Finding Your Passion: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Benjamin Banneker High School Commencement

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Good afternoon, students, parents and teachers.

I am here today to celebrate your success and Banneker's success. They often say that success has many parents.

Your success is earned, first of all, from your hard work and perseverance — qualities that are in each of you — and so I begin by saluting you, the class of 2010.

This is your day to shine and your day to feel good about yourself and what you have become. Every one of you is headed to college and careers. Every one of you is aiming high and there are no limits to what you can become.

But today is also a result of the culture of learning established here at Banneker by your teachers and administrators. At Banneker, rigor and excellence are expected of everyone. Near-perfect attendance is the norm. AP Classes are the norm. College is the norm. Here at Banneker, excellence is the norm.

And so, I commend the faculty and administrators who set high expectations for all of you — and have demanded your very best. As your school song says, inside these walls, wisdom is the king.

You are also here today because your parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles set high expectations. They gave you your values and provided the structure and support you needed to succeed.

They got you out the door every morning and welcomed you home each night. They helped you face challenges — whether social, emotional or academic — and guided you to this moment.

And so I ask us all to give the parents and family members a big round of applause for their love and support. They deserve this day as much as you.

Finally, your success today reflects America's fundamental belief that education is not merely a good thing to provide, but necessary for us to succeed as a nation.

As I often say, we not only have a moral obligation to educate every child — we have an economic imperative if America is to succeed in the global economy.

We cannot afford to squander the talents of any one of you. Everyone in this room is needed to keep America strong and growing and help us succeed.

The President says that when you drop out of high school, you're not just quitting on yourself; you're quitting on your country.

I would turn it around and say, when you succeed in school, it is not just your victory, but ours as well. It says that we, as a nation, have done right by you — offering you a quality education and setting you on a path to success.

That does not happen in every country in the world. We are directly competing with China and India to produce the next generation of computer scientists and engineers — but those countries do not educate every child. The vast majority of children in those countries are tracked into physical labor in factories or farms at an early age.

There is nothing wrong with physical labor, but in America we say that every child should have a choice. We should never make that choice for you.

Every child should have the choice that Benjamin Banneker made when he took an 8th grade education and applied himself to become a noted mathematician, astronomer and surveyor — and eventually the first Black presidential appointee in the country.

He designed the city of Washington and published an almanac for farmers. He also used his access to President Jefferson to oppose slavery.

Think of that, a Black man in the 18th Century willing to challenge the President of the United States — calling him a hypocrite for drafting the Declaration of Independence, which says all men are equal while keeping slaves on his farm.

Banneker is an inspiration to us all and now you are part of his tradition — and the question is — what will you do with it? What will you become? What is your passion?

Above all, an education prepares you to make choices in life — to evaluate and decide based on information, knowledge, experience and wisdom.

Each of you — as you head off to college — will have to choose the subjects you study and the fields you pursue. Don't fear the choice. Don't force the choice.

Don't try to predict the future, because no one knows exactly what they will do.

You will probably end up doing many things in life. I studied sociology but ended up in education — but my real passion at your age was basketball.

Morning, noon and night — it was all I could think about. But basketball also taught me many things that still serve me every day, like discipline and teamwork. It taught me to think on my feet.

Unfortunately, it never taught me how to jump very high. I might be six-five but I still can't dunk. But it taught me to overcome my limitations and that's an important skill as well — because nobody is perfect. Nobody is good at everything. You have to find your niche.

How many of you consider sports to be your passion? How many of you are passionate about science? How about music, art and drama? And where are the writers and historians among you?

Finding what you love is one of the core challenges in life.

Some of you have already met that challenge. Some of you may still be looking and that is OK.

When you find what you love, it doesn't feel like work. It's a joy to get up each morning and pursue your passion. When you talk about it, it flows naturally from your heart.

When you run into friends and they say, "what's up?" — you actually have an answer — instead of a shrug.

When people ask you what you are, you have an answer that goes beyond your name and your age and where you grew up.

And when you find yourself alone with free time, you are not bored and listless — but driven to probe and to pursue new interests. That's what it means to find your passion.

And that is what is expected of a college student. Because if you are going away to college — and most of you are — you won't have mom or dad hovering over you anymore asking whether your homework is done. You won't have them helping you plan your week so that you don't leave everything until Sunday night.

Now it's on you. Now it's your responsibility. So are you ready?

Are you ready for that responsibility? Are you ready to make those choices — to find your passion?

I believe in you. Your teachers believe in you. Your parents believe in you. So do you believe in you? Do you believe you have what it takes to succeed in win?

I know the answer and I hope you do too. You wouldn't be here if you didn't believe in yourself.

More than any other thing — that belief in yourself will save you again and again when you face a challenge. Because all of your knowledge and skill and experience won't get you over the bar unless you believe you can make it.

Look at the president. He grew up without a father. When he lived in Indonesia, his mother woke him up at 4:00 a.m. to study extra before school every day.

If you read his book, you know that he struggled in high school. He started down the wrong path. He felt angry at the world sometimes.

But he channeled all of that into something positive. He went off to college and found his passion in community organizing.

After that he knew he needed that law degree if he really wanted to change the world. And here again he pushed himself — editing the Harvard Law Review — which is the most prestigious thing a law student can do.

He had found his passion — he applied himself — and he excelled as a law student at one of the most competitive law schools in the world.

And after law school, he could have gone off and made a lot of money, but he never forgot those people in the community who didn't have what he had. So he devoted himself to public service — and once again he applied himself wholeheartedly.

Twelve years after he was first elected as a State Senator in Illinois, he became America's 44th President. None of this could have happened if he didn't believe in himself and pursue his passion.

He believed in what so many said was impossible — that a Black man could become President of the United States. He believed in the dream of Martin Luther King — that he could be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.

He believed in the foundation of American justice — that all men are created equal — and that even in a world where ignorance, discrimination and racism still exists — goodness and rightness would ultimately prevail.

And he believes in the power of knowledge to take us forward. That is why he has invested so much in public education.

Every president wants to be the education president, but Barack Obama doesn't just talk about it. He puts his political capital and his money and the full power of his office behind it.

He believes in you and your generation — which is why he is delivering the commencement at a public high school in Michigan next week.

So all I ask of you today is that you believe in yourself and find your passion. Never give up on yourself because we — your parents and families, your teachers, and your country — have not given up on you. And we never will.

Today you say good-bye to Banneker — but you can never say goodbye to the place that has shaped you. Banneker is as much a part of you as your parents, your neighborhood and your country.

It is in your DNA — a part of who you are today — and a big part of who you will be tomorrow. It will forever define you, elevate you, inspire you and guide you.

For the rest of your life, when you are asked about yourself, your first answer will be—I'm a kid who grew up in Washington, D.C. You will be a son or daughter — a brother or sister.

You may be a scientist who helped develop a cure for cancer, or an engineer who found a safer way to provide the energy we need to live.

Like the president, you may be an advocate for the poor in America's legal system, or the artist who captures the spirit of a moment and, as William Shakespeare said, holds up the mirror to nature.

You may be any and all of these things — but you will be something equally important — something you will carry around forever as a badge of honor.

You will be a proud graduate of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School — where excellence is the norm, expectations are high and everyone is headed for success.

Congratulations and good luck.