For Teachers & Students

Without Courage

Speak the Speech

I recently had the honor of giving the commencement speech to the eighth graders culminating from William Jefferson Clinton Middle School in South Los Angeles.

Go Eagles!

Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014

A few quick facts about Clinton (taken from their website): it’s an inner-city middle school serving 900 students in a “predominantly commercial warehouse/industrial district that also resides in one of Los Angeles’s gang reduction zones.”

The majority of the students’ parents and guardians are not high school graduates, and 80% of the students speak a language other than English at home.

Given those circumstances, I was especially impressed to learn that fifty percent (109 of 218) of the eighth-grade graduates made the honor roll; 64 had perfect attendance since the sixth grade; and 31 culminated with straight As. Bravo!

Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014
Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014

A huge share of the credit for this success belongs to Principal Sissi O’Reilly, who came onboard in 2011 to initiate a series of comprehensive reforms to improve academics, behavior, and attendance.

Sissi, her dedicated staff and teachers, and a small army of volunteer tutors and mentors (from Diplomas Now, Talent Development Secondary, City Year, and Communities in Schools) have poured countless hours into providing the students of Clinton a rigorous academic program with high standards and expectations.

In other words, they’re giving these students the education they deserve.

Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014

Sissie selfie (with photobomb guy)

Rogers commenement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014

Clinton teachers and staff

Trippingly on the Tongue*

The ceremony took place at the impressive Bovard Auditorium on the campus of USC, just across the freeway from Clinton.

Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014
Rogers commencement speech at Clinton Middle School culmination 2014

I’m new to public speaking in a venue this big. So I figured I’d be a little nervous. And I know that when you’re nervous, you tend to speak too fast.

That’s why I wrote the note above ALL OVER MY SPEECH.

I started off like I was shot out of a cannon. (Eventually, tongue fatigue applied the brakes.)

But I hope the point of the speech came through. It was about what it means to be a hero when you’re in eighth grade (or just turning eleven, like Alex in Eleven).

It’s also about a time I had a chance to be a hero. And failed.

In the speech, I used a favorite quote from Maya Angelou as inspiration:

“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”

Rogers speech at Clinton Middle School commencement

(AP Photo/Press-Register, John David Mercer)

So here’s my first commencement speech. If you care to follow along with a transcript (I’m guessing this applies to only two people, known to me as “Mom” and “Dad”), click here:  Rogers speech at Clinton MS transcript.

[EDIT, 7 July 2014: this original post also included video of the entire ceremony, since I thought some of the graduates might enjoy seeing themselves onstage receiving their diplomas. However, I’ve since removed the video due to a concern about parental permissions for videotaping. My apologies for the error.) 

Congratulations again to the Clinton graduates of 2014! May you go forward in life with courage.

* Bonus points for any of you middle-schoolers who can identify this reference.

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Say hi to Miss Martone’s class at Cathedral Chapel School in Los Angeles. Hi, class!

Miss Martone's Class from eleven, the book by Tom Rogers

Miss Martone is front right; your author is playing Waldo in the middle.

Miss Martone has been teaching Eleven to her students at CCS this spring and invited me by for a mid-book check-in. These kids are excellent readers, and we had an insightful discussion about some of the book’s key themes of family, heroism, loss, and maturity.

They’ve also been studying the Holocaust this term, and coincidentally, on the same day I wrote my post about my friend and Holocaust survivor Andy Roth, Miss Martone led a bunch of her students on a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance.

Miss Martone's Class from eleven, the book by Tom Rogers

Class field trip to the Museum of Tolerance

In addition, they’ve been reading Night, Elie Wiesel’s account of his time in the camps. (Elie and Andy were bunkhouse mates at Buchenwald.)

And they were so moved by an article in Tablet magazine about the struggles of aging Holocaust survivors that they wrote letters (read them here) to the subjects profiled in the article.

Seriously, click on that link. Their letters are fantastic–thoughtful, empathetic, eloquent.

Adults don’t give kids enough credit

Kids can handle tough subjects.

They are curious and interested. Many are not strangers to trouble and tragedy. When I was in 5th grade, my own dad nearly died of a ruptured gall bladder. Middle-schoolers are discovering that life is full of difficult situations; asking questions and reading about the experiences of others is one way they start to figure out how to deal with dark times.

With Eleven, I’ve encountered plenty of adults who are wary of the subject matter. Many are understandably still disturbed by memories of that day and want to shield their children from that painful moment in history.

But hiding the truth does them no service.

And besides, nothing is more tempting than the thing you can’t have.

Which brings us (sort of) to cupcakes

The first time I visited CCS, one of Miss Martone’s students, Emilee, stayed after school to meet me. I’m not sure which of us was more excited.

The second time I visited CCS, two days later, Emilee informed me that she had already finished the book. I’m not sure which of us had the bigger grin.

The third time I visited CCS, to talk about the book with the class, Emilee told me she’d gotten up early to bake a batch of cupcakes in honor of my visit. (Cupcakes feature in a key scene in Eleven, involving a bully out to ruin a birthday.)

But the cupcakes slipped her grip and hit the floor.


I’m not sure which of us looked more glum.

Miss Martone's Class from eleven, the book by Tom Rogers

That’s Emilee, second from right (with Portia, Ivy, and Shannon)

Sure. Shakespeare got a cupcake on HIS day.

Sure. Shakespeare got a cupcake on HIS day.

In Eleven, the main character rescues the smashed cupcakes by mashing them back together like snowballs. I wouldn’t have minded if Emilee had done the same!

But never mind. Like a true hero, Emilee shook off the failure and vowed to bake again.

And like a true hero, I vowed to come back for more.

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Who is The Man in the White Shirt?

The sixth-graders at McKinley Avenue School have been diligently working through Eleven this semester. (You can read more about them and see pictures here.)

Mr. Shapiro's class with Eleven

One of the central mysteries in the story revolves around a character known only as The Man in the White Shirt.

Midway through the book, our amateur sleuths were asked to say who they thought The Man in the White Shirt could be, using details from the text to support their arguments.

Bryan C. does an excellent job of citing evidence to show that The Man in the White Shirt could be Alex’s dad.

Ashanti W. can see both sides of the argument. (She meant to say page 150, not 550.)

Christian D. believes we don’t have enough evidence yet to make a judgment.

Mr. Shapiro was proud of the work they did. (Mr. Videographer, though, was still learning the difference between portrait and landscape mode.)

At the end of the day, everyone got a round of “fireworks applause.”


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