The OPRF commencement address was delivered by District 200 board member Steven Gevinson at the OPRF High School graduation ceremony last Sunday, June 1:
I am grateful for the opportunity to help usher all of you graduates into the larger world. I want to thank the board president, John Phelan, for inviting me to do so, as our third and youngest daughter, Tavi, graduates from Oak Park and River Forest High School. I especially want to thank you in advance, Class of 2014, for listening eagerly and carefully to what I have to say, and for remembering it for the rest of your lives.
I should start by noting that my perspective on the high school and on Oak Park is unusual if not unique. OPRF was my first full-time teaching job when I arrived here in 1978, and I stayed until I retired in 2010, teaching English most of that time, and spending my last eight years here as English Division Head. Now as a school board member, I have come full circle and seen this school from nearly every angle.
First, let me apologize to River Foresters for focusing my reflections on Oak Park. I do so only because of time limitations.
Before I leave you with some unforgettable advice, I want to share some of my understanding about our hometown and high school. Today Oak Park deserves its reputation as an open, inclusive, progressive, tolerant, diverse community with great vitality — a wonderful place for anybody and everybody to live. But it wasn't always this way, and it didn't have to happen. Oak Park and OPRF, as we know them, were not inevitable.
When I came to OPRF in 1978 in my late 20s, I found Oak Park to be the most conservative, parochial place I had ever known. If you traveled west from Chicago, it was said, Oak Park was where the bars ended and the churches began. And, in fact, adults of drinking age couldn't buy liquor in Oak Park or drink it in any public place, except one fancy restaurant with the unlikely name of Philander's.
For nearly its entire history, until not long before I arrived, Oak Park, as you may know, was a restricted community, very white and very Christian. If you look at the 1960 Tabula, for example, you won't find any black faces in the graduating class or any black teachers. OPRF had no African-American teachers until sometime in the 1970s. By 1980 there were about seven, with about 50 black students in the graduating class. When I arrived in 1978, Oak Park was a community in transition, a proud community, an innovative community, and a nervous community. It took many smart, brave, committed Oak Parkers to help transform the village from a closed, segregated enclave of parochial privilege to the open, vital, diverse, pluralistic community we are today.
Maybe nothing quickly demonstrates the enormity of the change better than the results of presidential elections over the years. In 1968 Oak Park voted for Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey by almost 2 to 1, 61% to 33%, and not until 1980 did Oak Park vote Democratic, with Jimmy Carter narrowly beating Ronald Reagan. The winning margin for Democrats has widened greatly since then, peaking in 2008 when Barack Obama received a whopping 84% of the vote. That's a swing of about 50% in 40 years. It has been thrilling for me to watch the transformation of Oak Park, especially as the rest of our country has moved so far to the right politically. We embrace and celebrate humanity in all of its diverse forms and expressions. We are progressive – and it feels great to say it.
Now, a few observations about how your high school has changed over the years. OPRF has always been a great public high school. Hemingway received his last formal schooling here. He didn't need to go to college. The Tradition of Excellence walls of the Student Center are chock full of portraits of truly excellent alumni whom we nurtured in our classrooms and extracurricular venues. I hope that many of you will join them there in the future — we will build more walls.
In 1983 Esquire magazine on its 50th anniversary published a special issue called 50 Who Made the Difference with stories on 50 Americans who made the most important contributions to the culture of that day. Two of them — Hemingway and Ray Kroc — were Huskies, and I'm sure that OPRF was the only high school in the country that could claim 2 of the 50.
But while the school was great and quite sure of itself in the first century or so of its history, it was in many ways not open to the changes that were coming, which some felt would threaten its greatness. I'm being a bit vague here, but I'll say that in those nervous days of transition, the school was somewhat slow to embrace its growing diversity and to transform itself into a place that welcomes and looks out for all of its students. Some in the community and in the school feel that such problems still exist. But I want to notice and recognize what I would call the new greatness of OPRF. We are still a traditional academic powerhouse, and when many of you go off to college, you will find that you are far better prepared for your new world than most of your classmates.
But the best sign of the new greatness, I'd say, which only enhances the old greatness, is the sensational and amazing Spoken Word Poetry program run by Peter Kahn. When I started here in 1978, such a program would have been inconceivable. To have imagined something like the energy and spirit of a Spoken Word showcase 36 years ago would have sent legions of faithful DOOPers (Dear Old Oak Parkers) into conniptions, catatonia, and possibly early graves.
But we as a school, thanks in great part to Mr. Kahn, came to understand that Spoken Word, with its roots in hip-hop, spoke to many, many students on an essential level and provided them with an opportunity for expression that nothing else in our curriculum could.
And so the school established the first and only full-time position of its kind in any public school anywhere for Mr. Kahn: Spoken Word Poetry and Black Literature Educator. Mr. Kahn's work over the last 10 or 11 years is only the most visible and fabulously successful example of our new greatness, of the many efforts that your school has made in the last 20-30 years to meet the needs of every student in the school. It is a major change in the way we have thought of our school, and it is an ongoing challenge that we take extremely seriously.
So you're graduating from a special place, and you're bringing a remarkable educational legacy and experience with you into the world.
Now let me offer you some invaluable and memorable advice to take along as well because not every place is as nurturing and forward-looking as your hometown and alma mater. First of all, get serious. Fun is fine, but be a serious person. Read! Read and keep reading. Read good stuff. Read a good newspaper or consume responsible news in another form every day. I'd recommend the New York Times. Read good analysis of national and world events. Read serious literature. Feel it deeply. You will grow enormously.
Educate yourself on what's important. Inform yourself. Listen to all voices. And think! Think critically about everything that comes your way — including what I'm telling you right now. Figure things out. Come to your own independent judgments using your amazing, God-given brain.
Then act! Act! Do something good. Do the right thing. Be a good person on a personal level, and be a good citizen. Participate fully in this democracy — or we will lose it. This great democracy is just a fragile political experiment on a fragile planet. All kinds of people are trying to screw it up, and not just terrorists who hate America. More dangerous, I'd say, are a few incredibly, obscenely, super-wealthy Americans who are trying to distort, pervert, corrupt, and purchase the political system. But don't take my word for it. Read about it. Figure it out yourself. Whatever you do, don't waste your precious gift, which is you.
I'm going to tell a quick story here about your classmate and my independent-minded daughter, Tavi, from when she was 3 years old. On a cold winter day, my wife Berit tried to persuade her to put on a winter coat, which Tavi didn't want to do. Berit said, "Tavi, it's really cold out there. If I were you, I'd put on this warm coat." And our 3-year-old daughter replied, "Well, if I were me, which I am, I wouldn't, so I won't." So, she learned something about cold that morning, but my advice still is: Be the actor, not the acted-upon.
As some people think of it — and as I like to think of it — we've all got a body, a soul, and a mind. The best advice I ever heard at a graduation ceremony was from Dennis Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Chicago. He advised graduates to "take care of your body as if you were going to live forever, and to take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow."
I love that advice — please follow it — and I would add: Take care of your mind as if what you think really matters, and act on what you know.
Congratulations, Class of 2014! Be good, be healthy, do good work, find love, follow your dreams, let your reach exceed your grasp, and stay wide awake. If you do all that, you will truly honor the great and ever-evolving tradition of Oak Park and River Forest High School.
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