Perspective

Harvard Grad's Speech in Verse Strikes a Chord

Donovan Livingston

Donovan Livingston encouraged the audience to react aloud during his convocation address to the Harvard Graduate School of Education's 2016 class, and they did.

He delivered not so much a speech to his fellow grads but a spoken-word poem rich with both frustration and hope regarding the U.S. education system. Whoops and applause punctuated the verses.

"Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations," said Livingston, a North Carolina native whose parents are retired educators. "If you take the time to connect the dots/You can plot the true shape of their genius—Shining in their darkest hour."

The celestially themed address, titled "Lift Off," has drawn more than 10 million views via Harvard's YouTube and Facebook posts. In it, Livingston touches on race, preconceptions, injustice, and also hope. "For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time," he says. "How many times must we be made to feel like quotas—Like tokens in coined phrases?"

Livingston himself was a chatty student growing up in Fayetteville—in his words, "Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction." But one teacher saw excess energy that needed an outlet, and she encouraged him to participate in debate and speech activities.

"She told me that our stories are ladders/That make it easier for us to touch the stars./So climb and grab them," he said.

Livingston plans to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; his wife is in medical school at Wake Forest. "I was born to be in the classroom," he said during an interview with the BBC, noting that he focuses on helping low-income students transition from high school to college. "I really feel like I'm carrying out my purpose every single day when I work with my students."

Back in high school, Livingston had wanted to use poetry for a graduation speech, but his English teacher and school administrators discouraged him. At the Harvard event, he paused with gratitude at being able to use his "most authentic voice."

"Spoken word poetry has been a huge part of my identity for a very long time," said in an interview with CNN after the speech.

"The teacher in question actually reached out to me and we had a good laugh about it, so everything is good ... I'm glad I got a chance to finally use my voice in that way."

The helpful middle school teacher he references in the poem, Susan Parker, made a surprise appearance during the BBC show, and her message brought Livingston near tears. "I hope that in his teaching career he runs across the kind of student that he was," she said. "I hope that someday, a student will come back and touch him the way he's touched me."

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