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Harvard Graduate Student's Speech Resonates With Educators


Donovan Livingston is a student, an aspiring teacher and a poet. And it was with poetry that he took the stage last week at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to deliver a convocation speech to his fellow graduates.


DONOVAN LIVINGSTON: I stand here a manifestation of love and pain with veins pumping revolution. I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree. I am a dream act, dream deferred, incarnate and a movement, an amalgam of memories America would care to forget. My past...

SHAPIRO: That address was a big success with the more than 2,000 people who were gathered there. And since then, millions of people have watched the address on social media. Donovan Livingston was good enough to take a moment away from the beach to talk with us via Skype. Hey there (laughter).

LIVINGSTON: Hey, how's it going, Ari? It's good to hear from you, Brother.

SHAPIRO: It's good to talk to you. So why did you decide to use poetry to deliver this speech?

LIVINGSTON: Very good question. I believe poetry is the best mechanism of communication I could have possible thought of. I have been doing spoken word poetry for the past 10 or 11 years, and it's been a huge part of my identity. And a spoken word piece was the best way to do my voice justice.

SHAPIRO: Watching you deliver the speech, it was clear you were not glued to the page. This was something that was carved inside of you, it looked like.

LIVINGSTON: Oh, yeah. So I mean anytime I write a new piece, it takes a while for me to get comfortable with it, and I really try to internalize and not memorize my pieces so they become an extension of myself when I perform for audiences.

SHAPIRO: You gave a shout out to your seventh grade teacher at one point in the speech. Let's listen to a little bit of this.



LIVINGSTON: As educators, rather than raising your voices over the rustling of our chains, take them off, un-cuff us. Unencumbered by the lumbering weight of poverty and privilege, policy and ignorance, I was in the seventh grade when Ms. Parker (ph) told me, Donovan, we could put all of your excess energy to good use.

And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice. She gave me a stage, a platform. She told me that our stories are the ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars. So climb, and grab them. Keep climbing. Grab them. Spill your emotions in the Big Dipper, and pour out your soul. Light up the world with your luminous allure.

SHAPIRO: Donovan, tell us about the role of Ms. Parker in your life.

LIVINGSTON: Oh, Ms. Parker played a tremendous role. I was performing really well in her class. It was - she was a social studies teacher. And I wasn't being as challenged as I would've liked, and all of that other energy that I had was manifested in, you know, clowning around in class, being a distraction. I actually had the phrase talkative on my report card.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LIVINGSTON: And my mom and dad who are both educators who played a tremendous role in helping me, you know, find my voice weren't too pleased with that. But you know, instead of suspending me or sending me to detention or, you know, finding another source of punishment, Ms. Parker really challenged me to harness that energy for something positive. And she just happened to be the Speech and Debate Forensics League coach at our middle school, and that was kind of, like, my introduction to being on stage.

SHAPIRO: That's Donovan Livingston whose convocation speech to the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been viewed millions of times online. Thank you so much for your time.

LIVINGSTON: Oh, thank you for speaking with me today. You be blessed, and enjoy your Memorial Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.