Jumping Into the Deep End
This is graduation season, and I've had the great honor of giving Commencement Addresses at several educational institutions. Here is the text of the speech I gave at Elmhurst College yesterday - a place where I have some history.
Commencement Address at Elmhurst College
May 31, 2009
This corner of the world shaped my life.
My family, Muslim immigrants from India, came to the United States in the mid 1970s. My father did an MBA at Notre Dame University, got a job in advertising at Leo Burnett Company, and worked hard for a better life for his family. When I was still very young, we moved to the second floor of an apartment building, across the street from a McDonalds, on St. Charles Avenue, just a few miles from here.
My mother was a housewife, driving my brother and me to a Montessori school, thirty minutes each way. And as she watched her kids grow up, she decided to invest some energy into her own professional development. She found a college library near our home where she started studying for her CPA. She noticed there was a YMCA close by, and decided to take my brother and me to swimming lessons there.
That YMCA was right down the street from here. And the library where my mom began her career as a university student in America was the same one where many of you began your careers as university students: right here, at Elmhurst College.
I was thrilled at the prospect of swimming lessons. The Olympics were on at the time, and I remember admiring the swimmers glide through the water and thinking, in my eight year old mind: hey, that can't be that hard.
I practiced on our living room floor, pretending the green carpet was an Olympic-size pool. Breastroke, butterfly, front crawl. Every time there was a swim competition on tv, I raced along with the swimmers on the green carpet.
The first day of swimming lessons I put on my blue swim trunks, rinsed off in the shower and joined all the other kids on the bleachers at the Elmhurst YMCA. Most of them were returners, and the swim instructors went down the list and divided them into the right group: porpoise, fish, flying fish. At the end, I was the only one left on the bleachers.
"What group do you think you're in?" one of the instructors asked me.
"I forgot what it's called," I told them, brimming with eight-year old confidence, "but I know I'm pretty good. I've had a lot of practice," I added, thinking about the hours I spent perfecting my stroke on the green carpet.
"Well, what level do you think you're at?" one of them asked.
"What's the highest one?" I asked.
"Porpoise," they said.
"I'm probably just below that."
"Okay, shark," the instructor responded and made a mark on his clipboard. "Well, why don't you jump in the pool and show us what you can do." He pointed to the deep end. All the other kids were lined up in their respective groups, and they all turned to stare at me as I got up off the bleachers and made my way to the place where it said, "Water, 10 feet deep."
"Can't be so different than the green carpet," I thought to myself, and jumped.
The next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the deck of the swimming pool, with about six swim instructors peering intently at me. "What happened?" I asked.
"You sank like a stone," said the guy with the clipboard. "Have you ever been in a pool before?" he asked.
"No," I told him. I decided against telling him about the green carpet.
I was led firmly by the hand to the shallow end of the pool, affixed with a floating device on each limb, and told, in no uncertain terms, that I was a polliwog.
Here's the lesson I learned as a kid at the Elmhurst YMCA: It matters who's around when you jump into the deep end of the pool.
Imagine what could have happened to me. They could have scolded me severely. Made me sit out that day as punishment, ratted me out to my mother when she came to pick me up, made me feel foolish and worthless. They could have let me hang out in the deep end for a while - in which case I would have learned a different kind of lesson. Instead, those YMCA instructors put some floaties on me and said, "Let's build some skills and get you back to the deep end such that you don't drown."
Life is about two things: the risks you take, and who you bring with you to the edge of the pool.
I got lucky when I was eight years old at the YMCA that the people at the edge of the pool saved me. But the older I got, the more I realized that it was my responsibility to build a community who would encourage me to take the right risks, and support me during the inevitable failures.
When I first had the idea of the Interfaith Youth Core, I surrounded myself with people whose basic message was: "Dream it. Dream it. Dream it. And when things go wrong, I'm here."
Elmhurst College prides itself on providing an environment that nurtures the same in its students. That you are graduating means you chose both your risks and your community well. And both you and this gathering of faculty, friends and family should be very proud.
And now everything changes. You're at the edge of a whole new body of water. And you're going to meet a whole new world of people. Choose wisely where you jump in. Choose wisely who you bring with.
And know this: these decisions affect more than just your own life. When you build a community of support around you, when you play a role in somebody else's community, you create a model for how the human community should be.
Every great endeavor starts with someone willing to take a risk, and others willing to play support. It is a central element in the American story, from the days of John Winthrop, who spoke of America as a community of people "who labored together, who suffered together, who rejoiced together, who would be like a City on a Hill, a beacon for the world."
You hear it echoed in the Founding Documents: "We the People" willing collectively to risk fighting for our freedom.
You see it in the stories of slaves risking escape, traveling a few more miles under cover of darkness, trusting that the church in the next town might be a stop on the underground railroad.
You witness it in the immigrants who left villages and cities, in India and Egypt and Mexico, their families weeping at airports, praying in circles and straight lines, hoping that America would be America to their cherished brothers, husbands, daughters.
You feel it in the glinting eyes of college graduates, nurturing hopes and fears in a time of turmoil, wondering who is going to have their back when they make their leap.
You sensed it on the south side of Chicago, at the turn of a new millennium, when a young state politician lost his first national political race by 31 points, came home crushed but not broken. Dreamed dreams of Harold Washington and Abe Lincoln and the father who left him, and kept alive the hope that he might one day be the first black President. And his wife, his rock, on a night when he likely wept, kept that dream alive. Maybe whispered the words, "Yes we can."
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