Giving each one of the 155 graduates of Booker T. Washington a handshake and a send-off into the post-graduate world that, surely, none of them will ever forget, President Barack Obama delivered, as promised, the school’s commencement address Monday at the Cook Convention Center.
Obama was formally introduced by Christopher Dean, the student who was featured in BTW’s prize-winning video that won out over other schools’ entries in the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge — the prize for which was the President’s appearance at graduation.
Young Dean had been shown in the video in a state of anguish some years ago as his housing project was being demolished, a fact which would alter his place of residence and which he had then feared would make him ineligible to continue his studies at BTW, the historic predominantly African-American high school on the rim between downtown and south Memphis.
That remark got huge laughter from the 3,000-odd people present, including Governor Bill Haslam, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell, and former congressman Harold Ford Jr. And it prompted a prolonged display of Obama’s trademark ear-to-ear toothy grin on the room’s overhead screens.
In his commencement remarks, the President said he gets emotional at graduation ceremonies. "Every commencement is a day of celebration. I was just telling somebody backstage, I just love commencements. I get all choked up at commencements. So I can tell you already right now, I will cry at my children’s commencement. I cry at other people’s commencements. But this one is especially hopeful. This one is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, 'The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods,' 'The schools are too broken,' 'The kids don’t stand a chance.'
"We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, “Yes, we can.'"
Obama then went on to note the accomplishments that, along with the video, allowed BTW to prevail over other entries in the Commencement Challenge. They included a soaring graduation rate which has led to four out of five students getting their diplomas and the fact that 70 percent of BTW’s graduates had resolved to go on to pursue further studies. He reviewed several curriculum changes at BTW — special 9th grade academies, AP classes, participation in robotics competitions. "And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture — a culture that prizes hard work and discipline...."
Booker T. Washington had “proven that we can’t accept excuses,” Obama said. “Success is possible. And, if success can happen here, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. And if it can happen anywhere in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And if it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America.”
The President recalled for the audience some facts of his own upbringing, including the fact that he, like many of the Booker T. Washington students, had been raised through difficult times by a single mother, but that his mother and grandparents had “refused to permit me to make excuses,” encouraging him to pursue the education which had led to his current status in life.
“Not a single one of you has had anything handed to you on a silver platter,” Obama said, and he went on to recount as examples some significant travails in the lives of young Dean and another Booker T. Washington student, Eron Jackson.
Congratulating the graduates, the President concluded, “Thanks for inspiring me, and God bless you!” He then took his place in line as each student’s name was called to receive a diploma, giving each of them a handshake and often a hug as they crossed the stage.
Participating in the graduation proceedings and assisting the President in awarding diplomas were Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, MCS Chief of Operations Roderick Richmond, and MCS Board president Freda Williams.
Before taking part in the commencement exercises, Obama had a private reception in a nearby ballroom with Mayor Wharton, members of the congressional delegation, and victims of the ongoing flood.