Each year, seniors at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School deliver a speech to their peers on a topic of their choosing in the Newhall Auditorium. Often equal parts clever and moving, emotional and personal, each speech offers a glimpse into the lives, experiences, struggles, and triumphs of SSM seniors.
Throughout the 2018-19 school year, we will share these speeches with the SSM community and hope that you enjoy the humor, wisdom, and powerful reflections conveyed by our senior students.
Last May, I received a text containing a photograph that showed a gathering of about a dozen people of all ages. All but one person was identified by a common race. A girl of about four years of age was looking over her shoulder, staring intently at the one person who was not the same race. Everyone else was smiling for the camera.
The little girl in the photograph was staring at my brother, and the setting, a wedding dinner in Wuhan, China, was the first time that little girl had seen a human being outside of her own race. For me, that photograph has come to epitomize a fundamental reason for our failure as a society to make progress towards closing race-related disparities. We, as members of the human race, have learned to define ourselves by our differences rather than by what we have in common.
I myself suffer from this puzzling outcome of my upbringing. It’s not that my mother purposely did anything to negatively impact my perception of humanity. It’s that Hanover, NH, despite being a vibrant college town with a diverse student population, has a relatively homogeneous population of well-off, white, Anglo-Saxon citizens whose children populate the public schools. Like the little girl, I experienced little exposure to people from other races and cultures as a child. Save for the stories that I heard from my mother, who grew up in a heterogeneous, lower-middle-class community of white, Hispanic, and black Americans and attended a public school that was likewise integrated, I would not even have known that such places and cultures existed.
Omar Wasow, a Princeton professor of politics said in a 2014 speech said that “one of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Surely every person shares common desires for themselves and their families: economic security; a good education; a safe, drug-free community; a sense of worth; and supportive social connections. The complex causes of disparity, as we have seen in recent years, have led to a polarization of communities nationwide. Wes Moore, a social entrepreneur who spoke at my sister’s college graduation, founded a large nonprofit in New York City to fight poverty and reduce disparities. During his commencement address, he asked the graduates their majors. He followed this question with a statement. He said, “The question of what you majored in will fade; the question of what you stand for will not.” I don’t claim to have solutions to the complex causes of racial disparity. Nonetheless, I do know that it is straightforward to meaningfully befriend and stand with those fellow humans whose paths cross mine and who don’t look like me, but who share with me common hopes and dreams.
My brother was recently engaged to a young woman who is from Wuhan China. Sometime next year, I will be able to travel to China to meet her parents and my new extended family. I will not be able to speak their language nor will I fully understand the culture, having been raised outside of it. I’m sure that people will stare at me and wonder why I look different. What I do know is that I will define my relationship with these new family members by what we have in common – love for the young man and woman who wish to spend their lives together, and I will smile for the camera.