‘Tis the season of commencement speeches. Barack Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, Lin-Manuel Miranda: The most important personalities topped one another’s performances, delivering inspiring talks about life, hardship, success, hope.
Yet there is something uniquely powerful in hearing the perspective of someone who is part of the graduating class. And when that person is a poet, like Donovan Livingston, aka D.LIV(E), a 2016 graduate of the Harvard School of Education, magic might just happen.
Delivered on May 26, Livingston’s speech (a poem), Lift off, is about education and its power to make the most of people’s potential, change lives, and ultimately the world.
Livingston opened with a quote from Horace Mann: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin/ Is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” Livingston doesn’t just celebrate education. He also sharply points out the inequalities that education itself helps perpetuate, reminding us what it means to be a black student in a prestigious environment. “For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time,” he says, “How many times must we be made to feel like quotas/Like tokens in coined phrases?/“Diversity. Inclusion.”
Livingston urges teachers to use education as an instrument to destroy the inequality some students encountered at birth and asks fellow students to rise above their own limitations. “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.”
This passage alone would be enough to make Livingston’s poem a winner this commencement season:
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.