Commencement 2010 - Senior Class Address
by Teresa Young '10
Imagine for a moment a school where over half the students in the 6th grade class are at least two years behind in math and reading. Now picture the director of this same school saying, “We are calling our school the Promise Academy because we are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses.” The dissonance between these two situations is apparent and yet they occurred simultaneously under the direction of the Harlem Promise Academy’s founder, Geoffrey Canada. He made these promises, backed with a vision to create a harmonic environment of educational achievement among his students. Four years ago we came to Denison under the banner of our class’ theme, ‘Dissonance and Harmony.’ Many of us had visions of harmonic possibilities for our own lives, not unlike Geoffrey Canada’s dream for Harlem youth. Since then, we have founded and maintained campus organizations, engaged in dialogue on all types of diversity, and embodied excellence in wearing the hats of scholar, performer, leader, athlete, activist, cultural ambassador and friend among many others. Today I will ask all of you to question whether we truly have achieved any new harmony in our lives or if the dissonance still lingers in our dreams and visions.
In the book Whatever It Takes, Geoffrey Canada’s quest to ensure academic success in Harlem compels readers to contemplate the social injustices within America’s public school system, especially disadvantages related to socioeconomic factors that impact students’ lives even before their schooling begins. His non-profit organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone didn’t just create a youth center with tutoring or a drug and alcohol education program-- though either of these would have benefitted the community enormously. Instead, Canada built an educational system that accounted for every stage of a child’s development from birth through high school, with the Promise Academy, the first ever charter school sponsored by a non-profit organization, as the programs’ final piece of the puzzle. The Academy would ensure each student’s academic readiness to take on collegiate challenges following their graduation. Canada envisioned this system of child development programs as a net woven so tightly, so meticulously, that no child would be able to fall through to face the dismal future of Harlem’s uneducated majority: plagued by unemployment, crime, and little hope for radical change.
As Denisonians, we also understand Canada’s pursuit of knowledge and educational achievement and have turned into that pursuit in diverse ways. Four years ago we were invited as Denison’s newest scholars to contribute to our class’s creative project entitled Dissonance and Harmony. Through our artwork, poems, pictures and stories we made our first marks on campus and expressed strong internal dissonance in light of: Denison’s rigorous academic expectations, the choice of our academic majors and whether they would be “right” for our careers, and the pressures of the unfamiliar as we moved away from friends and family. We believed in profound, instinctive ways that these four years on the hill would clearly reveal our questions’ answers. I have come to firmly believe that rather than ushering harmony into any of our lives, our time as Denisonians has stirred up within ourselves a dissonance of a greater magnitude. I struggled with my own internal dissonance by waiting to complete my artwork for the class project until just a few days before it was due. Then I sheepishly asked my mom if she would overnight the package so it would arrive to campus on time. There was certainly nothing like discovering my capacity for procrastination and the dissonance it would create even before I got here!
In another, more serious, case of personal dissonance I reflect on my thoughts and feelings from a year and a half ago when the Denison community experienced the tragic loss of Spanish professor Eduardo Jaramillo. Professor Jaramillo was my academic advisor and when suddenly I found myself without his academic wisdom and general life guidance, I felt stranded in a state of uncomfortable dissonance. I found myself in these moments rethinking my academic goals, my professional ambitions, and probably most pressing at the time, my engagement with the Spanish language and the Modern Languages department here at Denison. Just several weeks ago, we as a campus community found ourselves again faced with these questions about our motivations, goals, and dreams with the loss of our classmate, Lindsay Gund. Amidst our doubts, grieving, and dissonance following these events, I also believe we have been blessed with opportunities to support one another and celebrate Eduardo and Lindsay’s full and meaningful lives. In doing so, so many of us have re-evaluated our work ethic and our passions to become a more positive influence on others’ lives.
All these trials considered, I would not want to discredit the moments of harmony that we have shared in the last four years— in typing a final period in a well-researched class project, claiming victory against a conference rival on the athletic fields, participating in a moving musical performance, or remembering the countless moments shared with individuals whose friendships we will treasure far beyond the hill. The dissonance, however, seems so much stronger as we transition into what they call the “real world.” I still have questions about my long-term professional career, and how I might be an engaged, impassioned citizen that effectively brings positive change to the issues that I care about most, equality in access to educational resources and how to make this equality a reality in students’ lives. How I will achieve this dream of educational equality is still unclear at this moment in my life’s journey. In the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada faced some of this same unending dissonance. Amidst stagnant student test scores and unrest among school faculty, Canada was unsure if his schools would be able to fulfill the educational promises made to students and their families. At the end of the school’s 3rd year, ominous consequences, including elimination of the school’s financial backing, threatened Canada if he did not make the right changes immediately. Certainly not without fear, he faced his internal dissonance in the difficult decisions to be made and, to this day, leads the Promise Academy closer to his dream of educational equality in Harlem.
Reflecting on my time as a Denisonian, the experiences I value most not only sparked my curiosity but also inspired new questions, many of which remain unanswered. For example, an alternative spring break trip in inner-city Chicago led me to pursue an internship that summer on neighborhood development in Columbus’ west side, which led to my participation in a class on urban development with Dr. Karl Sandin, which led to…well, you get the picture. M. Scott Peck, American psychiatrist and author, once said, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” The dissonance that will inevitably be a part of our lives no matter what path we pursue after Denison is not something to be ignored or even feared. No, if we approach these challenges with the same boldness that has lead us to such great successes here on the hill, we will undoubtedly invent new songs to sing, new solutions to complex problems, new cures for those in need. This dissonance that has and will permeate our life experiences need not sit in the pits of our stomachs to prevent us from taking valiant action. May that dissonance push each of us to do great things, may it push all of us to make great lives.
- Peck, M. Scott. Abounding Faith: A Treasury of Wisdom. Riverside, NJ: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003.
Tough, Paul. Whatever it Takes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.