Thursday 23rd June 2011by Jennifer 8. Lee
I gave a graduation speech to my elementary school, which is actually really terrifying. What do you say to 12 year olds? Especially because you also have to make it interesting for the adults in the audience. I was totally panicked. So I stewed on it for a few weeks, I finally was inspired, and wrote this in 15 minutes in a burst. You can also read the speech by Adam E. Cohen, one of the wizards I talk about. Below is my speech, and you will see that my school really does look like a castle. And these are just my notes. What I actually said actually varies from what is below.
Today I’m going to talk about magic. How many of you have read Harry Potter, or at least seen the movies?
Well, you are going to enter Hunter College High School, which is one of the few schools in the country that starts when you are 12 and 13, just like Hogwarts. So more so than most people, I think us Hunterites could relate to going to a school which is a magical place just as we are ready to become teenagers. I mean, you have to be special to get in, and it even looks like a castle.
So Hunter Elementary School, or baby Hogwarts, if you will, was for my family, a magical transformative place. My parents sacrificed a lot for me to come here. I started in the castle in 1980, which is more than 30 years ago, whenÂ Pluto was still a planet and the subway token was $.60. Believe it or not, I didn’t really speak English when I started. That sounds crazy, but I was the children of Chinese immigrants, and somehow I took the Hunter test without speaking English, I could understand it, but not speak it. Luckily the Hunter test for three-year olds only involved a lot of pointing and rearranging things. I learned my English from Sesame Street, which is weird, because there are certain words you don’t learn from Sesame Street, and I remember learning them at Hunter from my classmates. One is “pregnant,” the other is “naked.” Another one was “chess.”
I remember in kindergarten, kids would be taken away to “chess” and come back from “chess” and say it was so much fun. So I had grown up watching The Magic Garden, so I pictured “chess” as some mysterious wonderful playground full of giant slides and colorful flowers. So imagine my disappointment when I one day finally went to “chess” and ended up in the high school library with these little funny-shaped black and white plastic pieces. I think that soured me on chess forever.
So magic. I am a writer. I worked for many years at The New York Times, writing about this world. But now I am creating a magical world in my mind, a new universe if you will. And I had to think hard about what magic was. It struck me, that in Harry Potter, that magic is largely a fixed body of knowledge that you absorb in school. You learn spells, and potions, and incantations. But except for the Weasley twins and their practical jokes, you do not see the young wizards and witches creating their own spells.
Now in real life, what is magic in our world? It’s kinda the opposite. It’s about imagining something which is not yet exist, and believing in it so much that you will it into existence with a lot, lot, lot of hard work. So much work that people often think you are crazy. A lot of today’s magic is coming from Silicon Valley. One example is Facebook, which was invented by Mark Zuckerberg a few years after I graduated from Harvard. I know you guys, all not being yet 13, aren’t on Facebook yet. I won’t tell if you are. But he just had a vision, and dropped out of college to pursue it.
Or Google or the iPad. Those are really magical isn’t it? It’s about dreaming, having a vision, even when other people think you are crazy, and just going for it.
And magic doesn’t just have to be about computers, it can be about science and art. I remember in fifth grade, I was in the auditorium and I heard this sixth grader playing a song that I didn’t recognize. And you know, on the piano you either played classical music or chorus music, so I asked what he was doing. And he told me, he was writing a musical. And I remember thinking, I didn’t know people who were alive could write musicals.
A few years after that I bumped into this same guy in the Times Square subway stop and asked what he was doing. He said he was writing a musical about muppets in New York. And I remember thinking, good luck with that. Of course, that guy is Bobby Lopez, who just shared his second set of Tonys for best musical. It took years and years of hard work? And he’s not the only one, used to take the school bus with another kid, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won a Tony for Best Musical with a project he started in college that became In the Heights. When I first met Lin, he was like half my size.
They dreamed. And what they dreamed was magical.
And you can do magic in high school, even Hunter. I remember when one of my high school classmate, Zoe Cohen, told me her brother Adam, who also went to the elementary school, had build a scanning tunneling microscope and hung it from the ceiling in his bedroom. He went on to win the biggest high school science competition, which is now known as Intel, which by the way is a company that makes magical little things. I just visited Adam’s secret lab at Harvard, and what they are building there is totally magical. He can stop a single cell from moving and make mutant nerve cells pulse with light. He’s actually giving the graduation speech at the high school tomorrow. He really is a wizard. I just write about them.
Talking to my friends who are parents, I think many kids wait for the Hogwarts invitation to arrive by owl, or since we are in New York City, probably pigeon. Because they believe you have to be special, be of wizard blood or a special muggle like Hermione.
But I am telling you that owl invitation or not, you already have this ability within you. That you have the ability to create magic within yourself. That you just have to imagine â€” and believe in your imagination so much that you work hard enough to make it real.
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