This feature was first published in Journeys Winter 2019.
This speech was delivered to Singapore American School high school students on their first day of school.
Selamat pagi, buen dia, 大家好 (da jia hao), good morning! I am very excited to be here, to welcome you, and to say thank you to each of you and to your parents for choosing to be here at SAS and to be part of our Singapore American School community.
To the returning students, welcome back. To the new students, you, like me, are a newbie, and I look forward to going on our journey together with all of you this year and the years to come.
I'd like to say a very deep thank you to the amazing faculty, staff, and school leadership team that we have here at SAS. And, I ask that you take a moment in the days to come to say thank you to the members of our facilities and custodial team. They have been working very hard over the summer to renovate spaces, to rebuild, to make this place as clean and sparkling as it is. So when you see members of our custodial team in the hallway, say thank you for helping us make this the home that we all appreciate.
I'd like to start today by bringing us back a century and a half ago to the United States before the Civil War and to an abolitionist by the name of Theodore Parker who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
If you think of the United States a century later—when Lincoln's promise at Gettysburg of a new birth of freedom and the 14th Amendment's promise of equal rights for all citizens had gone for so long unfulfilled for African Americans and also for Americans of Asian and Latino descent, native Americans, and the LGBTQ community—civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. picked up and amplified on this theme about the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice.
And he often referred to that theme, with his unflagging optimism and conviction that we could indeed come together as a country and face our challenges, challenges that make the difficulties we face today seem small in comparison.
Dr. King's confidence and optimism that we could actually bend that moral arc of the universe towards justice was a central principle of his leadership of the civil rights movement. He believed that as a people and as a country, we could right historical wrongs and move our country forward.
So I'd like you to take a minute, turn to the person next to you, and ask that person, "What do you think? Was Dr. King, was Theodore Parker, right? Is that true? Does the arc of the moral universe truly bend towards justice or not?" Take a minute to discuss it.
All right, we can come back together. I look forward to getting to know you all and as I meet you, to hear your answers.
What do you think? I know this is a big topic for the first day of school, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
If I had to answer, I would probably say the arc does not bend by itself. Rather, it takes every ounce of our energy, every ounce of our strength, every sinew of our fiber to come together to try and pull it and bend it towards justice. Gravity is not going to bend the arc by itself. History has painfully taught us that in the absence of our coming together to pull that arc towards justice, forces will push it the other way towards injustice.
You may ask yourself: so what can I do about this? I get it: big, heavy topic—arc of the moral universe. I am just a high school student, what can I do to bend the arc of the moral universe? Looking around I may see some similarities, but I know that you are not actually the Avengers coming together with a bunch of infinity stones in your pockets ready to use your superpowers. In real life, you are just high school students.
But recall the words of American scientist Margaret Mead, who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
That was true 50 years ago, when members of the gay community at Stonewall in New York stood up and said,
"We are proud of who we are, and we demand only fairness and compassion." It was true 100 years ago this spring, when students in China marched in the 五四行动 (May Fourth Movement) to demand democracy and scientific progress.
And while you may think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as superheroes, they weren't. When Dr. King led the Montgomery bus boycott, he was a young man in his twenties who had just become a pastor for the first time, of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. When Gandhi set off on his salt march with just a handful of followers, I don't think anyone would have predicted that the march would attract hundreds of thousands of followers and been such a turning point in the drive for India to end centuries of British colonialism and become independent.
I would stress that bending the arc is not just about big movements, famous people, and big actions. Rather, it's often about the little things that each of us can do every day—things that build up, that add to each other, that are combined into each other. When Robert F. Kennedy went to apartheid South Africa and spoke at the University of Cape Town in 1960s, he talked about this.
He said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy, those ripples build a current, a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
So coming back to the question: how does each of us do this? How do we each cast our first pebble, try and launch our first ripple?
I would say first, start with yourself, start with your own values. At SAS, we have our Eagle Way, our core values—honesty and compassion, fairness, responsibility, and respect. If we can all orient our own personal moral compasses in that direction, we will all get off to a good start.
So start with yourself. Start with your own character. We have wonderful opportunities to learn here at SAS, to model the learning values that we aspire to as a community: our desired student learning outcomes (DSLOs). Those DSLOs begin with character (those five core values) and they include creativity and critical thinking—how can we make the world a better place? They also include collaboration and communication— how do we work together? Next is content knowledge— what do we need to know? And last but not least is cultural competence—a sense of global connectedness and understanding that what we do in one place has impact on places throughout the world.
Second, widen your lens to our community. We are blessed with an amazing opportunity at SAS with the incredible diversity that we have to do what so few communities have done, which is to build a community where diversity is not a source of division or weakness, but truly diversity is a source of strength.
So how do we do that? How do we make diversity a source of strength? It starts with respecting and celebrating our differences, whether it be of nationality or religion or sexual orientation or language or race, ethnicity, or background. Celebrate and respect the differences that we all have, but as much as we celebrate the differences, equally celebrate what we have
in common as people: the values, the concerns, the hopes, the fears that bring us together as part of a common community.
Third, I would say dream big. Dream big of what you can do today; dream big of what you can do in the future. You will have many opportunities throughout your life to make a difference—to make a difference in your family, to make a difference in your school or your community, to make a difference in what you do professionally.
There are so many ways in which you can do that. Maybe it's in the medical profession, helping cure disease. Maybe it is as a scientist, helping communities deal with climate change. Maybe it is in technology, inventing new ways for us to communicate and bring folks together. Maybe it is in finance, helping bring resources to people who want to do all those things. Maybe it's as an artist, helping people see the beauty in the world, challenging their perspectives, and challenging them to think differently.
In all of these areas, you have and you will have the opportunity to cast your pebbles, to create those ripples, and to spread your wings.
So I urge you, in closing, to believe in yourself and equally to believe in our shared community. Ensure that your own moral arc is pointed towards justice. And help us together build a community within the school and with an impact beyond the school in which we all truly come together and help bend that arc towards justice. Thank you.