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Ketanji Brown Jackson to 2022 grads: ‘Always seek to learn something’

Jackson delivered the commencement speech to Georgetown Day School graduates on Sunday

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered a commencement speech Sunday to her daughter’s graduating class at Georgetown Day School, imploring students to seek opportunities to learn in every stage of life.

The Supreme Court justice-designate did not mention politics or her high-profile appointment and instead stuck to themes and lessons common in graduation speeches. Her two parting lessons to students: “Choose your own adventures” and adopt a “growth mind-set” that will enable you to learn and grow each day.

“Class of 2022,” she said, “I hope that you will remember that in whatever chapter or challenge in life you find yourself in the future, you can always seek to learn something, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how much you grow as a result.”

Jackson, who was on the school’s board at the time of her nomination to the Supreme Court, started serving in 2019 but is no longer on the board.

Georgetown Day School came under fire during her March confirmation hearings, when Senate Republicans zeroed in on her role at the private school, highlighting the school’s teachings on race and gender, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) saying the school “is filled and overflowing with critical race theory.”

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At one point, Cruz revealed a stack of controversial books that he said are taught or are available at Georgetown Day. He questioned Jackson about the book “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi and asked the judge whether she agreed with the book and thought “babies are racist.”

Jackson issued a sweeping defense of her involvement in the school, saying that it’s a private institution and that any parent who enrolls a child there does so willingly. She cited the school’s history — which she also cited during the commencement speech — and said it was founded by a group of Jewish and Black families at a time when schools were still segregated.

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“I do not believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist, or though they are not valued, or though they are less than, that they are victims, that they are oppressors. I do not believe in any of that,” she answered at the time.

Each year, the private school — located in a wealthy neighborhood of Northwest Washington — chooses a parent to deliver a speech to students. Jackson committed to delivering the speech before she was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. She said Sunday that she had considered backing out, alluding to recent security threats to Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. But, she quipped, she decided she couldn’t miss the opportunity to deliver advice to her teenage daughter in a place where she couldn’t look at her phone and tune out her mother.

“Here was a chance to give advice to my teenager, and she would have to look up from her cellphone,” Jackson said. “Better still, no child could interrupt me and tell me how lame I sounded. I was not throwing away my shot.”

Jackson included some personal anecdotes, too. She warned the graduates that they would face pressures to conform to what others are doing or to what they think might be expected of them. She advised them to intentionally make their own life decisions, to “choose their own adventures.”

The judge said that at her 30th Harvard University reunion last week, the “unfortunate consequences of selecting a path that is not in line with what you really want was highlighted.” She said she listened to two panels in which her classmates lamented that they selected a certain path because they believed that’s what their parents expected of them.

“When you get to decision points, I want you to remember that you have the power to choose how you are going to respond, react and behave,” Jackson said. “You now have an opportunity to make a path about your future. I encourage you to listen to your inner voice, the things that make you say, ‘This is great, I want to do more of this.’”

Jackson referred to the successful Boston Celtics team, quoted author T. H. White and mentioned her own parents as she explained to students the importance of choosing a “growth mind-set.”

“‘Whatever happens, you can always learn something,’” she said her mother, an educator, would always tell her. “Every situation provided a teachable moment, and, boy, did I learn.”

She said Brad Stevens, the former coach and current executive of the Boston Celtics, has been touting the growth mind-set to his players for years. The coach, she said, tells his players that they should commit to improving themselves each day, not getting deterred by challenges or overwhelmed by achievements — simply moving on to the next day.

Quoting White’s “The Once and Future King,” the judge said: “‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlin, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.’”

“A world of learning awaits you,” Jackson told the Class of 2022, “and the future is yours to shape.”