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Georgia Southern University Commencement Speech by Cherie Dennis

Thank you so much President Marrero for your kind introduction and for giving me the opportunity to address your graduates. Students, parents, faculty, deans and other distinguished guests, I am truly humbled to be here today. And as a Pirate myself, what a remarkable honor it is, what a tremendous gift it is to be here with my fellow Eagles. To celebrate your pursuit of a dream, your commitment to a path, and your accomplishment of a goal.

I had a dream….to teach… inspired by the year that I had spent studying abroad in Japan during my junior year as an undergraduate. When I left to go to Japan, I expected it to be different, but when I came back, I realized I was different. Japan and Japanese culture were, of course, so very distinct from the United States in so many ways, but really what I internalized from that experience was the similarity of humanity no matter whether you hop from country to country across the globe or from neighborhood to neighborhood in your own community. Not that I did not know that before, but my experience helped solidify what I ultimately wanted to do with that knowledge.

When I was growing up, one of the guiding principles of my family was the obligation to view every act taken, every word spoken as having the potential to transform the world from the way it is to the way it should be. That what we send out into our shattered world may be the very salve to help piece it back together bit-by-bit, shard-by-shard.

I became a teacher because I wanted to be one of the ones who puts this world back together, not tears it apart. I wanted to help make the world into everything that it can be. Obviously, that takes time, it would be hard to make it perfect. And it takes more than just me, and I am far from perfect. But all fires start with sparks.

In the simplest terms, teaching means imparting knowledge, and that in and of itself is a means of repairing this world…as long as that knowledge is well-informed. But for teachers, the opportunities to mend our society extend far beyond and far deeper than the content that we can share. (In my philosophy of education), Teachers have a tremendous privilege, and responsibility, to be advocates and harbors that accept every child for who they are and where they are at any given moment in time, wrapping them up in loving-kindness, empathy, compassion, and positivity so that they are built up rather than torn down. And in doing so, we create safe spaces in which we become guides, leading students toward intellectual independence, creativity and boldness through which they then have the confidence and courage to ask the questions that need to be asked, tenaciously dig for the answers that they seek, and resiliently tackle the problems placed in front of them to the best of their ability. In the classroom, teachers have the opportunity to create collaborative communities that nurture mutual respect; activate cooperative problem-solving skills and positive interdependence; and model self-reflection and healthy, authentic dialogue and communication. Collaborative communities where students are connected to one another, responsible for one another, share with one another, learn from one another, protect one another, and celebrate with one another. Smaller communities that we hope one day will transcend the walls of our classrooms and the halls of our school buildings having served as a model for how we want our larger communities to function.

Every year on the first day of school in every classroom across the United States, and I would imagine around the world, teachers set about the task of working with their students to establish the rituals, routines, rules, and procedures for the classroom, the hallways, the lunchroom, the playground, arrival and dismissal. Depending upon the
grade level of the students, the process for doing this will look different, but you might recall it from elementary school. You all sit around the rug or your teacher places you in a small group with some peers, and, together, you set out to brainstorm or define on the whiteboard or some chart paper what your classroom community will look like, what you want it to look like:

  • Show respect for others and school property.
  • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  • Listen while others are talking and raise your hand to speak.
  • Work and play in a safe manner.
  • Walk in a straight, quiet line in the hallway.
  • Keep your area clean.
  • Be prepared.
  • Be on time.

Really, bottom-line, they’re all about kindness, aren’t they? About what kindness looks like, about what kindness sounds like, About what kindness acts like. The theme, the main idea, the thread is: Be kind. A kind community was the community that you wanted for yourselves as kids, a kind community was the community that your teachers wanted for you as their students, and I have no doubt that a kind community was the community that your parents wanted for you as they sent you off each and every day to school. Today, you are stepping out of the halls of academia, but does that mean that you are stepping out of your idea of what you want community to be, of what you think community should be, of what you know community should be?

This was actually a difficult speech to write because there were so very many directions that I could have taken it in, so very many things that I wanted to say: follow your passions, be leaders, confront your fears, create opportunities out of obstacles, work hard, don’t be afraid of failure, embrace change, ride with the windy road, never stop learning … but when I looked at the world around me, listened to the world around me, where people have forgotten how to play on the playground, where many of the adults have stopped adulting, where many of the people who are supposed to be our leaders have stopped acting like leaders, I kept on coming back to the same thing, that foundational message that you created for yourselves together with your classmates and your teachers a long time ago on a classroom carpet: Be kind. Not because you are not already, but because the world needs it more than ever before. The world needs those who build up rather than tear down. The world needs those who solve problems rather than create them. The world needs those who pour into it rather than drain it. The world needs those who do the hard work of truly listening and empathizing rather than the easy work of insulting and invalidating.

In Japan, there is an artform called kintsugi. A kintsugi artist takes broken, shattered pottery and pieces it back together with lacquer that has been infused with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Kintsugi is a metaphor for a variety of things including an opportunity to create a thing of beauty, a sense of wholeness out of something flawed and imperfect. My hope for you is that you go out into the world with your eyes and your hearts wide open. That you go out into the world and make something beautiful out of its cracks and imperfections. A world that is bound together by the irrefutable strength and integrity of kindness. Be the repairers of the world; the menders of the world; the bridge builders; the constructive, contributive citizens who nurture communities large and small. And that may sound daunting, but really it all starts with something so very simple, something so very possible and within your reach. Something you knew how to do even as a child. Just being kind.

On behalf of every teacher you had from preschool through high school including your art teachers and drama teachers, music teachers and coaches, On behalf of every administrator, from the principals and guidance counselors in your buildings to the superintendents who ran your districts On behalf of every support staff member who was there with you every step of the way too: the cafeteria workers, the secretaries in the office, the custodians, the nurses, the bus drivers and the crossing guards. We are proud of you. We celebrate you. And we are so excited for all that the future holds for you.

The past few years have not been the easiest of times during which to achieve so much and all the more reason why you should be proud and why I am so excited to witness you walk across this stage with your head high, your shoulders back, your grin stretched from ear to ear and your swagger as bold as you wish!

Thank you again for giving me the tremendous honor of being able to share with you today. I wish all of you the greatest joys of this holiday season and a new year that is brimming with health, togetherness, and peace.

And Congratulations Fellow Eagles!


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