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Episode 12: Graduation

Graduation speeches tend to be predictable and repetitive. They rarely leave a lasting impression. But a couple months ago, Harvard Graduate School of Education student Donovan Livingston's voice echoed around the world as his poetic commencement speech went viral.

This was not his first time at the podium. A decade earlier, Donovan’s high school graduation speech went a little differently. His poem never made it to the stage. On the season finale of Stories with a Heartbeat, we sit down with Donovan Livingston to explore the conflict of silencing and the power of poetry to overcome it.

Download Episode 12 Now

"At the core, none of us were meant to be common. We were born to be comets." Poet Donovan Livingston

As Donovan Livingston walked up to the podium in Cambridge, Massachusetts he projected confidence with a lighthouse smile scanning the room. What happened next was reported on by pretty much every major English language media outlet in the world and dubbed by some as the greatest graduation speech, ever.

Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations.
If you take the time to connect the dots,
You can plot the true shape of their genius —
Shining in their darkest hour.
I look each of my students in the eyes,
And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt
And the pyramids of Giza.
I see the same twinkle
That guided Harriet to freedom.
I see them. Beneath their masks and mischief,
Exists an authentic frustration;
An enslavement to your standardized assessments.
At the core, none of us were meant to be common.
We were born to be comets,
Darting across space and time —
Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.
A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here

Watch Donovan's Full Speech Below.

The world heard Donovan's story loud and clear. His speech titled "Lift Off," talked about education, inequality and empowering students. And he delivered that message with poetry. But before his poem started, Donovan began the address by recalling another big graduation speech. One that did not go as planned.

About 10 years ago, Donovan was the student body president at Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was preparing to give the high school graduation speech. And Donovan thought rather than doing another standard speech, he would include some poetry in his address. But his English teacher, the faculty member in charge of commencement ceremony, stepped in to pull the plug. 

"She chastised me for even thinking that," Donovan said. "She threatened to cut my microphone if I went into a poem or a rap or anything like that."

In the moment, Donovan just moved on. It was an idea and she said no. He holds no animosity towards the teacher; he made that very clear. But he does see that moment a little differently now. Since high school, Donovan has carved out a career for himself as a college advisor working the first generation and underrepresented students. Donovan has dedicated his life to the power of students stories. He sees how these stories are the foundation for their success and how creativity and poetry can unlock their potential. School is a place where these stories should be fostered not held back.

"Education is no equalizer. Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream." Poet Donovan Livingston

After his Harvard speech hit the Internet, Donovan received messages of support from around the world. Celebrities and politicians lined up to congratulate him online. But one message really stood out. It was a twitter message from his former high school English teacher.

Donovan said: "And we talked and we had a good laugh about it… We talked about how much we both grew from that experience, and she said she wishes she hadn't of said that. And that meant a lot to me."

The teacher explained she had been new to the school at the time and did not want to veer from tradition at the graduation ceremony. Donovan said he understands and believes everything worked out the way it was supposed to in the end. He said, "You know, you could look at it and say had it not been for that moment, lift off may have never happened."

This is a tale of two poems. One that never was, and one that will live for ever. It is a beautifully simple look at the power of silence and poetry. And in the end, it was the poem itself that brought Donovan and his teacher back together to reconnect and make amends.

Donovan's determination to share his creativity on a commencement stage, even if it was a decade late, transformed the benign tradition of stale graduation platitudes into a worldwide poetic sensation. Donovan said poetry is his true voice.

"It keeps me alive." he said.

Are we not astronomers — looking for the next shooting star?
I teach in hopes of turning content, into rocket ships —
Tribulations into telescopes,
So a child can see their potential from right where they stand.
An injustice is telling them they are stars
Without acknowledging night that surrounds them.
Injustice is telling them education is the key
While you continue to change the locks.
Education is no equalizer —
Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
So wake up — wake up! Lift your voices
Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.
Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.
I’ve been a Black hole in the classroom for far too long;
Absorbing everything, without allowing my light escape.
But those days are done. I belong among the stars.
And so do you. And so do they.
Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
For generations to come.
No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.
Lift off.

Stories with a Heartbeat is a new podcast produced by North Carolina Public Radio and hosted by poet Will McInerney that uses poetry and storytelling to help us understand conflict. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your podcast platform of choice.

Check out Donovan's website to learn more about his poetry. Thanks to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the audio from Donovan’s speech.

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Will McInerney is an award-winning spoken word poet, storyteller, educator, and journalist specializing in the intersection of conflict resolution and creative expression. Will hosts and produces Stories with a Heartbeat, a new podcast that explores the complexity of the human condition in conflict through poetry, stories, and conversation. In addition, Will helps with education reporting and produces the My Teacher Project.
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