Thursday 23rd June 2011

by 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.

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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, when 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 — and believe in your imag­i­na­tion so much that you work hard enough to make it real.

Thank you.

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