Barack Obama would be a terrible poker player. He has certain “tells” that reveal his emotional status, especially when he is feeling nostalgic. I discovered one “tell” during his commencement speech for Miami Dade College at the James L. Knight Center on Friday, April 29, 2011. It was a “highly personal commencement speech” and I guess he couldn’t help but get emotional because he was talking about the American Dream.
Of course, President Obama came prepared with the usual facts and figures about Miami Dade College:
It is such a thrill to be at one of the largest, most diverse institutions of higher learning in America -- one that just this week was named one of the top community colleges in the nation. (Applause.) More than 170,000 students study across your eight campuses. You come from 181 countries, represented by the flags that just marched across this stage. You speak 94 languages. About 90 percent of you are minorities. And because more than 90 percent of you find a job in your field of study, it’s fitting that your motto is “Opportunity changes everything.”
But I don’t think he was prepared for the physical evidence in the faces of our students, many of whom reminded him of his father’s struggles to come to America:
I didn’t know him well, my father -- and he lived a troubled life. But I know that when he was around your age, he dreamed of something more than his lot in life. He dreamed of that magical place; he dreamed of coming to study in America.
And when I was around your age, I traveled back to his home country of Kenya for the first time to learn his story. And I went to a tiny village called Alego, where his stepmother still lives in the house where he grew up, and I visited his grave. And I asked her if there was anything left for me to know him by. And she opened a trunk, and she took out a stack of letters -- and this is an elderly woman who doesn’t read or write -- but she had saved these letters, more than 30 of them, written in his hand and addressed to colleges and universities all across America.
They weren’t that different from the letters that I wrote when I was trying to get into college, or the ones that you wrote when you were hoping to come here. They were written in the simple, sometimes awkward, sometimes grammatically incorrect, unmistakably hopeful voice of somebody who is just desperate for a chance -- just desperate to live his unlikely dream.
And somebody at the University of Hawaii -- halfway around the world -- chose to give him that chance. And because that person gave a young man a chance, he met a young woman from Kansas; they had a son in the land where all things are possible.
And then, came the “tell.” He bowed his head and used his left index finger to scratch his left nostril. I would never have noticed his "tell" until he did it a second time.
The second “tell” was during his discussion of his earliest memories of space exploration, as “a little brown boy sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders":
And one of my earliest memories from growing up in Hawaii, is of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders to see the astronauts from one of the Apollo space missions come ashore after a successful splashdown. You remember that no matter how young you are as a child. It’s one of those unforgettable moments when you first realize the miracle that is what this country is capable of. And I remember waving a little American flag on top of my grandfather’s shoulders, thinking about those astronauts, and thinking about space.
And today, on this day, more than 40 years later, I took my daughters to the Kennedy Space Center. And even though we didn’t get to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour launch, we met some of the astronauts, and we toured the Space Shuttle Atlantis. And looking at my daughters, I thought of how things come full circle. I thought of all that we’ve achieved as a nation since I was their age, a little brown boy sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders -- and I thought about all I want us to achieve by the time they have children of their own.
President Obama saw the proof of the American Dream in the struggles of our students, even as he renewed his commitment to the DREAM Act and gave our students a lesson in American history and democracy:
Changing our laws means doing the hard work of changing minds and changing votes, one by one. And I am convinced we can change the laws, because we should all be able to agree that it makes no sense to expel talented young people from our country. They grew up as Americans. They pledge allegiance to our flag. And if they are trying to serve in our military or earn a degree, they are contributing to our future -- and we welcome those contributions. (Applause.)
The climax for me, however, came when spoke about what it means to be an American (something that I have been trying teaching my students for as long as I’ve been at MDC), but President Obama said it best about what it means to be an American:
We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with its back to the world; we raised it with its light to the world. (Applause.) Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship; whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande -- we are one people. We need one another. Our patriotism is not rooted in ethnicity, but in a shared belief of the enduring and permanent promise of this country. (Applause.)
The American Dream is alive in the students at Miami Dade College and President Obama saw that. His physical reactions told us that without him resorting to phrases such as, “I feel your pain.”
I also learned something else that was vitally important. President Obama is a teacher believes in intellectual debate in order to bring about change. He teaches by his actions and his encouragement of intellectual debate to bring about solutions. But we have to watch keenly and listen carefully to Obama's words and actions:
Like all of this country’s movements towards justice, it will be difficult and it will take time. I know some here wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. (Applause.) But that’s not how democracy works. See, democracy is hard. But it’s right.
He may make a terrible poker player, but as a leader who urged our students to “carry the dream forward,” with a combination of optimism and compassion, President Obama embodies the American Dream.
Here's the video of the "tell"...wait for it:
Here's the video of the "tell"...wait for it:
Remarks by the President at Miami Dade College Commencement:
Obama's commencement speech: More dreams from his father