Titans for the 21st Century

Archived Information

Titans for the 21st Century

Remarks as Delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. at T.C. Williams High School, 2016 Graduation Ceremony, Alexandria, Virginia on June 18, 2016
June 18, 2016

Thank you, Nada. You and all of today's student presenters and performers have been wonderful so far.

Good morning, T.C. Williams graduates!  You make us proud. You inspire us. You are the reason the outstanding educators here – Superintendent Crawley, your school board members, Dr. Dingle and his exceptional faculty – are working passionately to make T.C. a state-of-the-art, high-performing high school, where all students succeed.

Thanks, too, to all the family members whose love and support helped your class of 2016 reach this day.

So I want to say congratulations, Class of 2016, on behalf of the President and on behalf of the nation. We are all proud of you and appreciate the milestone you mark today.

This week, as I thought about speaking with all of you today, I couldn't help but also think about the horrible violence that occurred just a week ago in Orlando. I ask that, even as you and your families celebrate today, please keep the victims and their families in your thoughts and prayers.

I also reflected on the critical role that schools play in knitting together our diverse nation, strengthening our common commitment to tolerance and honoring all the ways we are different even as we celebrate all that we have in common.

That is what T.C. has done from the time it opened, with a mythical family of giants – the Titans – as your mascot.  You've spent this anniversary year "remembering the Titans": celebrating contributions by T .C. students and staff to your community, your state, and the United States.

Chief among those contributions is the fact that, through the years, T.C. has been a proving ground for civil rights.  That was true in the 1960s and 1970s, during those challenging first efforts to integrate the region's segregated schools.  And it's true today, in ongoing efforts to ensure that every learner, from every background, graduates with the skills necessary to succeed in college, career and life.

All of America's schools have a part to play in the nation's march toward full equality and social justice.  And that is at the heart of what T.C. Williams is all about.

You can take pride in your Titan heritage.  How many schools are immortalized on film?  How many communities see their heroes portrayed on the big screen by Denzel Washington?

All year, you've paid tribute to the Titans of the 20th century.  But now, it's time to ask: What does it mean to be a Titan, today, in the 21st century?  What does greatness mean to you?

You have many different talents, dreams and definitions of success. But all of you can have an impact far beyond yourselves.

So today I ask you to work, not just to make your own lives better, but to uplift others – not just to realize your dreams, but to help others achieve theirs.  When you make this choice, you help to shape America and the world beyond our borders.

You see, the work of building America is never done.

Throughout our history, each new generation has helped to expand what it means to be an American, and to make opportunity more real and inclusive for everyone.  Many T.C. alumni have risen to this challenge, helping to perfect America through their actions and moral leadership.

Titans like Herman Boone, Bill Yoast, Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell did just that. Their teamwork – and friendship – narrowed the gap between the inequities of their time, and our nation's timeless ideals.

When even one person makes that choice, it means progress for America.

This morning I want to tell you about someone I know who made that choice.

My uncle, Haldane King, grew up in 1920s New York City – during a period when America was deeply segregated. Discrimination against people of color was a cruel and daily reality. Yet my uncle chose to enlist in the military – chose to enlist in the fight that was World War II – earning a place among the elite Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the U.S military.

Even as he served his country, my uncle often met hostility and bigotry. On most bases, he was barred from the officers' club. He had to pack food with him every flight because he didn't know if he would be able to get a meal at a base where he landed.

Yet every day my uncle chose to reject resentment and frustration. He countered hatred with dignity, bravery, and uncompromising excellence.

When he got back to NY after the war he was trained as an accountant and wanted to pursue a career as an accountant, but couldn't.  Even as an African-American war hero he could not get a job as an accountant because of discrimination.

Once again, facing society's scorn, despite his skills and sacrifices, my uncle chose to serve, first as a firefighter, and then re-enlisting for the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He retired as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, after working at the Pentagon.

When my uncle was born, many African Americans were denied even their legal right to vote. Yet he always believed that the wrongs he suffered would someday give way to the righteous American values he loved and fought for. And by the end of his 91 years, this nation had elected President Obama. The way my uncle lived his life, and the choices he made – along with countless other men and women, from every race and background – helped that profound change to happen. 

My uncle also profoundly influenced my own life. I grew up, as Nada said, in New York City. My mom passed away when I was eight in October of my fourth grade year. My dad when I was twelve.

During the period when I lived my father, he was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's. Home was this very unstable place.  After my dad passed, I moved between family members and schools.  During that whole period, school was the place that gave me hope. School was the place where I could be a kid – when I couldn't be, outside of school.  So I was lucky that I had great teachers in New York City schools, who gave me hope when many aspects of my life were hopeless.

By the time I was a teenager, I was often consumed by anger and frustration about the experiences I had as a kid. I actually got kicked out of high school. I often say I am probably the first Secretary of Education ever to have been kicked out of high school, but I got kicked out because I was angry and frustrated and expressing that through challenging authority. After I got kicked out, I went to live with my Uncle Hal. 

We had a conversation that changed the course of my life. He pointed out to me that there was nothing he could do or I could do to change the things that had happened in my life as a child. There was nothing we could do to change the fact that I had lost my mom or lost my dad or the experience of dealing with my father's illness, but he explained that I was, then, a man and it was my responsibility to decide how I would live and the life I would choose.

He taught me that my future did not have to be defined by my past. That conversation with my uncle instilled in me a sense of perseverance and clarity that shaped my path to Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.

T.C. graduates, wherever your paths take you – whether it is to college, or the armed forces, or the workforce – you can show that same grace and greatness that defined my uncle's life.

We stand, all of us, on the shoulders of giants like my uncle and the Titans of decades past. Thanks to them, today's world offers you unprecedented opportunities and endless possibilities.

Yet, the work isn't done. We need to keep building that "more perfect union," for ourselves and our neighbors. We need to heal the heartbreak in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Flint, and end the injustices that brought those tragedies. We need to fix our broken immigration system, and give DREAMers and their families paths to citizenship. We need to fight poverty and climate change. We need to build strong multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual communities that celebrate diversity and collaborate to solve big challenges.

You have experienced here, at T.C., the great gift of being part of a school culture that meets the needs of an incredibly diverse community – including speakers of over 25 languages from 44 different countries. You know what it means to experience racial, economic, and linguistic diversity. And you also know the importance and value of unity, despite our differences.

Wherever you live, work or travel, and whoever you meet, you'll feel at home – because of the lessons of understanding you have learned here. It will be people like you who will help our nation recover from traumatic events like those in Orlando.

The T.C. story reflects the belief that every student deserves a great education, and that each of us is at our best when we help bring out the best in others.  And graduates, by striving to be your best selves, and helping others to do the same, you can achieve greatness.

What is greatness?

It's sustaining the commitment to equality, justice and freedom that defines our democracy and inspires the world.

What is greatness?

It's daring to dream big, like those of you who'll be the first in your families to get a college degree, and mentoring others so they, too, can realize their dreams.

What is greatness?

It's doing what it takes to shatter limitations, like the Class of 2016's pair of record-setting track and field star brothers.

What is greatness?

It is recognizing that our destinies are intertwined. Here, you've understood that you are part of the worldwide community – like your fellow graduate, whose early years in Africa exposed her to inequities in health care on two continents and fueled her passion to treat patients in developing nations.

What is greatness?

It's being willing to find solutions to tough problems, like your fellow graduate who created an app to help people with disabilities communicate more easily.

What is greatness?

It's acting with compassion and generosity of spirit. At T.C., you've volunteered to deliver meals, collected toys for kids in need, registered voters and supported local charities. Some of you will choose service as a career, like your classmate, bound for the military, who says he wants "to be a better man and a better citizen for the community," and pave the way for his little brothers.

President Obama has observed that, through the years, America has made progress because "we seized the future and made it our own." And I agree with him that "it's always been young people like you that have brought about big change."

T.C. Class of 2016, you're ready to seize and shape the future. You're ready for greatness.

Live lives that make a difference – lives that make our country, and our world, better than ever before.

Be bold.  Be resilient.  Be Titans for the 21st century.

Congratulations, Class of 2016!