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Headlines at Hopkins
Commencement 2003

School of Professional Studies in Business and Education
Undergraduate and Graduate Diploma Award Ceremony
Remarks by Ralph Smith, Senior Vice President,
The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Thursday, May 22 | Homewood Field | 7:30 p.m.

Dean Fessler, Vice Provost Roulac, Vice Presidents McGill and Robertson, distinguished guests, faculty and staff: I am grateful for the invitation and I will admit to some trepidation. I am a recovering law professor. And the occupational hazard associated with that admission is that law professors need forty-five minutes for a sound bite. I am, however, acutely aware and will be mindful of the fact that I am one of the last remaining obstacles standing in the path of those who are here today to accept the degree they have worked long and hard to earn.

As I sought out that one powerful message, trope, metaphor or frame for my talk this evening, I sought inspiration from a number of sources -- people and texts to whom and to which I have turned again and again throughout my own checkered career. It is a veritable study group with an eclectic set of members and mentors.

As a member of the generation that went to college in the sixties and seventies, it is unsurprising that an early voice was that of the once anonymous author of Desiderata. According to lore, Desiderata was penned in 1692 and found years later in Old Saint Paul's Church right here in Baltimore. In truth, Desiderata -- Latin for "things to be desired" was written in the 1920's by Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana. Yet even without the luster of a distant and mysterious past, Desiderata still seemed so pertinent that the late great Adlai Stevenson planned to use it as his Christmas greeting just before he passed away in 1965. If Max was good enough for Adlai Stevenson, he is certainly welcome in my circle of inspirational advisers.

I commend to your attention two of Desiderata's injunctions:

"Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans."


"Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time."

Johann Wolfgang Goethe offered up his words of encouragement:

"Whatever you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

Rudyard Kipling was up next and reading from his 1910 collection of verses he hit upon my favorite, If:

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch, If all men count with you, but none too much."

But it was Washington Irving who claimed my full attention as he reminded me of his recounting of the now classic tale of Rip Van Winkle. He described Rip Van Winkle as "one of those happy mortals of foolish well-oiled dispositions, with an `aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. Left to himself he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment." Note to parents: Mr. Irving has asked that I make this disclaimer on his behalf. Despite what you might think, he was not referring to any member of this graduating class nor to any of your other children, siblings or not-distant-enough relatives.

Anyway, Washington Irving reminded me that this amiable fellow, Rip Van Winkle, went for a walk one day, fell asleep and did not awake and return for some twenty years.

As Washington Irving was telling his story, Theodor Geisel chimed in. Who is Theodor Geisel? You ask. You know him as Dr. Suess.

"You are being way too serious, too serious indeed," Suess opines. "This is a graduating class and I know exactly what they need." With that he begins to recite passages from a well-traveled copy of Oh! The Places You Will Go:

Today is Your Day
You're off to great places
You're off and away!

You'll look up and down streets.
Look 'em over with care
About some you will say,
I don't choose to go there
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet
You're too smart to go down any not-so-good street."

Dr. Suess would have gone on for awhile had Irving not interrupted to continue his story. I am glad that he did. It took awhile, but it finally dawned on me why he was being so insistent.

We come to this occasion on this day, in this place, at a time when many of us are concerned, disturbed and distracted by what is happening in the world in which we live.

Many who are graduating this evening face a more uncertain immediate future than anyone could have suspected just a few short years ago. Unemployment, layoffs, public deficits, bankruptcies all are at or near historic highs. Shaken by our battered economy, we are buffeted by almost daily disclosures of scandal, greed, excess and abuse of trust. And no sector of the society has been immune -- not the private sector, not the public sector, not nonprofits, not philanthropy and not the faith community. These stories, told widely and repeatedly, all too often overwhelm the good work, generosity and civic contribution of so many in each of these sectors.

Today's troubles go beyond the faltering economy and the search for civic virtue. "Homeland security" was a phrase and a concept that few of us could have described two years ago. Today homeland security is priority one. Many who are here tonight had to decide to travel at a time when our nation's government has issued an Orange Alert and the nation's capital is ringed by antiaircraft artillery. And in this electronic age where competing ideas can be erased by a single powerful image, the images of September 11, 2001 have had a profound impact on national policy, national priorities and our nation's psyche.

So let's accept Washington Irving's invitation to peer ahead twenty years. And let's assume that we gather in this place twenty years from now to help our Rip Van Winkle understand what we have accomplished. If this class lives up to standards of its predecessors, you will have much to tell.

First of all, many of you who are not yet parents will be and you will huddle in coveys first bragging about and then bemoaning your children. Those of you who are grandparents will bring the photos. And you will take sweet satisfaction in hearing your own children grumbling that you are spoiling your grandkids and that you are making a difficult situation worse. After all, they complain, it is so tough raising children these days especially those teenagers who seem to be all limbs and hormones and attitude. And the grandparents will smile, knowing that at long last they have proof that there really is justice in the world.

Once past the children and grandchildren you will be able to talk about your careers. We will have among you decision makers, opinion leaders, and persons of influence, power and authority in the armed forces as well as politics, in higher education as well as law enforcement, medicine and journalism. On your left and right and all around, you will find successful lawyers, educators, and entrepreneurs. And as you recount the various pathways and by-ways you have taken, you will find again and again that the time spent at this remarkable institution has served you well, throughout the region, across the national and around the world. And many of you would have found ways to give back. In fact, many of you will be listed upon the latest generation of benefactors -- funding scholarships and chairs and community service.

But then, Rip Van Winkle might interrupt. He will note that he is quite impressed by your individual and collective accomplishments. But he might ask, as the Maasai asks, "How are the children?" and here he means not my child, nor your children, but the children of the folks who lived around but not on the campus, those children sometimes labeled "at-risk" or "deprived" or "disadvantaged." How did they fare? And where are they now?

Washington Irving leans over to remind me that Rip Van Winkle always had special fondness for children.

From his rumpled Colombo-worthy overcoat, he will pull a few tattered dog-eared pages drawn from the 2000 U.S. Census, the Annie E. Casey's KIDS COUNT Report and various publications of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. And he will remind us all of the dismal statistics: awful birth outcomes, elevated blood lead levels, school failure, school dropouts, and too early pregnancies.

And Baltimore was not alone. These dreary statistics told the story of children in communities across the nation who lived within sight, earshot and walking distance of, and yet light years from, institutions just like Johns Hopkins. The parents of these children were counted among the working poor.

Again Irving prompts me. I should apologize for Mr. Van Winkle. He's always lacked the social grace to avert his eyes from the uncomfortable and to avoid difficult topics at auspicious occasions such as this.

"How are the children?" he repeats. And he strains to hear the traditional Maasai response that "all the children are well." And when he does not, he seems confused by our silence. And in that silence I hear the resonant and resolute voice of my hero, Marian Wright Edelman, intoning the prayer penned by Ina Hughes:

"We pray for those (children)
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren't spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move but have no being.

We pray for children
Who want to be carried
And for those who must be.
For those we never give up on and
For those who never got a second chance.
For those we smother
And for those who will grab the hand of anybody
kind enough to offer it."

Some of you may have read There Are No Children Here -- a fascinating book authored by Alex Kotlowitz published a little more than a decade ago. This is a chronicle of the travails and the triumphs of families living in public housing in Chicago. Aptly described by the Chicago Sun Times as "`an extraordinary glimpse into the live of those struggling for survival and dignity in inner city America,'" There Are No Children Here became a national best seller. A few years later, Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in the television movie. I liked the book immensely. But it was that television program and its epilogue that moved me to tears.

At its conclusion, with cameras rolling, they interviewed real children who still lived in that public housing development. The very last child interviewed was a twelve-year old girl. And I remember that because my son was also twelve at the time. The off-camera voiced asked the young girl what she would like to be twenty years from now.

She paused. She repeated the question. "Twenty years from now?" She paused again. And finally after what seemed like an eternity, she said, "I can't imagine twenty years from now."

We live in the most prosperous nation on earth and in the history of the world. And yet we tolerate a society where too many children see the horizons constrained, the aspirations contained and their imagination curtailed by race and class, poverty and despair.

We live in a society where far too many parents are unable to co-produce good outcomes for their children. Where these parents must choose between losing their children to mean streets or confine them at home and watch them succumb to shuttered imaginations and stillborn dreams.

The question I often ask and now invite you to join asking is this: How can we know as much as we do, spend as much as we do, care as much as we say we do and accomplish so little for so many children over so long a period of time as to compromise permanently their lives and prospects for growing into responsible adults, effective parents and contributing citizens?

There are days when I find an answer to that question:

We don't know as much as we think we do, and all too often we cannot muster the personal courage or political will to act on what we know.

We don't spend as much as we should, but until we do better with what we have, it will be difficult to prevail in getting what we need.

We don't care as much as we say we do because some children matter more than others. And some children matter not at all.

And that is why, in tough neighborhoods this city and across this land, far too many children plan their funerals. Far too few plan their futures.

But what of twenty years from now? Let US stand in for that twelve year old. Let US imagine twenty years from now. Let's imagine that we could say in unison as the Maasai would say, "The children, they are well." And then let us suppose that we each could tell of the great and not-so-great deeds we have done individually and collectively to improve the lives, well being and prospects of the most isolated families so that these parents can succeed where all parents want to succeed -- having the ability and capacity protect, nurture and provide for their children.

Some of us would tell of the policy initiatives we supported to provide health care, food security and quality education for every child. Some of us would describe how we gave our time, talent and treasure to struggling community organizations. Some of us would reminisce about how important that one-to-one mentoring experience was -- how it changed our lives as well as theirs. We got to know the children and their parents. We learned to look at them with new eyes and to find among their challenges and their problems, sources of joy and strength, resilience, health and healing.

And here Washington Irving would intervene to remind us about what was most important about his story. And this is why Dr. Martin Luther King loved this story and told it so often.

It was not that Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years. You see, when Rip Van Winkle left the village that day, he barely noticed as he passed that the portrait on the sign on the tavern at the corner of the square bore the likeness of King George III. When he returned to the village twenty years later, that sign bore the likeness of George -- not King George, but General George Washington.

You see, Rip Van Winkle had slept through a revolution that changed the face and fate of the world.

John Lennon invites us to Imagine. Imagine all the people -- all of us -- saying to Rip Van Winkle that what he had missed this time was the transformation of opportunity and possibility for the distressed neighborhoods in this nation. And for the families and children who live in them. Those children who would have roamed the streets in East and West Baltimore now walk the campuses and sit in the classrooms and labs at Johns Hopkins. That we had sought out and supported the activists and natural helpers who create and sustain community through persistent nonrandom acts of kindness and generosity. That we recognized them for what they are -- champions of hope -- and working with them and supporting them, we had learned how to instill hope when once there was only hopelessness.

If this were your report -- our report -- you could claim an accomplishment and a contribution worthy of the talent represented at this gathering and in this place and worthy of this wonderful school and this great institution.

Goethe, Kipling, Ehrmann, King, Edelman, Hughes, Lennon, Irving, Suess and yes, Van Winkle himself would approve.

Be brave. Be bold. Believe. Godspeed.

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