Dear Class of 2018,
Somewhere along the line I came across this motto, “some of us were just born lucky.” I’m not sure to whom that applies in your class, but it definitely applies to me. I think I am one of the luckiest persons among us, because for four decades I have never had a real job. I suppose I need to explain. I have always done what I love to do, working with high school students, teaching political science and history, and coaching. My profession has been my avocation. I have merely pursued my passion for 41 years and have adored every minute. How great is that? These past four years with you, especially this year, have been no different, so I want to express my appreciation to the fabulous Spatola advisory group, my A.P. Government classes and to the entire Class of ’18. Consider the areas where you’ve solidified your reputation and successfully contributed to the life of the school: your academic achievements, your athletic accomplishments, your wonderful performances on stage and your community service initiatives. Your class has also been one of the most enthusiastic, thoughtful and responsive I’ve been around. Having said all that, I’d like to slightly digress a bit.
When he was deployed in Iraq, Captain Chris Spatola and his unit were responsible for security and credentials at the Al Rasheed Hotel and the Convention Center. Both facilities were situated in the International Zone, aka the “Green Zone,” which was located in central Baghdad. East of the zone stands the Tigris River and east of the river the earthly equivalent of what was classified as “hell,” although maybe not as “hellish” as Anbar Province in the western part of the country. The aforementioned buildings were used extensively by Saddam Hussein’s government. They and many other public facilities were off limits to the Iraqi people prior to the country’s liberation. I communicated with Chris on a daily basis while he was stationed in Iraq. However, we could not substantively address any political or military issues. Time wouldn’t permit it and we feared that our emails, specifically his, were being monitored. Thus, his urge to share and his self-proclaimed political junkie father’s desire to know were limited. Once he was state-side and the appropriate opportunity presented itself, my insatiable curiosity took hold and I asked Chris, “of all the things you observed, heard or experienced, what had the most profound effect on you?.” When I think about all the possible things he could have shared, ranging from the mundane to the heroic, even horrific, his response amazed me. Without hesitation, he proceeded to tell me about one of his first encounters with an Iraqi civilian at the Convention Center, which by that time had been opened by U.S. forces to the Iraqi public for visits.
The encounter went like this: An Iraqi man and his young son approached Chris. Chris was a bit anxious, but quickly realized that the man and his son had passed through several layers of security. Nevertheless, Chris had never had a direct conversation with an Iraqi citizen. His prior contacts had been with Iraqi officials. Respectfully and squarely looking Chris in the eyes, and the son doing the same, the man began speaking rapidly and emotionally in Arabic. When he finished, Chris turned to his interpreter and asked him to translate. Chris told his interpreter to tell the man and his son that he could not grant the father’s request. The man, with tears beginning to fall, continued his emotional appeal. Making direct eye contact with the father, then the son, Chris told them he was very sorry, but that he could not help them since he was not in a position of authority to do so. With a heavy heart, Chris walked away.
The Iraqi man’s request? Take my son back to the United States where he will be educated and where he will have a future. If he stayed in Iraq, he would have neither; he might even be killed. The United States could provide him an education and a good life.
So, what’s the point? Someone will argue, and effectively so, that our presence in Iraq created and exacerbated the problems that permeated the country beforehand. Consequently, the U.S. made the issues worse for this man, his son and countless Iraqis compared to what they were like during Saddam’s regime. Others will argue that the liberation of Iraq from a brutal tyrant was well worth the subsequent trials and tribulations. Regardless, there are two key points.
Point #1: According to Chris, and I concur, the American flag on his uniform, then and now, represents the hopes and dreams of many. Despite our imperfections, regardless of whether you are conservative, liberal, a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or something else, those labels DO NOT matter. What truly matters is that there are millions around the world for whom the U.S. represents and reflects the noblest of human values. I am not advocating that you blindly follow political leaders, in spite of their laudable or questionable intentions. On the contrary. God knows we aren’t perfect, but we are a pillar of hope. In my view, at no time should any member of this senior class feel guilty for bad policies or apologize for being a citizen of the United States. Cherish your citizenship. But with that comes responsibility. Regardless of your politics, as you move on, actively engage in the process. History tells us that silence results in despotism. Therefore, make your voices heard, but be willing to listen and compromise. Shape the national agenda by mobilizing and voting. Lead and establish paradigms based on the highest degree of integrity and humbly know that the global community still acknowledges our leadership as essential and our stewardship as a blessing not a curse. Character is destiny.
Point #2: There was an Iraqi parent willing to give up his son to a total stranger, and a child willing to sacrifice his family, friends and national identity. For what? An American education for one. Each of you has been the beneficiary of an incredible Durham Academy education, an experience that not only an Iraqi would value, but countless Americans would treasure. Can you put a real price tag on what that’s worth to you? At some point, please try! You don’t know what the future holds, but you do know what you’ve experienced. Doors will open and as a result, a world of precious opportunities will be available to you. Recognize too, that you didn’t do it alone. A Durham Academy diploma is not a receipt of appreciation for your parents. It’s evidence of a remarkable collective achievement, a genuine team initiative, successfully undertaken by you and your “teammates.” Thus, be proud, but also be humble and grateful. Don’t let the effort be in vain. This is merely the beginning, so it’s imperative that you passionately seize the opportunities that emerge. You are ready! DA has prepared you well; there can be no excuses. Have the courage to follow your heart. Confidently pursue your dreams. Dare to be great. Surround yourself with good people, specifically a cadre that will foster and support your continued growth, and will help you discover your passion. Then like me, you will feel as if you never had a real job and you can honestly say, “some of us were just born lucky.”