WASHINGTON (AP) — Graduation season is winding down. The caps and gowns are being tossed aside, the diplomas propped on the mantle. Already, memories of commencement speeches are getting fuzzy, even some of those delivered by big-name speakers. But among the eight commencement addresses given this year by three of the biggest names — President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — a few moments stood out that may last a little longer. A look back:
HOLES IN OUR HEARTS
The last of the eight speeches, Michelle Obama’s address to graduates of a Chicago high school Tuesday night, was tinged with a special sadness. The first lady spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, whose graduates should have included honor student Hadiya Pendleton. The 15-year-old girl was shot and killed on the way home from class in January 2013, just days after performing with her drill team during the president’s second-term inauguration festivities.
“I know that many of you are thinking about Hadiya right now and feeling the hole that she’s left in your hearts,” the first lady told graduates. Those holes, she told them, “are what truly connect us to each other.”
“They are the spaces we can make for other people’s sorrow and pain — as well as their joy and their love — so that eventually, instead of feeling empty, our hearts feel even bigger and fuller.”
Instead of letting sadness and grief defeat you, Obama said, “let them motivate you. Let them serve as fuel for your journey.”
IGNORING THE NOISE
For years, Michelle Obama absorbed without comment the stings and slights that came her way as first lady. In a commencement address at Tuskegee University, the first lady faced the criticism in an unusually candid and personal way, summing it all up like this: “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough a career woman?” The first black first lady said she’d been called uppity, labeled one of her husband’s “cronies of color,” even called her husband’s “baby mama.”
When a magazine cover satirically portrayed her with a huge afro and machine gun, the first lady said, “It knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.” Then Obama shared her coping strategy: “Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”
Her advice to graduates: “Take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world.”
Biden’s address at Yale University’s Class Day offered graduates a warm and humorous take on matters of personal loss, resilience and compassion. Listeners knew that Biden spoke from experience: Six weeks after he was elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29, Biden’s wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash that left his two young sons in the hospital.
“Things can change in a heartbeat,” Biden told the graduates. “I know.” He said the accident brought him closer to his sons and taught him to put family ahead of career.
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through,” he said.
It was compelling speech on its face. In hindsight, it took on even more meaning.
What graduates didn’t know was that Biden was keenly aware as he spoke that the life of one of his sons hung in the balance. Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware, died 13 days later of brain cancer at age 46.
Barack Obama used his commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to deliver an impassioned argument that climate change is an “indisputable” threat to national security, telling cadets that the warming planet “will affect everything that you do in your careers.”
It was a serious policy speech. At least a few of the graduates are just as likely to remember Obama’s visit for the goofy photos they snagged with their commander in chief. As the graduates came forward to receive their diplomas, Obama showed he was game to have some fun.
There’s his back-to-back, pointer-fingers-drawn “Charlie’s Angels” pose with one cadet. The fist-up “Success Kid” pose with another. And a point-off-in-the-distance stance with another.
Sometimes, simply showing up is what matters most. Obama’s presence spoke far more than his words when he gave the commencement address at a small but well-regarded community college in Watertown, South Dakota.
South Dakota was the last of the 50 states for Obama to visit as president, and there had been speculation about what site he’d choose when he finally checked off that final state. How about a national treasure like Mount Rushmore? Nah. Instead, Obama opted for Watertown’s Lake Area Technical Institute. Locals were incredulous.
“Why would I come to a two-year college in the fifth-biggest city in South Dakota?” Obama asked the graduates. Then he answered his own question: “Well, the reason is because I believe that in a fast-paced, hyper-connected, constantly changing world, there are few institutions that are more important to America’s economic future than community colleges.”
Message delivered. In person.
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