Honorary degree recipients Gay Su Pinnell and Jason Reynolds addressed 1,018 master’s and doctoral candidates during a festive and rousing Commencement ceremony on Saturday morning.
Lesley President Jeff A. Weiss welcomed thousands of students, family members, friends, faculty and administrators to the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront, starting the ceremony with a charge to graduates to question, collaborate and solve problems.
“Just imagine what we collectively can achieve when our default mode becomes one of inquiring and co-creating,” Weiss posed.
Weiss lamented the “death” of inquiry and understanding, which inhibits society’s ability to “uncover answers to the thorniest of problems” as people become entrenched in their viewpoints, unable to understand other perspectives. Effecting sustained social change will “require building bridges, not walls,” he said to loud cheers from the audience. “Understanding, not hatred. Commonality, not alienation. And acceptance, not rejection.”
The solutions to today’s problems start with a question, not a declaration, he said.
“The faculty, staff, trustees and I know that you will do great things,” said Weiss. “And we know you will make the world a better place.”
Jason Reynolds: Humor and a grim lesson
Jason Reynolds, a faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program and a New York Times bestselling author, turned the popular “spread your wings” and “we made it” Commencement messages on their head, challenging Lesley graduates not to fly so high that they lose sight of those who were not given the same opportunities to succeed.
By way of illustration, Reynolds, the author of “Long Way Down,” “As Brave As You,” “All American Boys” and the recent book of poetry “For Every One,” shared a story from his high school days, delivered in his trademark spoken word cadence.
One day during his senior year, Reynolds’ eccentric, neon-polo-shirt-wearing Global Studies teacher, brought in a tropical fish and tasked the class with naming it and keeping it alive. He had only one caveat: The students were never to touch the fish under threat of suspension. A few weeks later, however, Mr. Williams scooped Confucius the fish out of its tank and put it on the floor.
Without water, the fish “flipped and flopped and flapped, gasping, inflating, deflating, dying in front of us,” said Reynolds. The stunned students stood around the fish petrified until two girls came to Confucius’s rescue, picked up the fish and returned it to the tank. True to his warning, Williams sent the girls to the office for two days of suspension, but he also commended them for making the right choice.
“Sometimes doing the right things has consequences,” Williams told the weeping girls.
“That single day with Mr. Williams was the single most important day in my entire academic experience,” recalled Reynolds.
The incident stayed with Reynolds, causing him to often question what risks and sacrifices he is willing to make, how high he’s willing to fly and at what cost to the people on the ground who have been less fortunate.
“What good is it for me to fly so far above them, when they’ll only look smaller to me the higher I go?” Reynolds asked. “Is there a way for us to tether ourselves to one another? A way for us all to catch the wind?”
To use the positions granted them by their degrees would be irresponsible, Reynolds told the graduates, making them “nothing more than paper-thin pedestals, talismans of ego.”
Instead, Reynolds’ offered a revised, more responsible and inclusive version of the winged metaphor. Graduates should still spread their wings, but rather than trying to get as high as possible, they should “spread them as wide as possible, and in every direction, and ask if anyone else could use a feather or two.”
“Maybe then,” he said, “more of us might also have a moment to say, ‘We made it,’” as he received a standing ovation.
Gay Su Pinnell: The power of education
Education is nothing short of the power to change the world, Gay Su Pinnell told graduates.
Pinnell, professor emerita at The Ohio State University and collaborator with Lesley University Professor Irene Fountas, alluded to her decades of work with Lesley faculty and students, and identified what she believed Lesley is about: “joyful, liberating education.”
“From everything I have learned about Lesley I conclude that people here see education broadly, including intellectual, social and aesthetic learning—what people need to prepare for vocational success, yes, but even more important, to live a quality life from the earliest years on,” Pinnell said. “Lesley faculty and students are also interested in and fully support social justice, something my own father talked about on a day-to-day basis in my home. They study it and they fight for it.”
As Pinnell discussed the power of education, she also revealed the oppression that attends a lack of education.
“There were reasons that it was illegal to teach slaves to read and that even today, the poorest children are the most likely to be taught with a mindless, unthinking curriculum, without being able to read very well,” she said.
“It’s not the mechanical act of decoding words that’s so important, they get taught that really well and it is essential,” Pinnell added. “It’s the way the words are strung together to create language that enters the human being’s mind from the earliest listening to a book to the extensive reading I know all of you engage in. It is power over language. It’s the thinking that emerges from deep comprehension of text after text, of talking with others about ideas, and being inspired. As teachers, that’s what we do.”
Daniel Chin: Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences student speaker
Like Pinnell, student speaker Daniel Chin encouraged fellow graduates to make peace with making mistakes and being “in process.”
While working on his master’s degree in International Higher Education and Intercultural Relations, Chin said he began to realize that, as Mark Johnson wrote, everyone is “in process…. until you die.”
“A little daunting, right?” joked Chin, who was introduced to the audience by Dean David Katz. “I was fulfilling my second-to-last requirement, looking forward to time without homework, and here I was finally learning that I was not done, that I might never be done.”
After he got over the weight of Johnson’s words, Chin, a self-proclaimed optimist, realized the importance of “this continuous state of being in process.”
“To be in process is to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, knowing that we will work not to make the same ones again,” he said. “By giving ourselves room to grow and learn further beyond these courses, classrooms and degrees, we are honoring some of the core teachings that are the undercurrent of any Lesley education.”
In closing, Chin challenged his peers to share his optimism: “Let us celebrate being in process together.”
Christopher Strickland: Graduate School of Education student speaker
Sounding a similar note of optimism and togetherness was Christopher Strickland, who has been this way before.
Strickland, a newly minted Ph.D. who also earned his master’s in education from Lesley 10 years ago, said he pursued his doctorate because Lesley inspired him, just as Reynolds had inspired the Commencement crowd this year.
“Being here with you all now reminds me of a proverb,” Strickland said, “‘A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul.’”
“Through the course of our academic journeys, many sacrifices have been made to get where we are. Each of us have unique stories that attest to all the different paths that have been traveled to get to this moment,” he added. “In ceremonies like this, there is usually a lot of talk about perseverance, grit, determination, hard work, all of which are true. But today I want to focus on another hallmark of the educational journey: gratitude. Given the current culture and contexts we experience, the power of gratitude cannot be underestimated or overemphasized.”
Quoting author Melody Beattie, Strickland said: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, it can turn a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
Dean Jack Gillette, who is retiring, reminded the Graduate School of Education’s newest master’s degree and doctorate holders, “Teachers are essential to our society” and that education holds the key to creating a “more just society.”