These are the remarks I was honored to offer to the Marshfield High School community in September 2011. I shared many of these same ideas with my students in the past two days. Now they are here.
Today I hope to reflect on the events of ten years ago and to try to fit them together with the current day and with this place.
I hope that you stick with me.
Every day I read the column of a young man named Ezra Klein.
He writes about public policy, especially about economic policy, and he brings together experts I would never know about on topics like health care, taxes, education, and the environment.
About six months ago he posted a video.
There have been a great number of these videos posted on YouTube; the famous and not so famous, even teams like the Red Sox, have created videos for a program called, “It Gets Better.”
This is a program that has evolved out of a terrible tragedy.
A student from Indiana named Billy Lucas committed suicide after having been harassed about his sexuality all through middle school and high school.
He was all of 15 years old.
The idea behind these videos was to offer the comfort of the simple idea that, despite the intolerance and ignorance of the harassers, for gay and lesbian students it gets better with time.
Ezra Klein isn’t gay but was, as a tween and as a teen, bullied.
He was bullied for liking comic books.
He was bullied for doing well in school.
He was bullied for not being in fashion.
After a while he was bullied because that was the only kind of relationship anyone had ever had with him.
In his video he talked about why it got better for him and why it gets better for nearly everyone.
He said it got better because he came to have more power over his choices. He found a new sense of community with ways to improve that community.
And that is what we are doing here. We are trying to make it possible for all of you to do what you think will make you happy. And if you change your mind, we want you to be able to swerve, or to reverse course all together.
Going forward you will have more choices and more people to support those choices.
Think about it; you will be spending more time with people who want what you want, are interested in what you are interested in, are focused on a common goal, come from a similar perspective or level of experience, or are willing to listen and to expand their experience by that listening.
It will get better and choices are why.
Now file that away for a few minutes; we will be coming back to it.
Ten years ago, all of us, all of us, were shaken beyond describing.
I can say without any qualification, that I have never been the same.
Most of you were quite young; some of us were not.
Those of us who were not, we swore we would not forget.
It was a time of immense emotion. I don’t know if you can easily put yourself in that place.
Bruce Springsteen had a line in The Rising “…the garden of a thousand sighs.”
I remember doing that, breathing in and out trying to somehow exhale the hurt away.
The stories still come back to me so easily.
They are vivid and painful and I wouldn’t let any of it go even if I could.
I have looked through so many of the photographs and read so many accounts as I have prepared.
It is as open a wound today as it was ten years ago.
I first heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center in the cafe.
Mr. Centorino’s mom told me.
I headed to room 146 where my next class was and Mr. Sullivan’s class was watching Before the Bells; I switched it over to channel 5 and ABC had coverage.
As a class we watched the second plane hit, we heard about the Pentagon, and at 10:00 the first Tower fell.
I will never forget the reporter’s tone of voice; I have gone back and watched it again and it is exactly as I remembered.
“The Tower has collapsed, Peter.” “Part of the Tower has collapsed?” No, Peter, the whole Tower.”
The reporter said it so matter of factly but with such an ache all the same.
No one knew how many were gone; no one knew who was responsible.
But that it was an act of war was likely and that there would be new responsibilities emerging was certain. Would anyone fly again? Every single commercial plane in the US was on the ground. We heard immediately that there were anthrax deaths. Our own central office was emptied when an envelope with a white powder was opened. People went to the hospital to be checked. It was terrorism at home and how open we could keep our society was in question.
As the class left that day I only said one thing to them. I told them that each day they were asked to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
I said that tomorrow you might just take the moment of silence that follows and reflect on what we had all just seen.
That night members of Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capital and millions of us sat on the couch and bawled our eyes out.
We also gave blood, donated food, first for a rescue and then for the recovery, spoke a little slower and listened a little longer.
Trivia was trivia and what was important was obvious.
On the day of the attacks I took my daughter to the Town Common in Scituate – she was only 2 – and I brought her to each of the monuments there – WW1, WW2, The police, the firemen, soldiers lost in Korea and in Vietnam – I only did it because I didn’t know what else to do.
I guess now that I wanted her to know and I wanted to be sure myself that this country had been through things as bad and had made it through.
In the weeks that followed, late at night, ABC ran tributes to those that were lost, brief profiles about these individuals that we knew by then had been killed entirely because they were Americans. It was their way of taking a statistic and making it an individual.
That many who died that day, at each of the sites, were not American is a point to be made here too.
There were great numbers who were not Americans but had come here for the things America was and still is.
I remember one of these tributes more than any of the others.
The guy was a big bear of a guy- they had him in home movies, in costumes, goofing around, you felt you knew him the minute you saw him.
It hurts even to remember this guy because he was so alive in these film clips and you knew he was gone.
His beautiful widow was so strong telling these stories about him and that was part of the time too.
So many, behaved, so well.
So many discovered a grace we all hope we have when the worst comes.
She did break down though and this has always stuck with me; she broke down finally asking the reporter,”What am I going to tell my kids at Christmas, he was always the best at Christmas.”
Too many were gone and their families and our nation has missed them all at Christmas and the first day of school and at ballgames and recitals and just hanging around the house.
Too many are gone and today we take a few minutes to reaffirm our commitment to their memory.
The enemies of this country justify the violence of 10 years ago in several ways.
They assert America is weak and decadent.
Wasteful and irreligious.
Spiritually bankrupt, materialistic, imperialistic.
We know better. I know better. I work at this high school with all of you.
Walk through any hall in this building, during any block, and you will see students and teachers working on the future. What we do here is far more than a list of sins.
The list of flaws may be long; I have to teach our inheritance on race issues, on gender equality, on the treatment of Native Americans and the environment;
I know the list of flaws is long, but I also know that that the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave are not just words in a song.
On Tuesday September 11, 2001, men and women entered burning buildings with no thought of their own safety, climbed flight after flight in the darkness, leading many to safety before the collapse. Men on flight 93 retook the plane rather than let it be used as a weapon. Think about that for a minute.
These men and women saw lives at stake and went forward, toward the risk, for the sake of someone else they did not know.
It would be appalling if we did not remember that from time to time.
And if we do not assert that there is selflessness, there is compassion, there is love in this country and around the world, if we don’t do it from time to time, our enemies will be more right than wrong about the United States.
So we return to Ezra Klein and try to tie these two things together and make a third.
Freedom, Liberty, To follow your heart,
To decide, to pick,
The pursuit of happiness.
Each of these terms is at the heart of American ideas and American lives. We get to choose.
Our enemies hate this freedom.
My daughter once asked me about the war in Iraq. She had seen a photograph and wanted to know what it was all about. In a roundabout way I explained it came down to freedom.
For our enemies, life is lived in a very small circle and to step outside it is the greatest crime. They would have all the world live in that straight jacket. For them freedom is a poison. For us it is the antidote. How is life going to be great, how is it going to get better if there are no choices?
So what are some of the choices you have. Let’s consider that.
You can choose your words.
And words matter. Words matter a lot.
A young man was behind me in the hall last week, the first day of school, cursing like crazy. I turned around and looked at him and I thought, he will be the saddest kid in this school if he doesn’t move past that.
Choose your words carefully and you create your world carefully.
You decide what the experience will be.Make it harsh words and your life is harsh. And I am not talking about living a phony, make believe, Peter Pan never going grow up, Hallmark card existence either.
That said, you can be accurate and not be mean.
You can be candid and not slashing.
You can be truthful and be kind.
What else do you choose, well, Your actions matter.
Do you make a situation worse or make it better? Do you try to push the buttons you know will calm something down or rile it up? Do you honor the experience of someone else and recognize that it is at least as good as your own is to this point. We are all learning, growing, reassessing what it will take to achieve a balance in our lives.
You have to take things in stride and stay properly humble and properly proud of all you get done in a day. We are right to celebrate the arts and the athletics and the academics here at this school but if you don’t keep it in perspective, then you take choices away from your friends, from your teammates, and from yourselves.
When you throw your weight around, put yourself up by putting someone else down, you are on the wrong side of the conversation.
Gordon Sumner is a singer/songwriter who goes by the name of Sting.
His song “Fragile” was the background theme for the ABC coverage that I followed each night ten years ago. The lyrics are:
If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are
Choose carefully, choose thoughtfully, be alert to those times you come up too close to the line and forget how fragile we all are. Violence lurks in a million corners.
And nothing comes from it.
Be ready to laugh at yourself and to put aside the laughter that cuts down someone else. For when you tear someone else down for who are they, for where they want to go, for their dreams, for their heart, you help the bad guys.
I would ask you to never take for granted the gift of Freedom that has been earned with the blood of so many, ten years ago and across two centuries.
Remember too, that you have to live together as much as you have to be individuals.
For that is how we win, that is what the peace looks like in the war that started ten years ago. That’s why It Gets Better.
In America you get to choose and the choices make things solid and positive and you can meet the worst of days with the support you want and need.
In America there is diversity and change and patience and impatience when an injustice is recognized and there is devotion to working out problems thoughtfully and not at the point of a gun, or a knife, or a suicide bomb, and certainly not in a nasty instant message or on a Facebook wall.
It Gets Better here, better than, any other place on earth because of our freedom, and the wide awake way we use it.
The journalist David Halberstam wrote an Essay called Who We Are just a month after the terrorist attacks; in it he described how writers who had spent some time living overseas came to understand:
“that freedom in America, … is not just the freedom to move about but the freedom to be who and what you want to be, to be different from those who went before you in your own family, to if necessary reinvent yourself and become the person of your own imagination. I believe as a matter of political faith, … that all our great strengths – industrial, scientific, military, and artistic – flow from it. The freer we are, the more we are able to use the talents of all our people. We waste less human potential than any other society that I know of.”
And isn’t that what we want here.
To set all of our talents and dreams free in a real way. The events of ten years ago, as devastating as they were, could never touch that.
This summer I was with a friend who has retired from teaching. I told him I was preparing these remarks and he told me of this Native American story.
An old Cherokee was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Your choices matter, your words and your actions matter.And when you choose to do things right, you send a powerful message to those ugly corners of the world who have lost sight of the genuine connection we all have to each other.
Remember that in all that you choose.
And Remember those lost to us who died in that spirit.