Walt Whitman High School Commencement Address
Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Congressman Jamie Raskin
June 11, 2021
To Dr. Dodd, Ms. O’ Neill, Parents, Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts, Brothers and Sisters, Teachers and Staff and Coaches, and, above all, to the stupefying, unbelievably amazing Walt Whitman Graduating Class of 2021:
I gave a commencement address last weekend over Zoom which was five minutes because of the awkwardness of virtual communication, so I’m delighted to be here in person and to resume the commencement tradition of the speaker actually taking the customary two hours and forty-five minutes for the address.
Just kidding. This is a joke, you guys.
As a Dad, and as a teacher, I’d invite you to applaud your parents and your siblings and your teachers who brought you to this wonderful moment, everybody sitting back there on the bleachers.
I bring you greetings from my friend Connie Morella, a predecessor in the 8th District and a great friend of Walt Whitman. It’s why she sent five kids here. She sends her love.
Dear Walt Whitman Class of 2021, my theme is trauma but please don’t go running for the exits.
I know it’s a heavy topic for your awesome special day — I sure wish I could just tell you that the world is your oyster, today is your day, the sky is the limit, Carpe Diem, everybody, and enjoy Beach Week, but please don’t drink and drive or take pictures you would not be proud of, and then just leave it at that and call it a day.
But my dear friends in the Class of 2021, this would not feel entirely valid to me.
You’ve grown up in a time too serious for a string of clichés and happy talk.
If I’m going to leave you with a sense of optimism and hope, I want it to be grounded in reality, not in fantasy.
Your graduating class at this extraordinary high school has known tragedy and trauma. Your whole generation has.
There are people in your class whose lives have been changed by COVID-19, the epidemic that has cost more than 1600 lives in Montgomery County and nearly 600,000 nationwide and millions worldwide. You have classmates, family and friends who were sickened by this plague, who were hospitalized, some of whom may be struggling with long-term effects, some of whom may have died. There are family members in medicine and health care in the Whitman community who have worked day and night to save us all, and there are family members who have been thrown out of work. And you all have come to know in different measures isolation, loneliness and perhaps despair.
I know you all have friends and relatives whose lives have been touched by the staggering rise in emotional and mental health problems among young people; the rise of anxiety and depression; the opioid epidemic; the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse; even the agony of suicide.
But these private traumas have been accompanied by public traumas too; the spiraling consequences of climate change — record forest fires and drought in the West, flooding and sea level rise in the East, loss of animal species, climate refugees.
Deep polarization, savage partisan combat, racial and ethnic stereotyping, bullying on-line.
A political culture of lying, conspiracy theory, resurgent racism and anti-Semitism, anti-Asian animus and immigrant-bashing, organized white supremacy, attacks on science and democratic institutions, violent insurrection and an attempted coup against the Capitol of the United States designed to overthrow a presidential election. Right here in America, ten miles from here.
So, we can all recognize a world of trauma, but where is the hope?
Well, I see the hope in two places that I want to show you.
The first place I see the hope is in the trauma itself.
Psychologists tell us that trauma is an abrupt and violent demolition of a person’s “assumptive expectations,” the basic beliefs we have about what the world is and what it will be like.
When we lost our son Tommy, a fellow distinguished graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools and a student at Harvard Law School, on the last day of last year, the trauma wrecked us. It stole from our family what was most precious to us and it demolished everything we assumed about our world: that we would always have him in our lives, that as parents Sarah and I would leave this world before our children do, and that brilliance and dazzling goodness will have the power to overcome depression.
When America experienced on January 6th the shock of a violent insurrection against Congress as we tried to meet in Joint Session to count the Electors, the trauma of this bloody attempted coup against the 2020 election demolished a lot of what we assumed to be true about American democracy: that we would always have a peaceful transfer of power; that the two major parties would accept election outcomes even if they lose; and that while violent white nationalists might assault individual churches or synagogues or mosques or Walmarts, it could never threaten America’s core political institutions.
All of these assumptions were destroyed for us in violent and shocking ways.
There is no Greek God of Trauma. But if you imagine one with me, you can see it kind of like one of those Mardi Gras masks with two reversible faces, a god with two faces, like Janus, the Roman god of transitions, who is able to look at the past and the future simultaneously.
To my mind, if Trauma were a Greek God, it would be the god of struggle, with complete disorientation and loss on one side and total reorientation and reconnection on the other. For everything precious and irreplaceable Trauma steals from you on the disorientation side, it grants you something changed and transformed on the reorientation side.
In some sense, COVID-19 stole from you your senior year of high school; a lot of sports seasons were cancelled, a lot of class trips and college trips, nearly every social event, homecoming, the prom, plays, musicals, assemblies.
But this trauma and dislocation gave you the chance to draw on your own resilience and resourcefulness to help our community get through the crisis. You were able to reorient yourselves completely. I know Ezra Byrd printed tons of masks that were used to protect people from this lethal disease and to lower the infection rate. I know you raised $15k for Doctors Without Borders to do COVID relief work. The Best Buddies program raised over $1k to give relief to people with disabilities who were laid off during COVID. The source of your trauma became the object of your concern, the place to organize and rally for solidarity.
When we lost our precious Tommy, a young man who breathed in all the pain of the world and breathed out love and justice, we felt we had lost everything, and the world became utterly foreign and unrecognizable to me. Trauma had wiped us out. But Tommy left us a note saying: “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.”
We launched a memorial fund in Tommy’s name to raise money for the causes he loved and the causes he lived — animal welfare, human rights, ending poverty, stopping war — and more than a million dollars came flowing in for this fund in less than a month, most of it from right here, but lots of it from around the country and all over the world. Tommy’s sisters and cousins have already donated tens of thousands of dollars through Tommy’s Fund to Oxfam to provide food assistance to people fleeing the War in Yemen and to Mercy for Animals for animal rescue operations.
Our friend Kari McDonough launched a project called Acts of Kindness for Tommy, and thousands of people signed up to do everything from catering a dinner for older people in the neighborhood to spending a day at a river clean-up to paying for groceries for the person behind them in line to reaching out and making up with a relative that there had been a fight with. Tommy’s life keeps reverberating.
And so even the worst kind of Trauma we could imagine contained within it the tiny seeds of some kind of renewal, some way of going forward and establishing forms of human connection far deeper than those we had ever known before.
Trauma has two sides — while I have experienced this traumatic loss as a terrible wound across my body and soul, on January 6th when white nationalists and armed extremists stormed the Capitol, threatened the lives of Vice President Pence and Speaker Pelosi and all of my colleagues and our youngest daughter and our son-in-law, I also experienced the trauma as a kind of armored shield and bodyguard. I was never afraid because I kept thinking I had already faced and endured the worst thing that could ever happen and so these fascists could not and would not scare me. Trauma, the great thief of life and love, also became a form of strength, a bridge to other people who have suffered, a pathway of escape from danger.
So when you think of the traumas and tragedies you have suffered, I urge you to find the hope and possibility that lie within the exact same constellation of events and emotions that are the source of your sorrow and trauma. You will find goodness and strength everywhere.
But beyond the trauma itself, there is somewhere else I want you to look for hope.
My Dad used to say: when everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope.
Whitman ’21, you — and the generation that you embody — are the hope.
I say this not in the spirit of flattery but because I know a lot of you through my Democracy Summer Program and through my internship programs on the Hill and in Rockville.
I know you have responded forcefully to the crisis of mental and emotional health that has struck your generation so hard. You have worked in clubs like Vike Minds Matter and with your parents in Stress Busters to reach out to classmates who need a helping hand and someone to talk to. You have worked together in ways large and small to bolster our community and help our families make it.
Consider this remarkable thing: your generation may be the first in American history to really oppose and get beyond racism and misogyny, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian prejudice, Islamophobia, homophobia, immigrant-bashing and all of the bigotries that are the gateway to destruction of liberal democracy. It’s an amazing thing to have a generation committed to pluralism and equal rights for everyone, a generation that has gotten beyond racism. Now of course you seem to have gotten beyond grammar too, but that’s a separate problem based on all the texting and tweeting. But your transcendence of these traditional hatreds that have held us back is taking us to a very different place as a society.
When I was growing up here, we never imagined that lesbian and gay people could get married. Your generation finds it hard to believe that lesbian and gay people who love each other were ever prevented from getting married. When I first ran for the State Senate here in 2006, when you were like two years old, I made an announcement speech about everything I wanted to get done in our state, from abolishing the death penalty to increasing the minimum wage to passing marriage equality — and a woman came up to me and said, “Great speech, loved your speech, but one thing, take everything out you have in there about gay marriage because it’s not going to happen, it’s never going to happen, even the gay candidates don’t talk about it, and it makes you sound like you’re really extreme, like you’re not in the political center.” And I swallowed hard because I didn’t have that many supporters at that time and I didn’t want to offend her, but I said, “You know, thank you for telling me that because it made me realize it’s not my ambition to be in the political center, which blows around with the wind. It’s my ambition to be in the moral center, to try to find what’s right, and then to bring the political center to us.” And the reason I love your generation and I spend my campaigning time and money not with consultants and pollsters but rather our young people in Democracy Summer is because I believe your generation is in search of the moral center, always looking for what is right and just.
You are a generation that has excelled in that most radical and dangerous of all pursuits — science! Science, technology and math. You are prepared to make huge leaps ahead in public health, environmental science, and the cure and treatment of killer diseases.
But your generation also takes democracy seriously, and not just by engaging at the level of elections, but at the deeper level of questioning forces that constrain our political choices: the obsolete Electoral College, the gerrymandering of our elections, the continuation of the filibuster, and the proliferation of voter suppression all over America. You are a generation that is thinking “anew,” as Lincoln put it. You will be willing to experiment with ways to make voting rights universal, our elections fairer, our representation more representative, our democracy more grounded in the needs of the people.
As you move forward and find within the struggles of our times and the resilience of your own soul the power to confront the crises of our world, I urge you to keep one sentiment close in your heart.
I know Bruce Springsteen is more a musician of your parents’ generation, which is to say my generation, than he is of yours, but I do believe that everyone should listen to the Boss anyway. Consider Springsteen part of the American canon, like the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King or the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Anyway, the point is that the Boss has a beautiful song called “Should I Fall Behind” and here’s the refrain:
We said we’d walk together, baby, come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If as we’re walking a hand should slip free
I’ll wait for you, should I fall behind wait for me.
I find these words strikingly beautiful and almost unbearably melancholy. It is surely an appropriate sentiment for lovers preparing to travel through life together, through sickness and health, through all the mad twists and turns of destiny, what Hamlet called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
But I want to recommend this refrain to you for all the relationships in your life; life is not mostly like a race where we try to get so far ahead that we lose everyone else. It is more like a hike that we go on together, and sometimes people wander off, sometimes people twist their ankle, sometimes people get tired or sad, but the point is ultimately to keep everyone together and safe, for the journey is the destination.
I’ll wait for you and should I fall behind wait for me.
I know everyone is in a hurry to leave high school and to go conquer new places, meet new people, and find fame and fortune somewhere else. This wanderlust is profound in human nature and overpowering in the magical stirrings of youth. The dream of the endless frontier in American life is so dominant that J.D. Salinger had to give us a “Catcher in the Rye” to catch all the people flying off the edge, and the myth of self-reinvention is so beguiling for Americans that it had to be punctured by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. America is an infinitely vast and alluring place, which no one knew better than your namesake and spirit guide, Walt Whitman. “The United States themselves,” said Whitman, “are essentially the greatest poem.”
But I want to remind you of what Dorothy found when she got back from the Land of Oz, which I know a lot of you grew up thinking was the Mormon Temple in Kensington, as I did: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” And that’s true whether you stay here now or you leave and come back later or maybe just leave and dream about this enchanted and thrilling and imperfect place for the rest of your life. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” There is something to a sentence I saw scrawled by Thomas Jefferson in his diary down at Monticello when I visited my sister and her family not long ago: “The older I get, the more I realize the ones I love the most are the ones I loved the first.”
I know Whitman wrote “The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”
So go on ahead, you guys. Find your destiny and find your fame. Conquer the monsters of our century like climate change and authoritarianism from wherever you land. But never forget about those who love you here, in Montgomery County, Maryland, the ones who loved you first, the ones you loved the first. Don’t forget about us, says your hometown Congressman, the guy who lives just five miles away from the hospital he was born in, don’t forget about us.
To the great and undaunted class of 2021, Godspeed and may fortune love you.