Valedictory on a Valedictorian

Jun 3, 2019 by

Allergy season and high school graduation season both irritated me: one with pollen and the other with valedictorian speeches, which tend to be filled with platitudes about life’s meaning and the senior class’s destiny in shaping a new world.

I’ve changed my mind about their being empty, pretentious and those ceremonies a mere rite of passage.  A 2019 valedictorian, who is the child of a friend of mine asked me to review the speech she had prepared by herself for delivery later this month.

Her theme is “the forgotten people.” The speech is biblical in scope and power and is timeless and universal as a true work of art. It’s spiritually precocious and instructive to people of all ages.

In her Flushing public school a few years ago, she had learned about a local cemetery that had been only recently restored to dignity after more than a hundred years of neglect. It is the final resting place of African-Americans and was being used as a dog toilet. Most community residents had no clue of its history. These souls had been “forgotten.”  A similar discovery of origin was made at an excavation site in lower Manhattan.

The impetus for her valedictory speech was a recent Daily News article about Hart Island. where, over 150 years, more than 1 million people are buried in nameless graves.Most of its personages had expired in states of abject desperation-poor, unclaimed, unidentified or rejected by those they had known in life. 

It’s located just off the coast of the Bronx and it doesn’t require a poet to be seized by its desolation and its overwhelming sense of obliteration. Not just of life but having ever been among the annals of those who have ever lived.

These are the “forgotten people” of this valedictory.

Everyone hearing the speech will be able to extrapolate and count among the “forgotten”, those  individuals they have known and entire groups who have been eclipsed by the passage or the contempt of human memory.

Hard Island is administered by the Department of Correction and all the labor done there is assigned to Rikers Island prisoners who are paid a dollar an hour.  There’s nothing else there going on except the “death watch.”

Although Hart Island is the biggest public cemetery in the nation, it is inaccessible by regular transportation. It’s always closed except for two days a month and if you want to visit, you must apply at least 12 days in advance. The New York City Council is now holding hearings with a view to putting the Department of Parks and Recreation in charge and initiating viable public ferry service.

The valedictorian’s speech struck a nerve with me.  I have a childhood memory of an acquaintance who is buried there somewhere.

His first name was “Benno” and he was a medical doctor trained in Germany and immigrated here as a refugee from the Nazis.  He was a brilliant diagnostician but was proudly terrible at billing patients. As often as not he charged nothing. That is literally true. He volunteered and traveled to give gamma globulin to kids to enhance immunity against polio in the years immediately prior to the development of the polio vaccine.  No charge.

His only vice was keeping patients waiting until the Brahms symphony had finished playing on the radio.

He died indigent and alone. He had lost everything.  Because of a war injury, he needed to take painkillers in secret because there were no treatment plans and in those days he would have lost his medical license if he came forth and opened up .Things spiraled irreversibly out of control for him and now Benno is without mark or trace except for the vestige of my gratitude, which is a lasting blessing for me, at least.

The valedictorian who conceived and  unaided perfected this speech is a product of our New York City public schools and refutes the lie that they have fallen into disrepute because kids are no longer being trained in expressive skills, intellectual reflection and spiritual values.  People like her are rare at any age and always have been everywhere, but she is by no means a fluke among our public school kids.

Although their activism and consciousness are expediting a new society, they have not forsaken their veneration of what they have learned from us who teach them.

They have not forgotten.

Ron Isaac

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.