Booker T. Washington High School
Terre Haute, Indiana
Remarks delivered by Ronald Court
Founder & President, Booker T. Washington Society
June 2, 2006 - "It is an honor for me to speak to you at your graduation, for this time is a happy time for teachers, students and families to gather together to celebrate the culmination of years of work in pursuit of a worthy goal. I want to express my congratulations to the faculty, administration and especially to the students graduating this evening from the only High School in Indiana named for Booker T Washington.
By the way, did you know that throughout our country, nineteen high schools bear the name, Booker T. Washington? Except for schools named after Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy, no other person in our nation's history is so honored. And you are are now part of his legacy. Be proud.
Even as I join you to celebrate your graduation... that is, the end of one phase of your life, some of you might be thinking about how to start the next phase of your life. That's why graduation is called "commencement", it's a new beginning.
When I am asked to speak at a commencement, I'm generally asked to say a few "words to the wise". But my hero Bill Cosby says, "Words to the wise ain't necessary - it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
So you don't need any "wise words" from me. But let me talk about something that crossed my mind while traveling here. It seems to me there are three key questions that everybody who truly desires success in life struggles with. Three questions you might ask yourself, because sooner or later, you will have to answer them... and by yourself.
What do I want to be?
What is my purpose in life?
How do I want to live?
What do you want to be? Somebody? Successful? Rich & Famous? Respected? a Winner?
I don't know your answer, but I do know the secret to being a winner.
I can tell you how to win every game, every time you ever play. And it doesn't matter if you play tennis, b-ball, wrestling, debating, a spelling bee, whatever.
Here's the secret:
Never, ever play with anyone better than you. Simple, isn't it?
You'll hardly ever lose... but of course... you'll hardly ever get any better either.
Winning every time doesn't make you a winner.
It takes hard work to be a winner. This graduation... commencement... should mean more to you than to other Terre Haute graduates because you worked hard to achieve it.
Booker T. was freed at nine years old and only then was he finally free to attend school. Before then, it was even against the law for whites to teach Negroes how to read or write. But his step-father expected him to work in a salt mine to help support the family. But Booker T. figured out how to work in the mine from 5 to 9 in the morning and from 6 to 9 at night. Just so he could attend school during the day.
That's why his name is on your school. Determination. Determination is hard work.
One day, the salt mine owner's wife told him to clean up a woodshed. He did the best he knew. But he had lived in a one room cabin and slept on a dirt floor. He didn't know what clean was. He couldn't see the dirt. But Mrs. Ruffner did and told him to clean it a second time, and yet again a third time. By then, he realized he was sweating more than he ever had, because he realized that for the first time in his life, he had to force himself to think about what he was doing.
And that's why his name is on your school. Thinking. Thinking is hard work.
It's hard work to think about what you do, what you want your life's purpose to be and how you want to live. It takes discipline. Determination and discipline.
Now, here's another secret. Chances are your teachers and parents share the same secret but they probably don't want me to tell you. But I'm going to anyway.
Here it is: Every one them, teachers, parents, me too, have screwed up somewhere, sometime on something bigtime.
Chances are, we screwed up at what we may be most successful at today. It's a fact of life. To win, you have to be willing to accept losing. Because success doesn't mean winning all the time.
Ever heard of Larry Byrd? Boston Celtics, one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA, 12-time All-Star and MVP. He came back to ISU here in Terrer Haute to complete college, was National College Player of the Year in 1979 and a lot more.
Guess what he did, even as an NBA champion. Before every b-ball game, he would walk out on the court with no one around, and just throw himself down on the floor again and again. He prepared himself to accept failure before every game. To take the pain and get right back up. He knew that sometimes he was going to crash, and it was going to hurt. So he prepared himself mentally to get right back up.
Byrd knew failure is part of any meaningful success. It is not an option. It's guaranteed.
Booker T. knew that. A hundred years ago, he said:
"The circumstances that surround your life are not important.
But how you respond to those circumstances is important.
Your response is the ultimate determining factor between success and failure."
You always have a choice. You can get back up... or give up... when you crash.
So here's Booker T.'s advice to you:
Think. Be disciplined. Be determined. And never give up.
But if Booker T's advice doesn't grab you, here's one last bit of advice from a rapper you might know: Will Smith.
"Throughout life people will make you mad
Disrespect you and treat you bad.
Let God deal with the things they do
'Cause Hate in your heart will consume you too."
--Will Smith, from his Book, Just the Two of Us