|Congratulations Class of 2021!|
Tonight we held the Westlake High School Commencement Ceremony at the Frank Erwin Center, which was inspiring, uplifting and beautiful to see so many celebrating in-person (following the Erwin Center's safety protocols). For those not in attendance or watching the livestream, I am sharing my speech because I do think it resonates to not only our graduates but to everyone who has powered through this unpredictable, unprecedented year. The message follows, but if you would like to watch the video, click the image below.
When I was a little boy, I vividly remember visiting my grandfather at his house on Chicago’s north side. We were eating lunch warmly and I being a picky eater, was repulsed by an ugly piece of bread that, I felt, was too old to eat. My grandfather smiled down at me and said, “just eat it; it will not kill you.”
It wasn’t until I was much older and knew more of his life’s story when I realized how meaningful that meal would become. You see, my grandfather came to the United States from Italy, alone with his mother, when he was 6 years old. Fortunately for him he was able to take free music lessons at Hull-House, a community center set up by Jane Addams (the famed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate), for immigrant children to learn the Arts. This was the same place and during the same era where the jazz great, Benny Goodman learned clarinet.
|Jane Addams reading to a group of children
at Hull-House. (Photo: Jane Addams
|Benny Goodman in Front of Hull-House.|
It was 11 years after he arrived in this country, that my grandfather enlisted in the Army and was sent to France to fight in World War I. He survived the trench warfare, played his horn sadly at many funerals and ate whatever food he was given with no question.
|Frank Forte (L), WW I|
|Frank Forte, my grandfather|
During that war came the pandemic of 1918, the Spanish Flu. Several years after the war, came 11 years of the Great Depression, followed by World War II. During the Great Depression, my grandfathers' skills as a musician allowed him to support a family, playing with show bands and the Chicago Symphony.
Those years of 1917 to 1945, roughly 100 years ago, were a tough time to become an adult. I truly believe that period, spanning nearly four decades of struggles and trials, made him into the wonderful person I knew as a young child. As he sat across the dining table and told me “to just eat; it will not kill you,” I now realize he was telling me much more than to eat the old bread. He was sharing his history, who he was, and trying to help me grow into a person who would be able to survive the challenges that would lie ahead in my life.
The Class of 2021 is one of only three high school graduating classes in the last 100-plus years to have experienced a pandemic. Something none of us wanted. Something we all wished never happened. But it did. In some ways, you are just like my grandfather, a young man in 1918, who lived through a pandemic, with more hardships that would lie ahead.
I have no idea what joys and challenges await you in the years to come. But I do know we are formed by our experiences that shape our attitudes. Hopefully, even a difficult experience, can make us stronger and better able to face future trials.
We have missed so much of a “normal” school year; yet, I truly believe as we put the pandemic, the masks and the social distancing behind us, we would be wise to remember how we did the best we could, took care of others and how this experience will make us better prepared for any challenges still to come. Who knows, maybe eating that old piece of bread helped me in ways I have never understood.
I have been attending high school graduations as a teacher, principal and superintendent for 40 years. Tonight, I can honestly and confidently state I have never been more proud of any graduating class. Class of 2021, you have been tested, you have been strong, you have persevered, and by doing so you have made our entire community better. You have great experiences ahead of you - challenges and celebrations - but I know your resilience will help you and guide you along the way.
I wish you good health, happiness and love.
Dr. Tom Leonard
Superintendent of Schools