Building a Legacy of Pride and Purpose

Archived Information

Building a Legacy of Pride and Purpose

Remarks by Secretary Duncan at the Eastern Senior High School Commencement
June 13, 2015

Good afternoon!

Thank you for that kind introduction, Sidney—and best of luck at Howard University this fall!

I'm sorry to say that we're just giving out diplomas today and not tickets for cruises, bowling, or Busch Gardens—apparently you got enough of that this year.

First, I'd like to congratulate you—the legacy class of 2015! When I look out at the 178 young men and women graduating today, I see potential, I see persistence. I see the "pride of Capitol Hill." You've more than earned your scholarships—more than $250,000 now—what an amazing accomplishment! Please, give yourselves a round of applause.

And, I'd like to thank everyone here who's supported these remarkable young people during their high school careers. Teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, friends—your unwavering commitment to these graduates, and your hard work, has absolutely paid off. Graduates, let's give another hand to those who've helped you reach this important milestone!

I'd like to begin with a story that your principal shared with me.

Earlier this year, Eastern lost one of its own—Hellvon—a beloved young man who'd have been part of the class of 2016. He should have sat right where you're sitting, next year. But his life was tragically, unfairly, cut short by illness.

Through the sadness and heartbreak, you knew that you could and that you had to honor his memory, and that you had to do this by coming together, by being the brothers and sisters that Hellvon came to love as part of his Eastern family.

Eastern's football team started this season this year at 0-4, the bottom of your division. When Hellvon passed, the team vowed to play for him, his legacy, and his father—an assistant coach on the team. As one player said, the tragedy forced him to realize that "you have to go hard every time you have a chance."

The rest of the story is extraordinary: your football team never lost again, winning its next eight games on the way to a championship season—and the team did it with "HW"—Hellvon's initials—on their helmets.

The emotions of this year are ones you will feel, at various times, throughout your life—there will be times when you experience tragedy, pain and unimaginable loss. Your heart, undoubtedly, will be broken. You'll be faced with tough circumstances. And you'll sometimes fail. But—like you did in the wake of Hellvon's passing—you must do everything you can to see the light in every darkness. You must learn to see the lesson in every challenge. And if you can do that, you'll persevere. You'll not only experience success in life, you will also become better, more empathetic people.

It takes many people years, decades, to learn these lessons—and some never do. But you, the Eastern family, already have!

While honoring Hellvon's legacy, you also built a bit of your own—a legacy of toughness and togetherness, a legacy of compassion and kindness.

But I ask you, Eastern High School class of 2015: how else will you build your legacy? When given the opportunity, how will you 'go hard every time you have a chance to?'

We all know that challenges are inevitable—it's how you respond to them that defines your legacy.

Your visionary principal and my good friend, Rachel Skerritt, was faced with a challenge herself when she came to Eastern in 2010. She didn't wait for things to turn around at a school that had seen its share of recent challenges; she made change happen. She hired new teachers, rebuilt the schedule, and led the charge to make Eastern an International Baccalaureate school—becoming one of just two schools in DC to earn that distinction.

But of all the things Principal Skerritt did, I know she'd agree that her most rewarding task was convincing all of you that Eastern could and should be your home. She went to middle schools around the District, telling you—then 8th graders—about the school's re-launch.

She talked about the important task of reviving Eastern's 120-year legacy—one that included decades of educating a strong African-American community of civil servants and leaders. That call to service continues today, with you, as you've ventured near and far to help communities in need. In fact, several of you have crossed continents, serving in Malawi and Gambia, while others have gone beyond the requirements—completing more than 300 hours of community service.

That is leadership in action. That is living your values.

Helping others isn't just part of your legacy—it's woven into the fabric of this school.

Tiffany Shaw—your dedicated college access counselor—has helped you through the college application and admissions process. After graduating from Eastern 10 years ago, Tiffany went to St. Mary's for her bachelor's degree, and got her master's at Trinity. This year, she returned home—to this school and this community—to make sure you got the information and resources you needed to successfully navigate the college admissions process. The call to service didn't just last for her four years at Eastern—she's building her legacy every day, and helping others fulfill their dreams of higher education.

Principal Skerritt talked about a legacy that includes performances by the Blue and White Marching Machine in three Presidential inaugurations. A legacy that includes actors and activists among its proud alumni ranks. A legacy that, now, includes you.

Four years ago, some middle school students weren't convinced they were the right fit for the re-launch. But others—including many of you sitting here today—were. You were determined to not just revive, but actually build on the proud reputation and traditions of Eastern, one of the oldest high schools in DC.

Even if you didn't meet Principal Skerritt as a 12-year-old—even if she didn't convince you to "come home" to Eastern then—you know now that, for however long you've been here, she's been dedicated to you and your success. She's helped you to make this your home, no matter where you're from.

We can all learn a lot from Principal Skerritt and her team. They didn't see a troubled school, an insurmountable obstacle—they saw opportunity. They saw enormous potential—the potential that lives in every one of you.

We, as adults, love the chance to work with young people who are as committed and as resilient as you are. Several of you have battled homelessness, survived violence, and endured the death of a loved one—yet you've never let those setbacks define or limit who you are. If anything, the adversity has helped to fuel your passion. You've shaped your legacy on your own terms, not just by "passing" high school, but by thriving despite the very real challenges life threw at you. When people look at you, they don't see you as the sum of your challenges—they see unique individuals who've forged your own paths to success.

Among you are graduates who came to this country in middle school in pursuit of better education, and greater opportunity. Some of you didn't know a word of English, but you didn't let that stop you. Your determination to learn—to build a better life—is why you are here. You relied on the support of the Eastern community to grow and thrive—but you also took the lead, and persevered—in spite of fear, in spite of circumstance. Many of you have achieved advanced levels on state tests and AP exams. You've taken charge, and turned your dreams into reality through hard work and perseverance.

There's the two-sport all-star who was recruited by other schools every year while attending Eastern. It may not have always been easy to stay the course, while other opportunities at District powerhouses were available. But in the face of difficult decisions, this student knew what was right for him—and that was staying here with the Eastern community and the incredible educational opportunities provided by the school. He stood his ground, and made his own way.

There are several of you, today, whose journey to Eastern was not a straight path—you attended other high schools, first. Some attended a school that closed and you made a choice—for some of you, it was your first choice; for others, your second or third. But, ultimately, you chose Eastern. It wasn't easy for you to adapt to life with a totally new set of teachers, peers, and classes. You had to navigate unfamiliar hallways and find your place in a brand-new school. But you were determined to find home, here. Now, you're graduating as an integral part of the senior class—all thanks to your ability to persevere under in circumstances.

I know that every one of you has a story like that—one in which you overcame obstacles on your way to academic success. Sadly, those who can't work through those challenges don't make it to occasions like this. Many of you may have learned that strength of character outside of this building from families, friends, and neighbors—but I know that you've developed it here at Eastern, too.

After all, Eastern has a strong, proud history. So many alumni have gone on to do great things.

It's important to know that history and the type of broad shoulders you stand upon. Franklin McCain was in the class of 1959—one of the first integrated classes at Eastern. He grew up being told that if he worked hard and did the right thing, he'd go far in life. But, when at college at North Carolina A&T, he learned that reality was much different. The world was wrought by racism and prejudice. Franklin couldn't even go to a lunch counter at Woolworth's and be served.

Franklin didn't just get angry at the injustice in the world—he committed his legacy to challenging it. On February 1, 1960, Franklin and three friends took simple—but unbelievably courageous—action: sitting at an all-white lunch counter, in silent peaceful protest. Franklin and his friends became known as the Greensboro Four. They returned, every day, in peace to the store that refused to serve them.

And when people heard of what the Greensboro Four were doing, they joined them. By February 6—just five days later—without the benefits of social media, something amazing had begun: more than a thousand people joined them in protest at the lunch counter.

It took months, but the heroic leadership of the Greensboro Four prevailed—they were a moral force that could not be stopped. Franklin once said that the best feeling of his life was "sitting on that dumb stool." Sometimes in life, the seemingly smallest actions can have the biggest and positive impact on the lives of others.

It's never easy to stand up against injustice, to take the difficult road, to make the tough decision. But you, Eastern graduates do that every day. Ultimately, your hard work will pay off both in college and in life.

You must make your next graduation—from college—a priority and you cannot stop until you've earned a degree or certificate. A college credential is the best investment you can make in yourself, and your future. Whatever your dream in life may be, more education will always open up doors for you that you may not know ever existed today.

I promise you: this is not the easiest path—whether it's adjusting to campus life, struggling with a difficult assignment or feeling homesick. But it's always the right path, and it's always worth it.

And when you do struggle—and we all do—please do not struggle alone. Seek out friends and mentors—like you've done here—with arms wide open. You're much more likely to complete college the help and support of others who are invested in your success.

And just as importantly—be that friend, tutor, or mentor to someone else. It's a skill I know you've learned here at Eastern, and one I know will serve you well in the years to come. Individually and collectively, you have so much to offer.

I don't just want you to do great things—although I know you will. I ask that you take what you've learned at Eastern— coming together as a community, making wise choices, and doing the right thing—with you wherever you go. If you do that, your greatness won't just be measured in accolades or personal gain—it'll be measured it what you contribute to the world around you.

Because ultimately, making your mark on the world should mean making it a better place. You should know—you've not just made your mark on Eastern, but you—the legacy class—have left it better than you found it. That's all we can ask for, of anybody.

I am so proud of each and every one of you. I look forward, with great anticipation, to what you will accomplish in the years ahead. Congratulations, I wish you all the best! Thank you!