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The Wake of What I Love: A Commencement Address

By posted at 7:14 am on July 7, 2010 11


On June 25, 2010, Poet Jon Sands delivered the commencement address for the Bronx Academy of Letters – A charter school in Bronx, New York, founded on the concept that, “students who can express themselves clearly in writing can do better in any path they choose.”

Class of 2010. Here we are. 27 years, 6 months, 26 days, 7 hours since Michael Jackson released Thriller (which is still the best selling album in music history). 143 years since Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter. 46 years, 9 months, 28 days since Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of over 200,000 that he had a dream.  And, 36 years, 4 months, 6 days, 8 hours since my own father – after dropping out of his second year in college – decided to take a computer class to make more money than was possible at his construction job. And with a clear Manhattan morning waiting outside the glass windows, he asked the foxy lady wearing big glasses – who would turn out to be my mother – if the seat next to her was taken… and here I am.

All of which is to say, there are many paths that have brought us to this room today. Stories which led to stories which lead to right now. There is no person in this room without a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. Or more accurately, 128 great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers. Beautiful ladies (I’m assuming) with favorite foods, dreams at night, who lived entire lives, and created lives that have led specifically to you… which has led you – here. We are in this room because an incredible line of history said, “yes,” when it could have said, “no.”

In 2003, my Uncle Don was practicing law in New Jersey. Don taught himself to play guitar when he was in high school, spent years covering other people’s songs at parties or reunions. Every so often – he would write a song for a funeral. Always, it would land with precision on what that person actually meant to each of us, individually. At 47, he decided his guitar made him happier than nearly anything else. He sunk an incredible amount of everything he had, financially and energetically, into creating an album; contacted professional musicians with samplings of his work, to ask if they would join him. Now there are maybe 1,500 people outside of my family who have this remarkable CD – someone I love doing what they love. Eighteen months after the disc was released, my uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a strikingly short 5 months, he passed, leaving behind a wife and three children (ages 13, 15, and 17).

When we miss him. When the people who love him need to spend time with him – they skip photo albums and old videos, and instead go to a CD. To the documentation of him doing what he loved. Not to be a millionaire. Not to be famous. But to give this world some account that says, this – this right here – is what it feels like to be me.

Each of us entered this room – as we do any room – carrying many labels. Which is to say, today, you are high-school graduates. There are 64 of you. Two months ago you may have been the kid freestlying battle raps outside McDonald’s with three friends who couldn’t stop laughing, or the quiet girl in the back of a library – her nose glued into a 3.8 GPA.

I spend a significant amount of time being the crazy dude who came to someone else’s classroom to talk about how poetry is amazing. Right now, I’m the commencement speaker. I promise, in three hours, I’ll be the guy who looks uncomfortable in a tie on the downtown 4 train. The way it feels to live a life that can only be yours is never as clean as whatever label this world attaches to you. If you are alive  — Is every person here alive?… If you are alive in this world, you can attest. What it feels like to be you is more complicated than what it looks like to be you.

So, is there ever a time you are more yourself than when doing what you love – with the people you love? Who you are exists in what you love. It is how you tell the children you have yet to bring into this world the person you were today. To tell the you who will exist 20 years from now what it felt like to close the locker door on your high school years.

We are all here because today is important. A chance to reflect on the way our lives are changing. We are also here – to celebrate – the choices you have made that led to your caps and gowns. I think we can take a minute to blow the roof off for that.

But, you will have many todays. No one else can decide how they will look. Michael Jackson, when recording Billie Jean, could not have known the way our ankles would pop for decades. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, not to become a cultural icon, but to communicate the vision he had for a nation. My Uncle Don could never have known what his artistry would mean to his wife, his nieces and nephews, his parents, his three children. He made music because it was what he loved. It was who he was. A choice to say, “yes,” when he could have said, “no.”

We have been afforded the opportunity to write our own chapters in the story of this life because millions of people, over thousands of years, have said “yes.” It is not feasible for me to tell you what is possible in your life. History has written you here, the next chapter is yours. Here is the news: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be easy (the juiciest stuff rarely is). It is supposed to be yours. And what better news can there be?

I cannot wait to witness the stories you write into this world. Congratulations Bronx Academy of Letters, Class of 2010.

[Image credit: ChrisGampat]

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11 Responses to “The Wake of What I Love: A Commencement Address”

  1. christine
    at 10:43 am on July 7, 2010

    Thanks Jon Sands- You are wonderfully thoughtful!

  2. The Progressive Pulse – Lunch Links
    at 12:03 pm on July 7, 2010

    […] If you want some inspiration to do what you love, read this terrific commencement address from poet Jon Sands. […]

  3. Shanny
    at 7:30 pm on July 7, 2010

    I hope this wonderful speech inspires each of the students who were lucky enough to hear it to do what they truly love.

  4. happy
    at 11:29 pm on July 7, 2010

    wow! a good artcle nonetheless. It inspires me to give my love more.
    love for myself
    love for my family
    love for my friends

    to other people. . .to inspiration, work and God:)

  5. margosita
    at 1:11 pm on July 8, 2010

    Love it! It was moving and genuine. Nicely done.

  6. An Anthology Idea « Nell Boeschenstein
    at 6:16 pm on July 9, 2010

    […] There’s that Tony Kushner one and the David Foster Wallace one. And I just came across this one, which is wonderful as well. The whole inspirational writing section of Barnes & Noble […]

  7. mike magee
    at 11:58 am on July 10, 2010

    Great speech, Jon! Terrific insights and tells it true. Don would approve!

  8. Sonya
    at 12:39 pm on July 10, 2010

    Between Michael Jackson and tuna salad, you had me from the get…

  9. On the Anniversary of MJs Death « SONYA CHUNG
    at 8:22 pm on July 11, 2010

    […] but giving MJ his due nonetheless; another at The Millions, as part of Jon Sands‘s terrific commencement address to the Bronx Academy of Letters; and finally Nancy Griffin‘s excellent article in the current issue of Vanity Fair, […]

  10. Long Straight Highway (redux) › Maximizing your Shane-ness
    at 11:13 pm on July 18, 2010

    […] here. I’ll have more to say later. This was written by shanusmagnus. Posted on Sunday, July 18, […]

  11. Trina
    at 6:22 pm on August 25, 2012

    I’m always looking for things to share with my students, and I think this is wonderful. Thank you for posting it, and thanks to Jon Sands for expressing these thoughts in such a succinct and approachable way. Kids hate preaching, but they love to be talked to.

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