It was just another high school graduation in one more streamer-bedecked gym, with all the usual trappings, the procession, the band, the beach balls, the decorated caps, the parents, the dignitaries.
Except it wasn’t ordinary at all: it was as powerful a statement of faith from both a student and from the crowd itself as you will ever see.
I was one of the “dignitaries,” invited to speak at my old high school, Amsterdam High, in upstate New York. Amsterdam is an old mill town in the chronically depressed Mohawk Valley. Some speakers spoke of “following your dreams.” But this is an area where reality has long intruded. It’s the hard-scrabble area that Richard Russo wrote about in Mohawk.
”A great deal of territory had been surrendered since our ancestors had stolen the land and erected white churches with felled trees,” Russo wrote, “Up and down the Mohawk valley the green world had gone brown and gray, and the people who lived beneath the smokestacks and in the shadows of the tanneries were scared that even the brown and gray might not last. They didn’t know what came after brown and gray, and neither did I. One thing was for sure. Each Mohawk Fair was sadder and grayer than the last. And winter followed. With a capital W.”
The mills and the jobs have long vanished. Folks still have their dreams, but they know they come at a cost. So I spoke about hard work and persistence and planning. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s no such thing as a free dream. At least, not a realized one.
I’d like to say my words were the highlight of the morning. They weren’t. Not by a long shot.
There were speeches before me. One was from the salutatorian. Rebekah Izzo. Her resume was pretty standard for such things: National Honor Society, Class President, a New York State Regents Scholarship. She wants to be a nurse.
She is, however, also leader of the school’s Bible study group, and when she stood up to speak she startled the crowd by saying this: “The district forced me to change my original speech because it contained a personal message for each individual here of what God can do in [their] own life.”
The school district deemed her original words an establishment of religion. But if they thought they might silence Rebekah Izzo they were wrong about that as well. She went on to speak of God and his importance in her life with a feeling and a bravery and strength that electrified the stunned crowd. This was not what anyone came expecting to see or hear, but this is what they knew to be true from the hopes they themselves had placed in God when their own difficulties had confronted them, when their own personal “brown and gray” threatened to fade.
Her words were clear, her voice strong and unhesitant. The average high school senior speaking before such a large crowd might betray a bit of a quaver. The average high school senior, wondering if her mike might suddenly go dead, might quaver quite a bit. She did not. Not at all.
She finished. They started. One by one they rose to their feet until the entire gymnasium was at its feet, applauding a commencement speaker had never been applauded in their city before — or would likely be again. It was all wonderfully akin to the singing of La Marseillaise in “Casablanca.”
“I had to take out the last verse,” Rebekah Izzo told the local paper afterwards, “which said, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.’ I also had to omit basically everything that I said about [what] God could do in their lives; I had to rephrase it so that it was aimed at myself because they wouldn’t let me give a personal message to the people of what I thought God wanted them to hear. … I think God was spoken for and I really felt his presence in the gym and I’m so happy with how everything turned out with my speech.”
Eventually I spoke. I had planned to speak about kindness at the end, the danger of internet snarkiness and how that level of sheer meanness could bleed into the rest of the poster’s life. In preparing my remarks I had wondered about leaving the next part in, and then decided that, yes, I absolutely had to. “There’s a terser version of that,” I concluded, “it’s found in a book written a long time ago that was the most radical and transformative of all time, in the words of a teacher who employed the most innovative and counter-intuitive methods of instructive ever: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”
I’m glad I left that part in, and I’m glad the school district didn’t ask to clear my speech.
But most of all, I’m glad I got to hear Rebekah Izzo speak that morning.
David Pietrusza is the author of three books on 20th Century presidential elections (1920, 1948, and 1960), as well as three volumes on President Calvin Coolidge. He is working on a study of the 1932 elections.