In the Valley
A path to public service—and to Harvard
Harvard graduations don’t occur only in May—degrees are conferred in November and March as well. With more and more undergraduates taking semesters off to study, work, and volunteer far from Cambridge, the College hosts a special mid-year observance for degree recipients who can’t make the spring ceremony. Michael Zuckerman ’10, of New Brunswick, New Jersey, a social studies concentrator from Lowell House, delivered this graduation address at that celebration on December 9, 2010.
Congratulations on making it to this day.
Twelve years ago, I stepped away from playing an auto-racing computer game with a friend to answer a ringing telephone. The call was from my parents’ doctor. The next thing I knew, I was in the passenger seat of a 1992 Mercury station wagon, watching my mother speed through red lights like one of the characters on the computer screen. Fifteen minutes later, as we pulled into an inner-city emergency-room parking lot, I learned that my father was dead. I was 12 years old, almost exactly half the age I am today.
At the time, that seemed like a pretty rotten thing for the universe to do. And, for a long time, I didn’t talk about it much. My thoughts on the subject were mostly expressed through my actions, which, during my career as a middle-school student, were likely to wind up with me in front of a principal, a police officer, or even a judge. Which, in turn, I took as further evidence that the universe held something deeply against me.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that if my father—a man who almost never brought his work home with him—hadn’t died, I never would have been at his funeral to hear the story of an 80-year-old African-American woman he’d helped sue a racist cop who’d pushed her down a flight of stairs. Or that his payment for the years of pro bono litigation had been a sequence of sweet-potato pies.
Likewise, if I hadn’t kept getting into trouble, an important adult in my life would have never told me I had to start doing community service after school, which means I never would have had to do art projects with a six-year-old boy named Tyshawn, who lived in the motels outside Trenton, New Jersey—and who’d had a much worse life than I’d had. Which means I, at age 14, never would have become a friend to Tyshawn, and he, at age six, never would have become one of the greatest teachers in my life.
If those things hadn’t happened, I might never have come to the knowledge that domestic public service ran in the family, or, more importantly, had the epiphany that it was something I could take great joy in doing. And if those revelations hadn’t come, I probably would never have had the opportunity to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Harvard with all the extraordinary people who populate Lowell House, or help get a president elected with all the extraordinary people who populate the state of Ohio. I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to share this happy afternoon with all of you.
There is a trite version of what I’m saying, which is that “when God closes a door, She opens a window.”
There is also an elegant version of what I’m saying, which is that “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, Falls drop by drop upon the heart, And in our own despite, against our will, Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
I don’t know who came up with the first one. The second one comes from the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, though the line was more famously used by Bobby Kennedy on April 4, 1968, when fell to him the heartbreaking task of informing a huge African-American crowd at one of his campaign rallies that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. That was in Indianapolis, Indiana, the only major American city that didn’t erupt into riots that night.
Perhaps the looting and burning and killing didn’t come to Indianapolis because Kennedy had reminded the city of an ancient truth: that in the midst of great hardship is often born the seed of great insight, and even success.
The reason I am sharing this with you today is that we are entering a phase of our lives in which at least some of the things we love will be taken away from us. They may be loved ones, or things we hoped were true about ourselves, or dreams we had about who we planned to become. Though many of us have survived childhood with a lot of these things intact, there has never in the history of humanity been a person who didn’t have to lose at least one thing that he or she cared about.
I hope for all of us that these things will be weathered by the years as little as possible. But I also hope that, when the storm clouds do inevitably gather over some part of our lives, we will be quick to locate the shards of light that just as inevitably will pierce that darkened sky, and follow them up to new heights.
It may be, as Thomas Mann once wrote, that happiness and success often signal decline because they need time to reach us, “like the light of an overhanging star, which, when it shines most brightly, may well have already gone out.”
Whether or not that is true, I have come to trust that sorrow and despair often signal the beginning of a great ascent. And that is because they leave us in the valley beneath a great mountain. And it’s in the climbing that we learn to see again—as for the first time—everything it is that we love about living.
That’s the end of my speech. But before I go, there is a larger point I need to make: that no one survives alone. Somewhere sitting in the audience is my mother, who not only kept food on the table and kept me in school, but also stuck with me and continued to love me even when I seemed to be doing everything I could to make her life as difficult as possible. So thank you, Mom. You’re an inspiration and I wouldn’t be here without you.
And thank you all, for four—well, more than four—wonderful years, and for letting me speak to you today.
And congratulations, class of 2010-11. Thank you.