I am not a gushy sort of person when it comes to celebrities, nor am I particularly political. So, when I heard that President Obama was going to speak during our daughter’s graduation from Barnard College last week, I was less than thrilled.
“Think of the security,” I said to my husband. “What a nightmare!”
“We can’t even bring water through the gates,” my husband grumbled, reading through the detailed commencement regulations. “Maybe we should skip it.” He gave me a hopeful look.
We both wanted to bow out of the event. New York City is enough of an ordeal as it is. But New York plus Obama? Chaos. We actually considered missing the first half of graduation, figuring we could order photos online and sneak into the reception tents later.
But of course we went, because we love our daughter, who worked hard to graduate from Barnard with honors. We’re proud of her, and this is what proud parents do everywhere, every day: we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs in gymnasiums and stadiums and auditoriums, trying to unobtrusively read our phones or Kindles during the boring parts of school celebrations and athletic events.
All of the advice from Barnard indicated that we should arrive on campus by 9 a.m., since they were going to close the gates by 11 a.m. Graduation wasn’t scheduled until 12:30; there would be no food available, but the campus was providing water and paper cups. They were even confiscating umbrellas, I guess so nobody could stab Obama.
We didn’t arrive until 10:30. (I think that my husband was still hoping there might be an excuse to go to the Museum of Natural History instead.) The security screening was remarkably efficient—pretty much like airport lines—and it was amusing to watch the collection of confiscated umbrellas grow by the gates as we plodded through the maze of barricades constructed to control the crowd. Inside the tent, we sat on the dreaded metal chairs and waited. And waited. Every building on campus was closed; this meant standing in line for forty minutes to use a portable toilet. The only food handed out consisted of one puny granola bar per graduation goody bag.
Eventually the graduates joined us, a vibrant ocean of nearly 600 young women in pale blue robes. Then, like magic, Obama was beamed into place, presumably escorted onto the stage via one of the tent tunnels rendering him invisible to snipers. I had been cynical about this whole idea of Obama giving a commencement speech. The election is coming up; this seemed like a pretty damn convenient move. I voted for this President, and I already knew I would vote for him again, given the choice between him and Romney. I disagree with Obama on certain issues (mostly military), but I agree with him on many, including abortion, gay marriage, and health care. At the same time, I’d have to say that for most of my adult life I’ve been that sort of passive, head-in-the-safe-suburban sand kind of liberal rather than any kind of activist.
But, when Obama took the stage, I was suddenly cynical and passive no more. I don’t know how to explain this bizarre transformation. The closest I can come is to say that the President emanated an energy that was so generous and good in spirit that I swear I could almost see the halo. (No, I’m not religious, either.) The effect on me was such that I wanted to move closer to him, to be included in that circle of warmth, the way you edge closer and closer to a fireplace on a winter’s night.
Obama is capable of being too academic and calm when he addresses a crowd. But he wasn’t on this day. On this day, perhaps because he has two daughters of his own, the President’s speech was inspired and inspirational. He made a few jokes and then talked seriously about the economic crisis—surely of uppermost importance in the minds of all new college graduates—and of how far women have come in the roles we play professionally, athletically, and politically.
And then he laid things on the line, telling these young women, “After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world. But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world—well, that will be up to you.”
Rather than spend too much time telling these remarkable young women just how extraordinary they were—which was the stump speech of almost every other person at the podium that day—Obama urged the graduates not to sit back and watch events unfold in the world, but to “stand up and be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.”
This part of the speech transported me to my own post-college attempts to make the world a better place. I volunteered as a Spanish translator in a juvenile court; I served with the Big Brother, Big Sister organization; I tutored inner city kids in math and science; I wrote grants to fund science enrichment programs for at-risk high school students; I volunteered as a mentor to teen mothers. Somewhere along the way, though, I got tired and my volunteer efforts flagged. These days I volunteer with local schools and libraries, but just a few hours a month, because I’m a working mom operating on too little sleep. My husband has been laid off one, two, three times. We worry all of the time about our own children and whether they’ll have jobs, health insurance, and roofs over their heads when we’re gone. Forget buying a house. Our kids will be lucky to pay their car repairs.
Yet what have I been doing, to stand up and be heard? Not enough. Finally, Obama urged us all to persevere. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said. “No one of achievement has avoided failure—sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”
The President then shared a personal story of his own attempts after college to try and organize community meetings in a Chicago neighborhood plagued by gang violence. “Nobody showed up,” he said, despite the fact that they had done everything possible to get people there. He was tempted to quit. So were the other volunteers. But they didn’t give up. They just kept chipping away at the problems in the neighborhood.
“Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism,” Obama told the Barnard grads and their families, “whenever you hear those voices say you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower—the trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn’t just do it for themselves; they did it for other people.”
After the speech, Obama was whisked away immediately through another secret tent tunnel. One minute he was there. Then he was gone. Except that he wasn’t gone, not at all. I could still hear his words ringing in my ears and feel that warmth and goodness, even as the gates to the campus were flung open and we cheered the graduates crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, young women with big smiles and, I hope, even bigger hearts, who will always stand up and be heard.
I am back in my real life now, away from New York City. Yet I still hear the President urging me to do my part. It’s never too late to “reach up and close that gap between what America is and what American should be,” as Obama concluded, and I intend to do exactly that.