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Graduation Speech - June 2021

These past four years, we’ve asked a lot of questions. What is the Pythagorean Theorem? How are stars formed? What does Juneteenth commemorate?

Usually, we were taught the answers.

There have also been questions no one can answer. Do we have free will? How could the Holocaust happen? How do we unwork structural racism from our systems?

See I love math and philosophy for the exact opposite reasons. Math, because there’s always an answer, and with philosophy, because there’s never an answer.

School teaches us how to ask questions. First by raising our hands and waiting to be called on, second, by challenging us to teach ourselves by analyzing literature, defending propositions, and designing experiments.

Socrates would say that true wisdom comes from knowing that you know nothing. Some teachers might disagree... But the point is this: Inquiry and discovery run parallel to each other. Questions are what drive curiosity.

To question is imperative, not just for your own curiosity and knowledge, but for the health of our country.

These past four years, we’ve witnessed some of the greatest tests of our democracy: two impeachments, the storming of the capitol, a public health emergency, as well as the growing, catastrophic force of climate change.

Being a good citizen is not a passive task. It’s not about being fed all the answers because you watched the news on TV, or picked up information from a social media infographic.

When we live in a society where the idea of truth is no longer the bedrock it used to be, we have to become more tenacious in our questioning, more resolute in our logic, and more expansive in our compassion. It’s about using the critical thinking we learned in high school and applying it outwards. What in society needs to change? Who’s going to change it? The world deserves these kinds of questions. As the late civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis said “democracy is not a state. It is an act.”

And this year, in particular, we learned to ask new questions like when is lockdown going to end? Am I on mute? How far up my nose will that cotton swab go? Are we ever going back to school?

Luckily, the answer to the last one was yes. Yes, we can graduate in person. And I want to thank all the teachers and administrators who made that possible.

And who also made it possible for my grandmother to be here, to watch me graduate. She taught me: success drives people apart, but vulnerability brings people together.

Here’s the thing. Asking a question sometimes means admitting you don’t know something, and that can be challenging; it’s showing vulnerability.

And it gets even more challenging as we get older. And as we grow, we turn our questions inwards. Am I the person I want to be, especially in the face of injustice? Am I kind enough? Good enough? Smart enough?

Ask questions. Admit what you don’t know. These are the pillars of a democratic society, of a citizen, and of a graduate.

So, class of 2021. What questions are you going to ask? Of the world? Of yourself? And what will you do with the answers?

As we head out into the world, let’s be vulnerable. Let’s admit what we don’t know. And let’s keep asking questions.

Thank you.

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