After a year punctuated by racial protests on college campuses across the country — confrontations that are roiling universities and forcing change in the way students are taught — the Harvard Graduate School of Education ended with a poem that gave voice to many of those ideas that are so hard to put into words.
Donovan Livingston, who just graduated with his master’s degree in education, brought people to tears as the student speaker at the school’s 2016 convocation. But the poem is only gaining strength in the days since — it has been shared more than 11 million times on social media.
Some heard in it a call to end racial injustice. Some heard an affirmation of all students’ potential. Some heard a challenge to look beyond the bureaucracy of education to the heart of teaching.
“It’s extremely powerful, it’s extremely real, it’s honest,” said Estefania Rodriguez, who graduated with Livingston, and joined him in advocating for a more racially inclusive campus this past year. When he performs, she said, it’s as though there’s no audience — as though he’s speaking one-on-one, because it’s so heartfelt. “He just loves really hard,” she said. “He has so much love for everyone.”
But his words hit hard. “I think he’s saying things that have needed to be said in education,” she said. As a teacher in Hartford, Conn., city schools, and as a graduate student, she said so much of the conversation has been around deficits, closing gaps. “Being able to speak about our strengths and our abilities and our courage and our power and our love, which is something we don’t hear so often — it definitely hit personally home for me. I was in tears. My whole family was in tears,” Rodriguez said.
Livingston began “Lift Off” with his warm smile, inviting people to participate, “rejoice, celebrate,” as he performed a piece both intimate and sweeping, touching on his own story, history, racism, the power of education to provoke change and an urgent provocation to change education.
“At the core, none of us were meant to be common,” he said.
“We were born to be comets,
Darting across space and time —
Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.
A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here —
An indelible impact that shook up the world.”
Livingston grew up in a family of educators — his parents were a principal and a speech pathologist working in public schools — loving the classroom and finding it easy to excel in Fayetteville, N.C. In seventh grade, as he tells in the poem, it was a little too easy, and a teacher called him out for being too talkative, too distracting.
Instead of disciplining him, she challenged him to direct that excess energy into the speech and debate team she led.
That’s when he began trying to find his voice, he said.
By the time he had finished high school, he had found it, through spoken-word poetry — a way to use some of the energy and rhythms of hip-hop, which he loves, a fast-paced new kind of storytelling he channeled to better understand and express himself.
He relied on it when he found himself struggling academically, for the first time, at the University of North Carolina. A professor told him he didn’t belong there, he said, and he didn’t know how to ask for help or admit he needed it. “I didn’t feel as prepared as I could have been … I really struggled as a black man at a predominantly white institution,” he said.
But a spoken-word poetry group on campus gave him courage to admit he was vulnerable, he said. “That supportive space was one of the few spaces I felt I was taken seriously as a student, as a scholar, in a place that didn’t historically feel welcoming,” Livingston said.
He was blessed to have teachers point him toward his gift, he said. Once he found his own space, he wanted to find others’: “Everyone has a niche, a talent, a gift. Everyone has something special about them. As educators, we have to find what that is.”
Livingston has been working in Upward Bound, helping first-generation and low-income college students navigate the transition from high school to college. Next year, while his wife is in medical school, he will begin work toward his doctorate specializing in the role of emotional intelligence in college completion.
To address his fellow graduates was surreal, he said, and he counted on his family in the front row (even though his mother was a ball of tears, he said). People often tell him he looks so relaxed and charismatic on stage. “In my mind, I’m petrified, I’m freaking out. I’m very glad there was a podium — my legs were shaking,” he said. Nerves are okay, he said. “Being nervous is a sign that you care about what you’re saying and doing. It’s just a sign that you love what you do tremendously,” he said.
Noah Schuettge, who graduated with Livingston, said his year at Harvard was punctuated by poems. He was blown away soon after starting classes when he first heard him perform. Then he saw Livingston and classmate Michael Lee perform “Dear Abby (An Open Letter to Abigail Fisher)”, after a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on an affirmative action case.
Schuettge, who is white, said the year and his friendship with Livingston changed the way he thinks about race and education. “Harvard as an institution hasn’t changed all that drastically, but it has introduced more different kinds of people, and expected them to be absorbed. I started to see a need for a fundamental shift to happen on the level of higher education in the country,” he said. (He and others noted that over the past year they had seen real efforts to change from the leadership of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.)
The final poem brought him to tears, and he saw his father wiping away tears, as well, he said. It was pure Livingston, he said — encouraging but challenging at the same time. The poem became one focus of conversation among family gathered for a wedding this weekend in unexpected ways, Schuettge said.
“Right now it’s a conversation-starter. And I don’t think it’s the end of the conversation at all, just the beginning. I hope it inspires other people to think about these issues and how they play out in their own lives and the world around them,” Schuettge said.
Livingston hopes so, too. He didn’t expect the reach of this poem, but he is very happy that he has heard from teachers and students around the world saying they were inspired. “Often times we get bogged down in standards and policies in education,” he said.
“… I want everyone to see the value in elevating and celebrating students’ stories. If educators and students take the time to speak their truths, use the classroom to elevate the student space and student voice, beautiful things can take place and everyone can achieve the dreams they set out for themselves,” he said.
Here is his poem, in full:
By Donovan Livingston
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin,
Is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” — Horace Mann, 1848.
At the time of his remarks I couldn’t read — couldn’t write.
Any attempt to do so, punishable by death.
For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.
Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys —
The guardians of information.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen more dividing and conquering
In this order of operations — a heinous miscalculation of reality.
For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time.
How many times must we be made to feel like quotas —
Like tokens in coined phrases? —
There are days I feel like one, like only —
A lonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises.
But, hey, I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice.
Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction.
With a passion that transcends the confines of my own consciousness —
Beyond your curriculum, beyond your standards.
I stand here, a manifestation of love and pain,
With veins pumping revolution.
I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree.
I am a DREAM Act, Dream Deferred incarnate.
I am a movement — an amalgam of memories America would care to forget
My past alone won’t allow me to sit still.
So my body, like my mind,
Cannot be contained.
As educators, rather than raising your voices
Over the rustling of our chains,
Take them off. Un-cuff us.
Unencumbered by the lumbering weight
Of poverty and privilege,
Policy and ignorance.
I was in the seventh grade, when Ms. Parker told me,
“Donovan, we can put all of your excess energy to good use!”
And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.
She gave me a stage. A platform.
She told me that our stories are the ladders
That make it easier for us to touch the stars.
So climb and grab them.
Keep climbing. Grab them.
Spill your emotions in the Big Dipper and pour out your soul.
Light up the world with your luminous allure.
To educate requires Galileo-like patience.
Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations.
If you take the time to connect the dots,
You can plot the true shape of their genius —
Shining in their darkest hour.
I look each of my students in the eyes,
And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt
And the pyramids of Giza.
I see the same twinkle
That guided Harriet to freedom.
I see them. Beneath their masks and their mischief,
Exists an authentic frustration;
An enslavement to your standardized assessments.
At the core, none of us were meant to be common.
We were born to be comets,
Darting across space and time —
Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.
A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened right here —
An indelible impact that shook up the world.
Are we not astronomers — searching for the next shooting star?
I teach in hopes of turning content, into rocket ships —
Tribulations into telescopes,
So a child can see their true potential from right where they stand.
An injustice is telling them they are stars
Without acknowledging the night that surrounds them.
Injustice is telling them education is the key
While you continue to change the locks.
Education is no equalizer —
Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
So wake up — wake up! Lift your voices
Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.
Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.
I’ve been the Black hole in the classroom for far too long;
Absorbing everything, without allowing my light to escape.
But those days are done. I belong among the stars.
And so do you. And so do they.
Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
For generations to come.
So no, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.