1. It’s Monday, May 16, 2016.
2. It was my privilege yesterday to attend the 250th anniversary commencement at Rutgers University.
First and foremost, it was a day of tremendous pride. My son, who completed his classes in December, came home from his teaching job in Seoul to attend his graduation. So no matter what transpired at the ceremony, attending was something my family was thrilled to do.
3. But the focus of the day – both at and away from the ceremony – was the commencement speaker. It was the President of the United States.
OK, for starters, there is no way it should be as crazy cold as it was on May 15, 2016 in Piscataway, N.J.
I’ll tell you how cold it was; I’ve been on college campuses with my kids for seven years now, and the only school uniform I’ve gleaned over that time is shorts and flip-flops.
I did not see one of the 10,000-plus graduates wearing shorts or flip-flops. It was too damn cold for that. The temperature was in the mid-50s and there was a steady 20-mile-an-hour wind. And then, in late morning, clouds moved in, so there was no sun to give even the illusion of warmth.
If you’ve attended a big college graduation in the past few years, you know that one of the features is the way hashtag messages to and from graduates flashing across the jumbotron scoreboard. One of them really resonated yesterday: a student hoping @POTUS brought the heat when he arrived.
4. @POTUS brought the heat.
One of the things that must drive Barack Obama’s detractors crazy is his self-assurance. There’s something – even in the way he walks – that gives you the sense of a man confident in his own abilities and in his view of the world. He seems unfazed by the adulation, of the awe. He understands it, but he doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed by it.
Yes, he had a receptive audience. The students, faculty, alumni and their families spent nearly three years lobbying President Obama to speak at the Rutgers commencement.
But when Obama began to speak, you could hear a pin drop in a stadium filled with 40,000-plus people. I’ve been in louder libraries.
He used the occasion to serve notice to Donald Trump and the Republican Party and they will not be running against Hillary Clinton alone.
He never used Trump’s name. Not once. But if you didn’t know who he was talking about, you’ve been asleep for awhile.
5. The first blow came a few minutes into the speech, shortly after he questioned the “death-defying” wisdom of Rutgers’ famous fat sandwiches that include mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers on cheese steak.
Talking about how the students were ready to take on the world, he said, “The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that.”
He was just warming up. He blasted Trump’s command of facts, saying “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”
And he hammered at Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan, pointing out all the things about life that are far better than they were even 30 years ago. “When you hear someone longing for the good old days, take it with a grain of salt.”
Yes, it was a very political speech for a college commencement. If you haven’t been a supporter of the President, you might have been put off.
6. But if you wanted to hear a speech that wasn’t just platitudes and empty inspiration, you heard it.
Obama didn’t tell the graduates how great they were – he believed they already knew it. He told them ways they could use their greatness to change the world, and to not get frustrated or – the greatest sin in his mind – cynical.
The President delivered his message despite a gusty wind that keep shifting the hood symbolizing his honorary degree to his distraction. He delivered it despite an occasional shower that sent some folks scrambling for cover.
7. But if, as the tweet urged, the President brought the heat, the students and their families brought the warmth.
One reason Obama felt at home in Piscataway is that, as the first multi-racial President, he was addressed what he himself said might be the most diverse student body in the United States. If you want to see what America is becoming, look at Rutgers.
The coolest part of yesterday, to me, was watching the School of Arts and Sciences convocation. After a wonderful short speech by journalist Bill Moyers, the students paraded on stage to shake hands with the deans and get recognized. Their names and faces appeared on the video screens in the big stadium.
Watching these men and women makes you marvel at this country. Each student was different from the next – an African-American English major followed by a woman with an Arabic name and a hijab majoring in math followed by a kid with an Italian surname majoring in psychology. It just went on and on.
And the pride in their faces – and in the families dressed in their Sunday best watching in the bleachers – glowed as the sun finally burst through and the wind died down. It was as if the strength of their diversity was finally too much for elements – even more than the power of a confident commander-in-chief.
8. Among them was my son.
He has a father whose family came from Italy and a mother whose family came from China. He’s a world traveler, a teacher living and working in South Korea. He came back – 14,000 miles of flying in five days, and the miserable jet lag that ensues – because he realized that this was a great accomplishment, and that he has justifiable pride.
So do I.
One thought on “THE HEAT AND THE WARMTH”
Congratulations to you and your family, Mark. Our son’s medical school graduation a week earlier featured Gov. Christie giving the second-best speech that day — true, the best among the politicians and academicians. Our oldest boy, a newly minted doctor, gave the most eloquent, poignant remarks at the event. We basked under a cool sun, the first cloudless sky in what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights in South Jersey. True, the grass squished water stored up from the deluges and none of us could wear flip-flops either. But you could only wear them (comfortably) during the last several weeks of spring quarters at NU. Best wishes to everyone!
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