Victory Party Address: Catherine Fleming

Thank you for nominating me to do this!  I appreciate your trust in me, it really means a lot!  When I was told I had to do this speech, I immediately googled “how do I write a commencement speech” and all sources told me to start it off with a quote, so here’s my opening quote:

“It was the best of times! It was the worst of times!”  -It’s funny because I was going for highbrow Charles Dickens, but when I was practicing in front of my students yesterday they told me that this quote was not Charles Dickens, but instead that I got it from Mac and Devin Go to High School starring Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg – but nevertheless, “It was the best of times! It was the worst of times!”

I had the pleasure of teaching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during the third quarter of this year, and in her speech “The Danger of A Single Story” she said something that stuck with me. She said “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.” And it’s true. There is danger in promoting a single story. Because there is ALWAYS more than one story. I asked some of my classmates for words that described this residency year, and these are some of the responses I got:

  • Rollercoaster of emotions
  • Humbling
  • Exhausting
  • Uncomfortable
  • Trying
  • Hectic
  • Nonstop
  • A battle
  • And “basically always being that messy version of Frodo where Sam has to carry him up Mount Doom so the world doesn’t end”

It’s been a rough one y’all.  While it was the best of times…for some of us, it was the worst of times.  Not all of us had idyllic years. Some of us had negative experiences at our internships, not all of  us had the best experiences with our coaches, not all of us felt supported holistically, some of us experienced tragedy. Some of us felt unsupported by our own classmates, and for that I am so so sorry. If you have ever felt that any of us have made assumptions about you or the content of your character, I am so, so sorry. Also not all of us were physically well.

I need to take this moment to shout out Trey Weise.  Trey Weise was diagnosed with cancer in the Fall. He endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy, he had to miss out on some classes, and he had to move to a new internship site post remission, and he’s still here.  That’s right, Trey Weise was diagnosed with cancer and still completed this residency year. —I’m so proud of you, and I’m so happy you’re here with us.

For those of us who have not had an idyllic year, I hope you know that you should feel all the more accomplished to be seated here today, to struggle for an entire year, and to triumph, you’ve done well.

So back to those responses I got from my classmates when I asked them to describe this residency year.  Another one I got was “Dense- lots to do, lots to learn, and lots of people in it with you.” Even if some of us had negative experiences in certain aspects of this year…we had each other.  I guess that name game and the emphasis on community must have paid off because we have our own little 2019 community. Now, we don’t all have 60+ best friends, but I can guarantee you that all of us have made at least one dear, dear friend through this experience.

Thank you David, for getting this whole MTR thing going and for providing us with the opportunity to enter our own classrooms in August effectively serving the kids here in Memphis.  Thank you Erin and Yolunda for being our residency directors and looking out for us. Thank you to the coaches for all the feedback (even if the immense number of comment notifications stressed us out from time to time).   Thank you to our professors for teaching us. Thank you to the rest of the staff for being there for us and supporting us. Also, shout out to Ms. Regina for keeping us looking good, and for celebrating our successes with us!

I started with a quote and now I’m ending with an excerpt. From who other than James Baldwin.  He delivered this speech to a conference full of school teachers on October 16, 1963 in New York City, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”.  It’s so incredibly timeless, which is one of many reasons why I love Baldwin:

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.

To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

We did it y’all.

Catherine Fleming, Class of 2019