Remarks at the Lakeside High School Commencement

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
Decatur, GA
May 17, 2014


Hello and thank you all for inviting me to share with you this glorious day. It’s been written that we can never truly go home again, but here I am, right back near where I graduated in 1988 -- we held our ceremony at the gym -- twenty-six long years ago.

I used to walk to school right up Briarcliff road, swim at Briarlake pool, shop at Northlake Mall, and run mile after mile up Oak Grove and across Lavista during cross country and track seasons. I earned money by working weekends at Sizzler’s and Freshen’s Yogurt, and the long shuttered Del Taco. Lakeside is where I grew up, and it feels great to be back with this community.

I am absolutely delighted to join in honoring the incredibly talented members of the class of 2014, who are better looking than I remember our class being. You also appear to have louder and more excited family members. [Applause] Is it possible that they are more relieved by your graduation than ours were? [Applause]

I congratulate Principal Clyne, for a stellar first year in the job – let’s get some applause for your new principal [applause]. Let’s hear it also for the dedicated teachers who guided and mentored our graduates each step of the way. [Applause] And of course the loudest shout out of all to those who steered you from diapers to diplomas: the parents and step-parents here today. [Applause] If my own memory of my behavior senior year serves me, your parents have had to put up with quite a lot these last twelve months.

Some of you probably leapt out of bed this morning with the words of Atlanta’s greatest son on your mind: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” But I’m sorry to inform you that you’re not quite free. Not yet. It is I – a Lakeside grad who has grown long-winded competing for airtime at the United Nations – who stands between you and your diploma.

The good news is I have just two simple messages for you today. First, Lakeside has prepared you well. And second, you cannot script what happens next – just try to keep an open mind and an open heart.

First, I know from experience, Lakeside has prepared you for what the world is about to throw at you. Now, I will acknowledge that the Lakeside High School I attended was a little different from the Lakeside where you went. It was less shiny, for starters. Your school got a long overdue face-lift, which really suits it. But also, just to date myself, you all jam out to music on your iPhones. In my era there were no cell phones, and, when it came to music – this is embarrassing – people actually played boom boxes – you don’t even know what boom boxes are, do you? – right outside the gym next to the trophy cases. It was there that some of my Lakeside classmates managed to teach this stiff and rhythmically-challenged Irish immigrant how to break-dance. I have not yet found a way to make use of this skill at White House State Dinners, but I continue to look for opportunities.

But while the technology has changed at Lakeside, some things have not: academic and athletic excellence have long been prized here. Your graduating class has 168 Advanced Placement Scholars, 18 recipients of the Georgia Certificate of Merit, four National Merit finalists, and Lakeside’s Academic team won third place in the state! [Applause] Together, your collective accomplishments have earned you more than $3 million in college scholarships. [Applause] And though I am told that the Georgia High School Athletic Association foolishly does not recognize water polo as a sport – have they ever tried water polo? – you all can be proud of your girls water polo state championship. [Applause]

Now where does this academic and athletic success come from year after year? Has someone been juicing the water on Briarcliff Road for fifty years? I don’t think so. Lakeside is the high school it is – with the reputation it has – because of the determination of the students, the guidance, warmth and care of the parents, and the dedication of the teachers who guide their students day to day. As I have established, it has been a very long time since I went to Lakeside. Yet all these years later the names of my best teachers are emblazoned in my soul: Ms. Hooker, Ms. Shelfer, Mr. Driscoll, Mr. Koff, Coach Reid – Principle Reid to you – and Coach Roberts. I’m so thrilled that all the teachers I just mentioned – other than Mrs. Hooker, who passed away – are here with us today and I’d like to give them a big round of applause. [Applause] There is not just little chance I would be where I am today without these people, there is zero chance. So I am so grateful.

And today you have your favorites – Mr. Pastirik and Ms. Pitts in science, Ms. Firth and Mr. Saltmarsh in English, Mr. Washington in Math – and I’m told that’s only the beginning of the list. The teachers are legend here and if they have fired up your imagination these last four years, then they have changed your life in ways it may take you years to fully appreciate. “Tell me and I forget,” Ben Franklin once said, “Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” The best Lakeside teachers have involved their students, and you graduates will never forget them or what they have taught you.

The other remarkable feature of Lakeside that has not changed since I was here is its diversity. When I showed up here in 1983 for the eighth grade, the school had just started a bussing program, bringing African American kids to the suburbs from downtown Atlanta. Change didn’t come easily, and honestly, I think some of the parents in particular struggled with it, afraid of the unknown. In the hallways and the cafeteria and the classroom, we students enjoyed the snap, crackle, pop of new exposures and the merger of different worlds. But I won’t lie to you – some students suffered their share of misunderstandings, discrimination, and hurt. In this environment it took time for people to stop focusing on the qualities that could divide us – whether it was race, or whether we were jocks or nerds, popular kids or not -- and to focus instead on all that we had in common. We were classmates struggling equally with our bad Spanish; we were team-mates desperately wanting to win; we were girls with crushes on the same boys – well actually that was maybe that was a source of division, not commonality. In a nutshell, we were Vikings. And once we understood that, we could get on with the difficult business at hand: being teenagers. That was hard enough.

When I left Lakeside, I expected every place I went to be equally diverse – socioeconomically and racially. But nothing I encountered since Lakeside came close to the cross-section of society I got to know here. Only the United Nations, where I now get to serve as U.S. ambassador, and where 192 other countries are represented, comes close. And thanks to my high school days I am prepared for my core task – bringing together people of different backgrounds to try to forge common cause.

Inside the United Nations a beautiful mosaic hangs on the wall, based on a painting by Norman Rockwell. It shows the faces of men, women, and children from every conceivable background. And inscribed into the mosaic is the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a powerful message made more so by the fact that every major religion and culture has its own version of that Rule. The West African version is even more vivid: “Before you pinch a baby bird with a stick, try doing it to yourself and feel how much it hurts.” [laughter, applause]. There are two reasons why the Golden Rule is repeated so frequently. The first is that it holds the key to people being able to get along with one another; the second is that we ignore it so often. The reason that Lakeside’s diversity has worked for so long – whatever the bumps along the way – is that somehow, someway that Golden Rule has found a way to prevail.

My second message is that you should try to stay open to changing course, even when you think you know exactly where you are going. You might get married, you might not. You might never stray far from Georgia or you might spend much of your future in some exotic foreign capital. You might find your dream job on the first try or experiment with a different job each year until you retire. You might invent a brilliant new device and become rich, or you might lose your job to a robot. Everything is up for grabs.

When I was a high school student, I never imagined, nor could my teachers have imagined, I can attest, that I might one day get to represent the United States at the UN and serve in the cabinet of the President of the United States. I was a pretty good student – there were many at Lakeside who were better – but I was an athlete first – I played basketball, ran cross country and track. Professionally, I wanted to become a sportscaster -- the next Bob Costas. When I got to college I found what you will find when you go to college– a lot of opportunities to do what interests you – and I threw myself into sports journalism, working as a print reporter – covering the volleyball and basketball teams - and on a sports radio show.

But when I returned to Atlanta after my freshman year – to intern at the CBS sports affiliate here, working for Jeff Hullinger – I got hit by metaphorical lightning. I was doing what sports interns did -- taking notes on an Atlanta Braves-San Diego Padres game -- when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye on the live CBS feed – it was footage from a place called Tiananmen Square, where Chinese students were gathering to ask their government for democracy and for human rights. Before my very eyes, as I sat frozen in the video booth, my clipboard in hand, these students were mowed down, their protests and their dreams extinguished.

And with that, my career ambitions were turned on their head. I decided I wanted to do what little I could to help people who were seeking dignity and freedom. Now, sitting in that video booth, I had no idea what that actually meant. But I went back to college with a new focus, new curiosities, and huge gaps in my knowledge that I am still trying to fill to this day.

I share this story not to tell you that you should forge a career in human rights or come join the U.S. government – though we could certainly use you these days. I tell you this story for a different reason: no matter what you now think you might end up doing with your career in order to make sure you land where you will be most fulfilled, you should take in what is going on around you, and listen to your heart, which is where your compass lies.

Serendipity, of the kind I’ve just described, and openness can work magic together – achieving way more than any five-year plan for success. My husband is here with me today, Cass Sunstein – I’m a very lucky girl. You’ll hear why. Cass and I each knew Barack Obama separately before he ran for President, and we each worked on the Obama presidential campaign, but we didn’t know one another. Then one day Cass, who was frustrated by slowness of the work among his particular group of campaign advisers, sent a grumpy email to one of his colleagues, complaining somewhat harshly about the others. The only problem was Cass accidentally sent the email to everyone working on the campaign, including all of those about whom he was complaining. Ever done that? I have. As one who had sent stray emails before, my heart went out to this poor creature, and, although I didn’t know him, I knew he would be completely mortified. I quickly reached out to him to offer my condolences. And now, thanks to his bone-headed email, we are married with a five year old son and a daughter who is nearly two. My advice here is not – class of 2014 – send rude and insulting emails so you can meet the man of your dreams. I’m simply saying you can’t script what is next – you just have to be ready for what comes your way. So try to stay open and alert to what’s in front of you.

I’ve got to say my Lakeside class of 1988 had an advantage over Lakeside class of 2014. You will have to work harder to notice what’s going on around you because all of us these days are so wired up – talking, texting, tweeting, we’re recording – so we have to try extra today to have full peripheral vision to take in all that is going on around us. But make a commitment to yourself that you’re going to look up from your gadgets and notice what’s around you.

Now while the class of 2014 faces more distractions than my class did, you also start with a powerful advantage – you have already shown how large and open your hearts are. When you banded together and rallied to choose your homecoming King, you chose a young man who brings more energy, warmth, and sheer life force to your school than anybody else. You chose King J.J., who is here with us today. J.J., stand up. [Applause] And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been around the world and back several times since I left Lakeside. What you did wouldn’t happen at just any high school. But you all clearly live by the Golden Rule, you chose to reward the qualities we should all seek to emulate, and I have no doubt you have tremendous futures ahead of you. I would also add that it is no coincidence that the night J.J. was elected was also the night the Vikings’ football team crushed North Atlanta. This Lakeside spirit is going to take you far if you can hang onto it.

Now before I finish and allow you to finally dive into that pile of diplomas that is throbbing behind me, I want to thank you for allowing me to share this big day. You all will do great things. But please know – class of 2014 – what your family, your teachers, your friends and this school community values most is not the great things you will do, but the simple good things. What they value most is that you are a good person, that you live open to a whole host of new experiences and opportunities, but also open to seeing that every individual is a person who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

You are ready, more than ready, for the world beyond Lakeside. I don’t know if the world beyond Lakeside is ready for you. But from this day forth we are going to find out!

Congratulations, class of 2014! [Applause]


PRN: 2014/111