On June 26, 1963, Jack Kennedy gave what he reportedly believed was his best, and best received, speech.
“There are many people in the world who don’t, or say they don’t, understand what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. … Let them come to Berlin.”
To be in the physical presence of, to be an eyewitness to, the monstrous wall built to keep enslaved people from running for freedom was enough, Kennedy was saying, to understand the issues of the day and the only proper direction toward which decent people could hope the future would bend.
On June 19 of this year, I was honored to give a much smaller speech, at the commencement of the Bodine High School for International Affairs in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties.
A citywide magnet high school, Bodine was founded in 1980 in a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
As I looked out at the 33rd graduating class of Bodine High, a simply beautiful symphony of racial, religious, ethnic, gender identification, sexual orientation, and native-born versus immigrant, diversity, I just kept thinking, “Let them come to Bodine.”
To those who question whether a public school in a big city, composed very largely of kids from families who are poor or nearly poor, can graduate almost everyone it enrolls, and send nearly all of those graduates on to college, let them come to Bodine.
To those who see the ascendancy of a much more diverse America, along all the lines of distinctions without a difference reflected in the Class of 2017, as a threat to American values and virtues, let them come to Bodine.
To all those who think growing interdependence with the world brings America low, rather than that American leadership and engagement in the world has brought all of humanity higher, let them see teenagers studying, traveling, and being visited, on a global scale. Let them come to Bodine.
To all those who despair of the divisiveness, even ugliness, of contemporary American politics and the coarseness of our discourse, let them come to Bodine.
The Bodine students, and indeed so many others of their generation, celebrate and embrace one another across all the lines that seem to so brutally separate their elders today. But these kids in many ways seem scarcely even aware such lines exist, all the while equally celebrating things about themselves, their families, and their communities that they hold out as worthy of special pride.
So, to all those who think there’s only bad news — in urban public education, in the social fabric of the United States — let them come to (or at least learn about) Bodine, and places like it.
After the giant crowd’s thunderous applause of his speech, as his motorcade pulled away, Kennedy said to his aides, we will never have a better day than this.
I feel that same way every day I come to Bodine.
Craig Snyder is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org