Corry Booker, former Mayor of Newark and now US Senator for NJ
Delivering the Yale University Class Day speech
May 19, 2013
You’re all going to have to be a little quiet because I’m a little mad at all of you. You invite me all the way out here to California and I have the same feeling that I hope many mayors have, that when you get invited to cut a ribbon in front of an amazing edifice, a building, a new school, a bridge, and they ask you to say a few words and cut a ribbon, but the whole time you’re thinking to yourself, “What the heck did I have to do with it? So many people came together and sacrificed and served and gave of their very essence to do something truly remarkable.” You all are that edifice of accomplishment you all have created something extraordinary. You all have so much to be proud of.
Now, this is the challenge for me. I’ve had a few minutes to talk to some of the faculty and to learn more about you, I’ve been reading everything I can and I’m beginning to stand here and think, what do I have to offer you all that you haven’t already evidenced in your extraordinary accomplishments and commitment.
I’ve thought about some of the most valuable advice that I’ve gotten over the last four years, or at least eight years, as Mayor Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, gave me the best advice ever which was, first goal should be to become a billionaire, then become mayor of a city; advice I learned the hard way in my first campaign where I lost tremendously, a spectacular failure and I advise you all, if you are going to fail spectacularly, have a documentary team there to capture it.
But last night, after arguing with the most aggressive atheist in all of the United States of America, Bill Maher, I decided maybe I should offer you all a prayer. And, the simple prayer is this: I would like for you all, that my prayer and hope is that you all be you.
My grandfather said that to me on graduation. He had this weird way, at every graduation, of saying this kind of same things over and over and over again, like, “Boy, the tassel is worth the hassle.” As I went on in college and got another degree and another degree, he said, “Boy, you’ve got more degrees than the month of July, and you’re definitely not hot.” But he would always tell me, “I want you to have the courage to be you.”
As life went on I began to think about that more and more and I began to realize that something that Abraham Lincoln said is so true; he said “Everyone is born an original, but sadly, most die copies.”
You see, this nation is yearning for you, starved for your authenticity, hungry for your originality. But the mistake we so often make is that we surrender our very being, by copying that which is right or left. Alice Walker said that the greatest way, the most common way that people give up their power is by not recognizing that they have it in the first place.
Let me give you an example I learned as a teenager. I played high school football and this guy came in to give us a lesson, a motivational speech and he said, “Everybody raise your hand as high as you can.” We all did it and then said, “OK, raise it three inches higher,” and everybody stood on their tiptoes and he gave us this wonderful speech about you can always do a little bit more.
A couple years later I was a freshman at Stanford University and I was working with a bunch of kids in an after school program in East Palo Alto and it was the last day and I wanted to leave them with a message so I relied on the words of this speaker. I got all of these kids together and said, “I want you to raise your hands as high as you can.” These young people were extraordinary but it was hot, they were tired, and they were like, man, I don’t wanna do that, and one kid said, “What’s up with that, Cory?”
So, some of you, I see, already know what you’re going on to do, teaching and educating, might have better ways of persuading young people. I resorted to a form of persuasion often seen in politics called bribery, I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a $5 bill and I said, “Five bucks to the kid who can raise his hand the highest.”
These kids didn’t need a graduate degree in political science or social economy to understand what this was about. They shot their hands up and now were comparing themselves to each other looking to see whose was the highest. I looked over to the side and saw the shortest of all the kids who was also the youngest, incredibly cute and had a fiery personality, but now he just looked dejected. His arms were crossed, his face was all in a pout, and it looked like he had disappeared inside of himself as he was thinking hard about something.
And then just as I was ready to walk over to him and say, “There, there, don’t worry about it, you’re not as tall as them, don’t worry,” he turned around and sprinted out of the auditorium. I chased after him, caught up to his little legs in about three bounds, and picked him up, and he was wiggling and squirming around, and I’m holding him and he says, “Let me go, let me go!” And I said, “No! No!” and I turned him around and I said, “Where are you going? What’s wrong?” And he looked and me hard and said, “You said you’d give five bucks to whoever could raise their hand the highest, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” He looked over at the kids, then looked back and me, and with a wisdom that betrayed his age, he said, “Well, I know a way to get to the roof.” I gave him the five bucks!
Do not give into this world and let the world set your measure of what is great; let the world set your standards. You have genius, you have greatness, you have glory, you have power inside of you that must be unleashed into the community. Do not settle. Do not yield. You have a truth