British statesman Winston Churchill once wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I’ve been going through some old family photos and letters and came across the commencement address my sister Michaela (who was high school class valedictorian) delivered in 1970 at the graduation ceremony.
In reading this speech, I wondered if this was the final version because she doesn’t gloss over the problems that were facing the United States in 1970. It also makes me wonder whether she would have been forced to rewrite it, if she was graduating in 2022. Michaela transitioned from cancer in 2016, so I can’t ask her about it.
What I can do is share her speech with you because the message she shared from her heart needs to be heard today, just as much as it did nearly 50 years ago.
“We are in the unique position of being the first graduating class from Riverview High School of the 1970s. Much has happened in the past decade. Even more will happen in this next decade of fantastic technological advancements. It has been said that our knowledge has doubled in the past fifty years. But what have we learned? Enough to answer this question, ‘… Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’
Is the United States of America still the land of the free and the home of the brave? Or is it the land of bureaucratic red tape where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Is this the home of acid-head copouts and screaming radicals burning libraries, or is it the home of hard-hat construction workers beating protestors for having different opinions?
Each time an American dies in Vietnam, each time a student is killed on campus, our nation breathes a dying sigh. And we, my fellow graduates, are facing extermination. Not by a sniper’s bullet, but by the poisoning of this land, our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Air pollution, water pollution, land pollution, people pollution are all choking our nation, and apathy is polluting our minds.
As we receive our diplomas tonight, we become full-fledged members of the world I’ve just described. The majority of us have been fairly sheltered these past eighteen years which, in part, has led to our apathy. But the ground work of our lives has been laid and we’re pointed in some direction. We have been shaped, formed, and molded. Many of us are content with what we are now. Some of us will never be content. But all of us are embarking on an adventure. In what direction we head now depends on each individual.
This country in which we will be living may not be the most ideal, it may not have all the answers to the complex sociological, psychological and economic problems plaguing us, but it is the richest, most powerful, and most free on this planet. Free? Some might argue that, pointing to alleged incidents of police brutality and suppression of democratic guarantees. But history has shown time and again that we can survive storms of protest and even civil war. However, anarchy haunts us as a very real possibility. Are we going to bury our dying nation or help revive it?
I am not a superpatriot, nor am I so foolish as to think my words will make social reformers out of all of you. The only thing I ask, though, is what Sr. Helen Kelley once said, ‘Choose life — only that and always, and at whatever cost. To let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to withhold giving it and spreading it is to choose nothing.’
Often we are told, as graduates, that the world is out there waiting for us, and all we have to do is smile and we’ll fit right in. That couldn’t be more wrong. The world engulfs us. Choosing life means choosing a goal and working for it. The goal and methods of gaining it may differ from person to person, but the only thing that really counts is not being a bystander. Life is not a spectator sport. Living should take energy, courage and the desire to enjoy it. That is the only way to make the words of our national anthem ring true. ‘…land of the free and the home of the brave…’
Choose life — for its live, excitement, and inevitable sorrow. Life is vibrant and full for those brave enough to live it.
Please do not be left with nothing.”