Clarence Thomas Tells Students: "Strong feelings do not give you a license for bad manners"
By: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
June 28, 1996
I am delighted to be in Prince George's County (Va), and I am delighted especially to be at the eighth-grades awards and recognition ceremony at the Thomas G. Pullen School. I met this class some time ago, and they are the reason I'm here.
I don't normally do eighth-grade graduations. But this is a special evening. This is the first class to go from K through eighth. That's quite an achievement, and it's quite a school. But this is your night, and I won't belabor my remarks or take any of your - well, I wanted to say, take any of your stars or any of your roses away, but I guess in a way I've already done that. I deeply regret having brought some unwanted attention to this wonderful ceremony of yours. However, I gave you my word that I would be here, that - at this most important event, and I fully intended to keep my word to you all. (Applause) I'm going to digress just one second. You were playing a song during your presentation before this ceremony, "The Greatest." Some years ago, when I was living out of a trash bag, that was the song that got me going again. So this night, it has special meaning to me.
And I heard earlier that some people's parents told them, your parents, never use the word "can't." I was told the same thing. Old man can't is dead. I helped bury him. (applause) I have a bust of my grandfather, who looks over me in my chambers, with that inscribed on it: "Old man can't is dead. I helped bury him.
In the spring of 1962 in Savannah, Georgia, in the heat and humidity at St. Benedict the Moor Grammar School, I sat exactly where you all are sitting with about 30 members of my class. I was anxious. I was scared and I was ready to go on to the ninth grade. And I was trying to coax a little peach fuzz under my chin. But I was a little guy. That time, though, was important to me, as this time is to you all.
As the years have passed, I have come to see just how important that night was. It provided me with a base of knowledge, or at least grammar school did. It provided me with confidence that has continued to be a part of my life - and that's 34 years ago. It also provided me with the recognition that I could do a little bit better. Can any of you do a little bit better?
One of the rewards I received when I graduated from the eighth grade was a knock on my head from Sister Mary Virgilius-well, it was a loving tap, and it was simply to remind me that I was pretty lazy, and I was. But the rest of your education will be based on the eight years you've spent in grammar school and, of course, the additional year of kindergarten. There are any number of reasons why I made it to the eighth grade, and I see you have some of those same reasons. But chief among those reasons were my grandparents, who raised me and who saved me from a life that I would not even like to imagine; the seven nuns, starting with Sister Mary Dolorosa and ending with Sister Mary Virgiliuth in Virgilius in the eighth grade, who taught me from second grade to the eighth and also the wonderful women at the little segregated library in Savannah, Georgia, the Carnegie Library.
My grandparents, of course, who were not educated, insisted that we be educated. They saw the importance of it, and the one thing I remember my grandfather saying when we went to live with him: "Boys, your grandmother and the teachers are always right." (Applause) The second thing he said about education was that we had to go to school every day, and that if we died he would take us to school for three days to make sure we weren't faking it. (Laughter.) I always wondered what my classmates would think about that.
The nuns -the nuns kept expectations high, as your teachers have. But they also provided us with a firm love, and they had a conviction that indeed we could do it -and they saw to it that we did it. The librarians -in a segregated black library in Savannah, Georgia -they taught me the love of learning, a love of books, a love of exploring the whole world, and they taught me how to be quiet so that I'd have an opportunity to learn. They also brought me books at church on Sunday when I couldn't come to the library during the week because we were on the farm. I'll never forget them as long as I'm alive.
You all cannot begin to understand the magnitude of your achievements at this point in your lives, but in time, I assure you, you will. Even now, though, take time to think about those who brought you this far. Who got you to school when you were in kindergarten, the second grade, the third grade? Who dressed you? Who sacrificed so that you could have this wonderful opportunity? Give some thought to the teachers who got you interested in your studies and who worked with you until you became good. Perhaps there's a relative or a friend who was helpful. Seek them out. Thank them. Never forget them. Do that this night, before this evening goes on. Thank them.
Your achievements, though, belong to you, and the awards are presented to you as a sign, as a signal, and to signify that these are your achievements, and you earned them. These awards are not given to you, nor are your achievement; you earn those. It is a way of saying that you all have accomplished your goals - high goals, high expectations. Tonight we are here, a large crowd, to celebrate your achievements and to say we are just so proud of you all, and we love you.
As you all move on to the ninth grade, remember what you've already done - don't forget it - and how good it felt to accomplish something; to remember your lines, to play an instrument, to recite a poem, to make a public speech. And indeed, you must have learned, from what I've heard tonight.
Keep in mind that it is important to amass knowledge, to learn how to learn, and to think for yourselves. Education is the second door to freedom. It will not only open doors to employment and careers, it will also open doors to independent thought. With it, each of you will have the confidence in your ability to analyze and solve problems unemotionally, but with passion. You can think for yourselves and not be led mindlessly.
Some advice: Study a minimum of two hours each day. This is something I learned in my first years in the seminary, in 1964, where we had mandatory study halls for two hours every night. If it doesn't go in, it can't come out. (applause.)
Remember that teachers can teach, but only you can learn, and learning takes time, patience and persistence. It takes discipline and it takes great effort.
Remember that good manners will open doors that even the best education will not and cannot. (applause.) Even though you might have strong feelings about a matter, that does not give you license to have bad manners. (applause)
Develop the habit of carrying out tasks thoroughly and with pride, no matter what it is - cutting grass, washing dishes, cleaning windows. The habits you develop doing small assignments will be the habits you have doing big ones. (applause) Don't let failure get you down - we all fail. Keep trying. Never quit. Quitting is a bad habit that is hard to break. Try to be positive about yourselves and others. If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything. (applause.)
Having visited with you all last year and seeing you all tonight and hearing about you, I am confident that if you all continue on the road you're traveling, you will all do well. You certainly have the talent. You must believe in yourselves. You must dream, and you must work. When I was in 10th trade I read a Robert Frost poem that has stuck with me: "Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, that has made all the difference." God bless you all.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Graduation speech, Thomas G. Pullen School, 1996
This speech is here.