Commencement speech

It’s graduation time, a time that always reminds me of possibly the biggest honor I’ve ever had—speaking at my Bank Street College Commencement in 2006. It was the largest group I’ve ever spoken to at the majestic Riverside Church in lower Harlem, which held so many respected classmates and teachers. I like to look back on it now and then. It reminds me of the attitude with which I entered teaching—one that has changed in many ways, but not in all ways. It causes me to reflect on some ideas, principles, and worries I had then and still find relevant.

Posting a slightly abridged version here. I will reflect on some of the ideas in a subsequent post.

President Kappner, members of the faculty, my fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to be here today graduating from such a special place as Bank Street College. This is the first graduation for which I feel qualified to represent my school and speak on behalf of my fellow graduates. It’s not because I was not a good student at other educational institutions I attended. It was that, on some level, I always found myself a little bit on the outside of things. Here at Bank Street though, I have been able to participate honestly and openly in a learning community. The faculty members, with all of their experience, showed us over and over that they were interested in our perspectives, that our ongoing experiences were essential elements of the teaching and learning process.

As I leave Bank Street and enter the New York City Public school system, I find that once again, I am a bit of an outsider. Having been part of this community of people who value children’s perspectives and are dedicated to helping them become themselves, I leave not quite alone. With me, I carry what sometimes feels like a great secret about how children learn, but that I hope will not remain one.

Last week as I patiently waited with a straight face for two of my students to cease their private conversation during a whole class meeting, one of the two students said to me, “Miss” (as they call me), “Were you always good? Were you never bad in school?” I thought for a minute and a previously lost memory presented itself. When I was in middle school, I wore silver rings on three or four fingers of each hand. During class, when the boredom and frustration became unbearable and I was not supposed to speak, I would tap the bottoms of my fingers with the rings on the edge of the desk. It sounded something like horses cantering. 

Today I can see in this behavior the expression of a need that all children have: the need to be heard. In a way, my small rebellion was a healthy response to a kind of oppression that society as a whole needs to consider, as it is in a sense, the mother and the child of all forms of oppression.

The feeling I remember having while enacting this particular behavior was a combination of playful curiosity—What would happen if I made horses canter on the desk?—and also anger. I was angry at my teacher for being so dull, but also for not hearing my sound and immediately recognizing that I was capable of so much more.

My work at Bank Street has been about finding ways to bring students’ voices into the conversation that is learning. Designing experiences in the classroom, we create pathways for children to walk and talk and make their way through an education. We do not expect our students to become exactly who we might want them to be, or exactly like us. We know that with their growth, the world inevitably shifts, and that the world we want is one where the urge to play brings about learning and innovation, rather than anger and defeat.

Today as we celebrate our accomplishments at Bank Street, I have been wondering how we are going to put our knowledge into practice over the lives of our careers. Will we be complicit in the lies that discourage children from becoming whole in this system? If we keep what we know hidden inside of us, then we are complicit. And soon enough, the knowledge we possess becomes a great secret, even to ourselves. Instead, we must believe that what is worth protecting is also worth sharing.  

Thank you.

Ariel Sacks

Bank Street College

Class of 2006

 

[Image credit: georgetown.edu]

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