Ruth Simmons R. 29 May 2005 © 2005
Ruth J. Simmons
University of Vermont Commencement 2005
Thank you, President Fogel, and greetings to members of the board, faculty, staff, alumni and family of the Class of 2005. It is a pleasure to be here with you on the occasion of the 201st commencement ceremony at UVM. UVM is a winner, producing many winners in the guise of the graduates of the Class of 2005. A belated congratulations on the stunning victory of the Cats over Syracuse in the NCAA finals. I love it when a 13th seed is able to defy expectations. I am pleased to say that T.J. Sorrentine is a native son of my home state and I bring special greetings to him and other Rhode Islanders in this graduating class.
Life is not always about winning but today is certainly a day for winners. This institution has a winning history, made rich by its commitment to making educational opportunity available to the many graduates who, with the help of Groovy UV, have found an important and useful place in professional, community and national life. In my estimation, there is no greater benefit to a child nor greater boon to any nation than the provision of education to every citizen. Education develops intellectual resources, makes possible the advancement of knowledge helpful to society’s well-being, and assures the innovation so necessary to ongoing economic vitality. Education prompts the development of capacities that would often otherwise lie fallow, and nurtures a respect for reason and civility, both important to maintaining peace and stability throughout the world. As a personal benefit, education helps one establish a healthy relationship with the broader world. For me, education has done all of this and so much more. Rescuing me from intellectual hunger and deprivation, it has given me the tools to understand the context into which I was born, and positioned me to surpass the limitations imposed on me by history and circumstance.
I saw recently that a great educator, Yogi Berra, had recently celebrated his 80th birthday. What an impact his words have had on all of us! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” he said, when giving someone directions to his house. How many of those forks in the road you must have encountered since you landed at UVM and got assigned to the Shoeboxes! Whether you chose Going Downtown over finishing a lab assignment or fought off such temptations to improve your grade in Orgo, you are here today because you ultimately knew how to choose the right direction. Education is always the winning choice.
In 1951 when I started grade school in rural East Texas, the America that I knew was penuriously exploitative, shockingly bigoted, deeply and hypocritically divided along racial lines, and headed for national disaster. My father and mother were living at the time in a small four room house atop a knoll overlooking the sprawling, fertile cotton fields where they worked as laborers. Neither of them had been schooled beyond the eighth grade. Eleven children had preceded me in our household, so when I arrived there were naturally expressions of exasperation by the older children who understood the consequences of yet another mouth to feed. I was delivered by Miss Addie Bryant, who, as a midwife, was one of the most respected people in our small community. In a community where no one was well educated, a midwife was considered to be in the upper echelon of society. My older sisters and brothers had only occasional opportunity to attend school; the primary responsibility of everyone in our sharecropping family, including the smallest children, was to harvest cotton so, when there was work to do in the fields, school attendance suffered. As a result, few of us were able to attend school with enough frequency to graduate from high school.
But I was lucky. I began school at a time when the cotton gin was taking hold, causing sharecroppers to seek opportunities for employment in cities. Before my parents would make the move to Houston, where I received most of my schooling, I was introduced to education at W.R. Banks School for Colored Children. That first year was an introduction to a world that I could scarcely believe existed: a world where brawn had little bearing, where winning was encouraged, and where no limitations marred achievement. Little could I have imagined the path that I would take as a result of Miss Ida Mae initiating me into a new and exciting world of learning.
Miss Ida Mae Henderson was renowned for her teaching. I don’t know if the principal deliberately chose her for first graders because of her inviting personality but everyone I have heard speak of her lights up when they recall their time in Miss Ida Mae’s class. What struck one most about her persona was her extraordinary enthusiasm for her students. I had never met anyone so enthusiastic about learning and so full of fervor for the achievement of children. Imagine a rag tag group of poor country children, dressed in tatters, wearing shoes held together with string and minimally nourished. Now imagine them, too, sitting in a bright, cheerfully decorated classroom with a teacher whose attitude and voice bespoke joy at the presence of these children. If you can imagine this miracle, you can possibly appreciate why the sunshine from Miss Ida Mae’s voice and smile transfixed us, making us want to bask in that kind of radiance, hopefulness and confidence forever. That is how I came to love learning, by watching someone else who had been infused with the spirit of learning.
Miss Ida Mae was the first person I met who was college educated and, although I did not understand at the time why she was so different from anything I had ever known, I knew that education had wrought something wondrous in her. That something was a delight in learning and in imparting that knowledge to others. The luminescence that radiated from her respect and enthusiasm for learning drew us in. Absorbing her every instruction, I worked hard to secure abundant praise from her, and was convinced that something momentous was happening to my life now that she was in it. With her as my tour guide, I thought I had been given keys to a magic kingdom long before I heard of Walt Disney’s. In this kingdom, I was free to go anywhere without worrying about racial restrictions. All the limitations my parents had known fell away as I grasped the power of my mind to push aside the barriers they had experienced and had anticipated for me.
Arriving in Houston the next year, I discovered miraculously that Miss Ida Mae was not the only teacher who was dedicated, uplifting, forceful and self-confident. There were many others with high standards, excellent skills and charismatic personalities who were every-day models for life. Mrs. Caraway, Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Parish, Mr. Saunders, Mrs. Lillie and so many more like them filled my years of public school with admonitions concerning hard work and high attainment. These teachers, working in the inner city schools, did the work of social workers, philanthropists, mentors, counselors, advocates, civic icons, and moral exemplars. They formed a tightly knit network of care that kept communities going and, most importantly, kept the promise of social change and civil rights alive. Through their efforts, change did come.
I recall this story every day as a reminder of the power of education. Whatever we do in universities today, one thing I know. Learning makes possible the most daunting and elusive change. If you have not discovered that yet, you will learn it in myriad ways over the coming years. Because you have enlarged your reach through learning, you will have the opportunity to influence others in the way teachers changed my life. The light that shone from Miss Ida Mae has lit my path for over forty years. What is the light that you will shine for others? By the way the education you received at UVM guides you? By the way you respect yourself and others. By the way you care for your family? By the openness you have to difference? By the gratitude and humility you show for what you have been given? By the winning spirit that you bring to everything you do?
Today, when I contemplate the tremendous problems of education, I wonder why with so many theorists, experts, pundits and others trying to reform education, they overlook a fundamental truth of learning: that with the crudest of tools and the most basic of principles, teachers can excel, students can learn, and communities can grow stronger. To be sure, the needs of society today are great, the demands of the workplace differ, and the skills needed to cope with post-industrial change are many. When teachers, imbued with the magnificence of their calling, infuse in their teaching a care for their students, a demand that they work hard, and an insistence that they respect the power of cognition, all manner of learning can happen.
Teachers remain at the heart of any education that takes root on the one hand and uplifts on the other. They do not merely provide tools or point out which path to take on this voyage. They pack our bags, set us on our way, and give us maps for the most scenic ride of our lives. Along the way we see the history of the world unfold. We see the beauty of what god and man have produced. We learn the elements of design and harmony that give greater meaning and enjoyment to our lives. We see how problems are solved and conflicts are abated. We see the tragic consequences of bigotry, want, and human degradation. Each of us has had a moment of recognition when we understood the value of learning. To have a guide in that process who not only leads us to shore but repeatedly casts us back upon the sea until we can find our own way back to shore is of defining importance. Teaching, wherever it occurs, is a lifeline for individuals, communities, nations, the world.
Why have I chosen to speak of teaching and learning at this moment when you are finishing your academic careers? Because what you have learned at UVM will be a lifeline for you. You will be tossed about when you find yourself in rough seas. You will be confused by forks in the road. You will experience deep loss and great joy. Through it all, what will allow you to maintain your direction and equilibrium is the intelligence that you have so painstakingly developed. Nurture that intelligence and you will have great success and a winning future.
Finally, I speak to you about teaching not just because you have had great teachers at UVM, but because, no matter what you do, you, too, will be a teacher. You will teach by example even when you are unaware of the eyes that are watching you. You will teach by doing whenever you extend your hand to another. Your life will always be one of teaching and learning. Learning and teaching.
I am often asked what led me to the academy. Perhaps it was the cheerfulness of my first encounter with learning. Perhaps it was the disenfranchisement I felt everywhere else at a time when America was not ready to be free. Here was a place where the future could be imagined. Here was a place where I could live in light and not in darkness. What a feeling that was and it is this very feeling that still fuels my encounter with education: with the young people seeking to learn, with those who have the sacred task of bringing light to their lives, and with those who make the passing of the torch of learning one of the most meaningful and compelling acts of all time. Today, this university passes this torch to you and now you must carry it, bearing it to all parts of your life, holding it high for others less advantaged to see it and feel inspired, thrusting it in front so that you will not lose your way.
Several years ago, when the Olympic Flame passed through Providence, I was
invited to be one of those bearing the Flame through the streets of Providence.
I was at first skeptical of my being able to carry out such an assignment but
my assistant insisted that it would be easy, that all I had to do was show up
at the meeting place in my Olympic togs, carry the torch a few steps and hand
it off to another. When I arrived at the meeting point, I received different
instructions. I was to run with the torch held high for several blocks, uphill.
It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life as I struggled, panting,
to keep the flame high. But I learned something very important that night. The
privilege of carrying the torch is ennobling. A lit torch, held high, brings
light and hope, pride and inspiration, dignity and humanity. You will be the
torch for your generation. Whether you carry the flame uphill or down, through
puddles or across deserts, the light will be a guide to others. Be ever aware
of the impact you are having. Respect that fact. Honor what you now have to
give the world as you honor what the world has given you.
This summer, I will again journey to the place in East Texas where I was born. I will walk upon the still unpaved clay roads. I will see the remnants of the shacks that provided rudimentary housing for the sharecropping families in the region. I will summon forth memories of the life that launched me onto a path that has given me so many rewards. Many years from now, you will return to this place to recall a feeling that filled your life, intensified your sensibilities and gave you a way to contribute to the forward movement of society. I hope that as you retrace your steps here, you will have the satisfaction of knowing how privileged you are to have been launched by a winning university, to be part of a winning generation, and to apply your knowledge to winning the race to make the world safer, saner and more humane.
Good luck and God speed.
Ruth J. Simmons
A speech for UVM
© 2005 by Ruth J. Simmons