Words for the Class of 2009

(Denver Post, June 7) Colorado high school graduates of 2009, how exciting to see you gathered by the tens of thousands at Invesco Field. Following up your commencement ceremonies in May, here we are in June for the young citizens’ Responsibility Rally. As your keynoter, I’ll be brief. (Applause.) Even from last month, you’ve likely forgotten your graduation speaker’s message. Mine from 1962 is long gone. I do remember a Bible verse from our principal about listening, and a fireside talk by our camp director about duty. Maybe you’ll remember this day when a 20th-century American offered two words for the 21st century: personal responsibility. If you do, our rally can be as historic as Barack Obama’s appearance at Invesco. Why? Because in his first days as President, Mr. Obama not only called for “a new era of responsibility.” He also said a hallmark of the new era should be everyone in your generation completing high school. But no politician can impose that from the top. It takes individuals from the bottom up.

It takes you. (Thunderous applause.) It takes unstoppable achievers like the seniors from Lincoln High School in Denver, there in the front row, double the size of Lincoln’s 2006 class – and not by a path of roses, either, since most of you come from tough economic and family situations. You did it with things like learning contracts, credit-recovery courses, and uniforms. You rose to Principal Antonio Esquibel’s challenge.

Are you encouraged that a Kenyan’s son is in the White House and a Puerto Rican’s daughter is up for the Supreme Court? Sure. Are you glad that $700 million in stimulus money is headed for Colorado schools? Sure. But those big names and big dollars didn’t earn your diplomas. Your hard work and determination and discipline did.

Are you bothered that the CEO of Cesar Chavez charter schools makes more than Sen. Ken Salazar? Why not; he certainly produces more in terms of dropouts prevented and lives turned around. Are you surprised that home-schooling has doubled in this decade? Why not; state academic honors so often go to home-schoolers, some in this audience included.

With the BS detector of every teenager, you know that good teaching has little to do with an adult’s degree or union card. And that character lessons are golden coin compared with academic small change, as the sickout by Boulder teachers sadly illustrated. For contrast, join me in saluting five non-classroom educators whom I call Colorado’s personal responsibility all-stars.

They’re seated up here with the Mayor and Governor: Luis Villareal of Save Our Youth, Mike Painter of Colorado UpLift, Glenna Norvelle of Denver Kids, Don Reeverts of Whiz Kids, and Tom Tillapaugh of the Street School Network. “Yes you can” was a watchword for these inner-city rescuers, long before it became anyone’s campaign slogan. Countless ’09 grads wouldn’t be here without them.

Many good groups do mentoring and alternative education, but none outdo these five. They exemplify the responsibility movement which I and Barack, an odd couple indeed, urgently believe America needs. “Just love a kid” is the Nike-style dare from Reeverts. “Serve unconditionally.” Grads, that includes you. Adults, us too.

“Everybody’s gotta be involved,” Villareal explains. “Then it’s the community caring for the community.” “Relationships are key,” say Painter and Tillapaugh. “Show them responsibility is freedom,” says Norvelle.

The all-stars’ wisdom sums up the victory your graduation represents and the obligation it carries. My forgettable words fade before the liberating truth of their testimony. In King Solomon’s time it was told that one brave man, poor but wise, saved a city under siege because he cared enough and got involved. Our city today is no different.

Much has been given you, fortunate young Coloradans. How will you give back?