Kennedy High School Commencement Address
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Congressman Jamie Raskin
June 14, 2022
Principal Dr. Rubens, Montgomery County School Board President Brenda Wolff, Assistant Principals Dr. Booms, Dr. Bradley, Mr. Levine and Mr. Lewis, Ms. Sirgo, Registrar Jenny Lyons, Moms and Dads, Uncles and Aunts, Grandparents, Siblings, Cousins, Teachers, Coaches, the JFK Band and Orchestra, Friends, Cavaliers, Benjamin Talabert, Eskarleth Lopez, Margarette Alday and, above all, the 324 Members of the Graduating Class of 2022 at Kennedy High School:
Pia, thanks for that wonderful introduction. You forgot only to mention that I am the Congressman from Kennedy High School!
I’m honored to be with you on this magical day.
Congratulations you wonderful young people. You made it through high school and you made it through a pandemic plague at the same time.
Our whole community is proud of you and, from ROTC to field hockey to Lacrosse to football to cheerleading to your great academies, we celebrate and rejoice in your accomplishments.
We are awed by your resilience in a time of adversity.
How did you make it through this tough time?
Well, I’ve read The Plague, Albert Camus’ 1947 masterpiece, and I think there’s a clue in his great novel about the choices you have already made in your young lives.
As a French novelist writing after World War II, Camus prepared to write his book by studying the devastating mass plagues of European history, such as the Bubonic Plague, which killed over 50 million people in the 14th Century.
Camus situates his novel in a modern town in the 20th century, Oran, where thousands of dead rats suddenly begin to litter the streets and one man mysteriously dies of fever. But the population is in denial, fiercely believing that modern technology and sanitation have placed them beyond the reach of the plague, a threat they consider medieval and obsolete. They engage in magical thinking and say the plague will bypass them or just disappear overnight.
But soon misery reigns and half the population is wiped out by the disease.
When I read The Plague in high school, I wrote a paper comparing the response of two characters to the now rapid and undeniable spread of the disease. One character, Father Paneloux, preaches that the plague is God’s punishment imposed on the people for turning away from religion, and so now people turn out to church to placate God, spreading the disease further.
The other character is the protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who appeals immediately to town authorities to act and then does his best both to warn his patients about the danger and to treat the ones who have fallen victim to it.
Dr. Rieux has seen children and good people suffering brutally from the disease and rejects the idea that its victims have only themselves to blame. The plague hits randomly and arbitrarily, not based on any kind of moral or theological code or divine intervention.
As a doctor who takes his Hippocratic Oath seriously, Dr. Rieux works round the clock to save people but he rejects the idea that he is some kind of a hero. “This has nothing to do with heroism,” he says. “It may sound ridiculous to some people, but the only way to fight a plague is with common decency.” And when he is asked what decency is, he says, “Doing my job.”
You have acted with common decency too. You survived more than a year of virtual learning and did your homework and treated your teachers and classmates with respect, and even turned your cameras on sometimes.
You helped your friends and family. You wore your masks. You delivered food and medicine to older neighbors.
You Seniors organized five different “Market Days,” food distribution events for families in the Kennedy community and surrounding neighborhoods. You packaged and gave people boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables.
You hung tough. You didn’t blame your parents or your teachers or your principal.
And when you got back, you made Kennedy High School shine.
You had Senior Banquet and Senior Night, you revived and solidified your friendships, you supported each other, you cheered for each other. And you brought your homecoming parade through the neighborhood.
You raised money for your Prom at the Mayflower Hotel, did the after-Prom at the UMD. You wrote, edited, photographed for, and read The New Frontier.
Above all, you took care of each other. You did your jobs. You connected through Kennedy Minds Matter. You acted with manners and concern.
Now, when I say you acted with decency, this might sound like modest praise but it is actually very high praise indeed, for times of plague are times of distress and anxiety when many people lose their heads and lose their hearts, but you kept both your heads and hearts fastened on tight.
This was not true, alas, of all the grownups in public office and political power.
Some of them at the highest levels acted in denial of science and with contempt for scientists. They pretended the disease wasn’t real; they said it would all disappear overnight or by Easter; they hawked quack medical cures like hydroxychloroquine or injecting yourself with bleach; they spread misinformation and disinformation. Even worse, they tried to turn parts of the population against each other and to demonize particular populations. President Donald Trump’s own COVID-19 advisor, Dr. Deborah Birx, has said that we unnecessarily lost hundreds of thousands of people to the virus because of our egregious public health failures. We acted not like the greatest constitutional democracy on earth but like a failed state, one that cannot deliver the basic goods of existence to the people.
And a lot of people lost their heads. Some of our fellow citizens refused to accept basic public health guidance and even ripped masks off the faces of other people in stores and restaurants and on the street.
We must observe, in this context, that fascism is a virus too, a social contagion and a political plague. Indeed, Camus may have written The Plague as a parable about the spread of fascism, the malignant force that had just ravaged Europe and led to the death of millions of people in the Holocaust and World War II. Many of the elements present in a plague are present in fascism: the denial of science, the destruction of social norms and civility, the refusal to accept basic facts and basic moral decency, the indulgence of cruelty and violence, the pervasive indifference to the well-being of others, the widespread failures of empathy, solidarity and respect.
We live in a time that reminds us every day of the fragility of human life and the precariousness of our institutions.
What we have to hang on to through these times is our fundamental capacity for decency: our ability to take care of one another and our corresponding commitment to democracy, the system of political organization which upholds the dignity and rights of each person and the well-being of the whole community.
You, the graduating Kennedy Class of 2022, give me great confidence and great hope that America will grow along the lines of decency and strong democracy. Your hard work, your community service, and your boundless creativity tell me that we have built up in a new generation the social immunities and political antibodies we need to resist authoritarianism and fascism. You have embraced the pluralistic beauty of America and the irrepressible promise of democracy. Through your deeds and words, you renew the search for a “more perfect Union.”
Thank you for hanging tough and being strong, something none of us should ever take for granted. Thank you for your resilience and your perseverance and, above all, for your decency.
May fortune love you all.