Commencement 2015: Speeches - Michael Maskin, A15


Photo by Matthew Healey / Tufts Photography

Michael Maskin, A15
Wendell Phillips Orator

May 17, 2015

This is an unusual audience for me. As some of you know, I have spent my four years at Tufts performing with the Traveling Treasure Trunk children's theater troupe. In children's theater, we consider ourselves a hit when our audience members wet their pants with excitement. So, with my apologies in advance, please consider yourselves forewarned.

When I was 5 years old, I was diagnosed with an eye condition that required me to wear an eye patch full-time for several years. To say it changed my perspective on the world would be an understatement. Because as well as literally seeing differently, I was also seen differently by those around me. I was unwillingly cast into different roles: sympathetic, disabled, adventurer, trouble-maker, but always to some extent, an outsider. Now none of these were labels of my choosing or how I necessarily saw myself.

That memory about being made to feel like an isolated outlaw, largely reflected how really good-natured strangers or acquaintances, well-meaning adults, some of whom knew me pretty well, reacted to my odd one-eyed look. But there's another part of that story that is equally as important – the reactions of my five-year-old classmates. Walking into school on that first day after putting on the patch was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was terrified that my classmates would tease me; make fun of me; reject me. But that is not what happened. My classmates sat in a circle around me as I, sitting on Mrs. Antoine's lap, fielded questions about my eye patch. They gave me suggestions about where to store it while I was sleeping (under my pillow, except on nights when I was expecting the tooth fairy), wondered if it came in different colors (it did, there was a cool pterodactyl and a campfire), and what color patch they would wear if they had a patch. They asked me what I named it (I hadn't thought about that, so, as a class, we named it Patchy). Finally, they asked me if they could give me a nickname and when I consented, they dubbed me Michael Patchkin (like Maskin) and I felt like a celebrity. What makes this story so meaningful to me is that it demonstrates something that I have come to appreciate working in children's theater: Children are born with an innate sense of compassion, of wanting to help someone who is struggling, of coming together as a community when one among them is in distress. In fact in Trunk, we count on this instinct when performing for young children. We thrive on audience participation, and kids are so quick to jump in and help one of our characters who needs it, whether by swimming along or offering advice on how to fly. They don't even have to know the right answer, but they are always willing to pitch in with a suggestion.

Somewhere between kindergarten and college, though, we begin to lose touch with that part of ourselves. The emphasis shifts from working together toward common goals to a focus on individual achievement as measured by awards, GPA, college acceptance, and the like. Somewhere along the line, our lives become less about community building and more about resume building. If we allow it, this trend can continue in college and throughout the rest of our lives. But it doesn't have to.

I am grateful that during my four years here I have had the opportunity to study with some brilliant and amazing scholars who have brought into sharp relief how most people in the world struggle in ways I may not have ever considered. I can think of examples from many classes I've taken at Tufts that illustrates this. For example, I learned that as their nation literally gets swallowed up and disappears due to rising sea levels, citizens of the Maldives will have no choice but to disperse to other countries leading to the coining of a new term for the 21st century, climate refugees. Thank you, Professor Ammons. I learned that in order to survive, some public schools in poor districts have no choice but to accept federal funding even though it often requires them to fire much-needed teachers and virtually eliminates all local control over the fates of thousands of their young people. And as their services are being cut, students at these schools by and large do not have the option of enrolling in private SAT prep courses or hiring tutors that will allow them to be competitive with their more affluent peers. Thank you, Professor Cohen. I learned that people living in communities where salt is stored to de-ice roads in other communities, to de-Ice Tufts' campus, for example, or who live where other people's garbage is incinerated, endure extreme health risks for the comfort and safety of others. Thank you, Professor Balbach. I learned that people who are experiencing homelessness, but cannot find a shelter because of the deficit that America is currently facing, have no choice but to sleep outside, or in cars; actions that are outlawed in many cities, often resulting in them spending time in jail. Thank you, Professor Goldman. Notably, these are not separate groups of people each struggling against a single injustice, but often they are the same groups of people facing multiple injustices at once. People living in these conditions cannot overcome these burdens on their own; they need support and solidarity from those in a position to offer them.

Our history is filled with examples of social movements defined by coalitions of often disparate groups of people working together toward a common goal. In the 1960s, it was the masses travelling to our nation's capital on packed busses, sometimes for days, to protest against an unjust war in Vietnam. In the late 1980's and early 90's it was Act Up, a coalition of gay men and women committing acts of civil disobedience in order to raise awareness about the AIDS Pandemic that was wiping out their community. Today, it is the growing multitudes marching for equal justice under the law from Ferguson, to Staten Island, to Baltimore.

So, as we come to the end of our undergraduate years, we should make an effort to relearn what we knew to be true as kids – we need to help each other deal with and fight against the many struggles in life. To be there for one another, because none of us can get through on our own. Despite all of the wonderful individual accomplishments that have enabled us to graduate tomorrow with a degree from Tufts, let's face it, we didn't do it alone.

So, now is the time in my talk for some audience participation. Why should kids have all the fun? I want to ask everyone in this room, not just my classmates, but everyone, to take a few moments and just think about one person you want to thank for helping you to get to this point in your life. It can be a family member, a friend, teacher, mentor, religious leader, all the Moe's and Helen's in your life, a significant other, someone alive or deceased; someone whose support and guidance helped to get you here. OK. Now on the count of three, I'd like for all of us to shout out, as loud as we can, "THANK YOU and the name of that person." Ready? 1, 2, 3. There, didn't that feel good? We should all make sure to do that more. To thank those who helped us be who we are.

And now that we are here, it is our obligation to honor the time and effort so many others expended on us. Graduating from an elite university like Tufts gives us the opportunity to consider many different ways we can leverage our education and the power of our degrees to make an important impact on the world. The choices we have at this juncture in our lives are not available to the vast majority of people on earth. So, the privileged position in which we will find ourselves tomorrow comes with a moral obligation to ensure that others will have these choices too. To quote President Kennedy, who was paraphrasing from the The New Testament, "From whom much is given, much is expected."

And, I am happy to say that there are many examples of this among us. Looking to our own community over the past four years alone there are numerous examples of our classmates joining together to fight injustices both on campus, and off. From students protesting the Keystone XL pipeline to others calling for divestment to those who stood with survivors on the Library roof as classmates spoke out about sexual violence and sexual assault on campus. From others who marched from Tufts into Boston roaring that Black Lives Matter, to those who went on a hunger strike to protest the cutting of janitorial staff; these movements would not have been possible without communities and coalitions that we have formed here. And I want to take a moment to acknowledge some of the conflicted feelings of the past few days between those who saw today's Baccalaureate ceremony and tomorrow's Commencement as important opportunities to protest and be heard and those who feel that these are inappropriate occasions to use for such a purpose. The fact is, that coalitions, especially of strong, passionate, committed people can be a struggle. If we don't struggle, it's because we don't care enough. Democracy is messy, coalitions are messy, social movements are messy, and sometimes really hard. But that is not an excuse not to do the work. We still have to wake up every day and ask, "How can I contribute?" Because these are lifetime commitments. Real social change takes a long, long time, just as it has taken us a long long time to get to this point.

So here we are 2015, look at us - a quirky group of quirky quirks who have a strange but surprisingly strong affinity for maps. Four years ago, the idea of graduation seemed as ridiculous as seeing a giant acorn with a face, or seeing an elephant fly, yet we've now seen both. As we go our separate ways, we will always be bound together by our time here. We are a community, and the collective power of our minds, our bodies, our souls and our commitment to one another is a force to be reckoned with. Take it from Michael Patchkin, we must make the effort to support one another, even if we initially don't see eyes to eye.

Thank you.