This commencement day had a certain buzz. In a departure from common practice, the school administration acceded to the Student Government’s leadership request and made an eyebrow-raising decision, tailor-made for second guessing: Valedictorian would deliver keynote speech. They made such a choice due to the unusual and epic story of the student, Mostène Jean, commonly called Mostie, whose story rivals the Phoenix’s. Starting from a triple handicap against success: poverty, foreigner and no fluency in English (being black an unstated but obvious factor), he had to overcome two near-fatal MVAs, the second one leaving him with a permanent limp and partial blindness of left eye and yet he’s graduating on schedule without missing a beat. He also made the bold decision to have two majors, Math and Physics and two minors, Computer Sciences and Mechanical Engineering. He also had a string of perfect scores in final exams, a remarkable feat by any standard. Even for a school historically known as a bastion for talented immigrants, such a storyline of a wunderkind stood out.

This June day was remarkable for the variable weather pattern. Mother Nature was showing her finicky side; she couldn’t decide between a sunny, cloudy or rainy day. Hence there was a back and forth. For more reason than one, the day weighed heavily on Mostie’s mind. He wasn’t sure if the ceremony would be held outdoors as originally planned or indoors due to the bad weather. Mostie had come a long way, from a single and unattached young man to now a soon-to-be father. As he sat to write his speech, he gently caressed the pregnant belly of his wife, overcome by a warm and fulfilling sensation when detecting any movement of the baby. Procreation had this profound effect on him.

Once he nurtured the desire of furthering only his lot to give a meaning to his life. Now he will have one more human besides his wife bound to him at the hip that he needed to be around with and to support and cajole.  His past, present and future were now part of a whole.

He knew he would be facing a crowd of skeptics and had to deliver an appropriate speech to make that decision sound and not a folly. A decision he had no say in but one that only he could influence the outcome of. Somehow all of his life, he has had to weave out of tight corners. Whereas his willpower, his dogged pursuit for excellence have been operating in privacy, away from public glare, now he would be under a microscope with lenses as powerful as a telescope’s. He had a fifteen-minute-tops allocation to make his case. In front of a crowd, not his favorite pastime or cup of tea.

Paradoxically, his rags-to-academic success story was filled with riches of anecdotes, stumbles turned into impetuses. How would he conflate an interesting story into a compelling narrative? How would he avoid sounding pedantic, pompous, pious, or preaching-like only to bore the audience? He concluded that for his narrative to be compelling, it needed to steer clear of being smarmy, lest it sound contrived; it ought to eschew threadbare as well as overflowing details, extremes that stifle a listener’s attention span.

This was a challenge unlike any other because it wasn’t his comfortable world of black and white, binary construct in the hard sciences but the minefield environment of social sciences, layered with different shades of gray, filled with subjective, hence unpredictable opinions.

Mostie was at his wit’s end. He was taken in a push-and-pull internal debate about emphasis on half empty or half full glass. He finally sided with the upbeat mode, the persuasive pulse of a clarion call for a jubilee instead of the flat tone of the blues mourning a death knell. He would rather focus on the vaunted rose instead of its thorny stem. His scientific view of reaching point B from point A was meeting the notional cachet of hardship followed by reward. The trick was in the delivery of an appealing tale and not a jeremiad. As emblematic of his triumph over the triad of handicaps, the only one he could most easily influence, his English skills, was to be in full display to complete the circle or close the book. After some back and forth with his other half, he finally settled on this soliloquy.

“Ladies and gentlemen, faculty members, I nurture no pretense of oratorical skills, but I am a hard-working fellow willing and able to fulfill a dream of learning. I am neither old nor experienced enough to be wise but not a newt enough to be naïve. I have been lucky to have benefited from timely and propitious fillips. No better gesture illustrates the positive vibration of fillip than the symbolic choice made by my classmates for this merry day. Let me say it loud and clear: I am very grateful. I want to thank the numerous teachers who supported my effort, albeit initially skeptical but subsequently my most ardent advocates. A special thank you goes to my classmates who spontaneously offered me notes on missed classes during my recovery from a car accident when I fell asleep behind the steering wheel while working as a limo driver. This is part of the generous spirit of America I have discovered, filled with a critical mass of good-will people, mollifying simmering hatred and prejudice from some corners.  Every single nice gesture thrown my way has gone straight to warm my heart.

The journey that landed me here has not been smooth sailing, but I am the better for it. Turning a negative experience into a helpful fillip is like a birthing, painful as it happens but so joyous thereafter for the reward found. My first one was the most momentous for the seminal change it wrought, yet as it was happening, it looked like anything but a fillip. An insult with enough vitriol and venom to deflate and defang one’s pride was leveled at me but I had the fortunate gumption to upend its intent. I was a new immigrant, penniless, trying to make a decent living by driving a gypsy cab and a passenger called me ‘stupid and ignorant’ because I didn’t know then the Bronx is a borough and not a street. Indeed I was ignorant of that fact but stupid I was not and neither was I an ignoramus. Therefore, I set out to become familiar with the place I was living in, fluent in the language spoken and above all I made the decision to never again put myself in a situation bereft of information going in.

Hence began my love affair literally with a cherished place called library spending countless hours listening to English tapes. Little did I know this would reward me with a trifecta. My constant request for tapes caught the attention of the cutest woman in the world who eventually became my wife two years ago. She steered me to apply to this institution and my life has forever changed for the better.

The lesson and truth I learned from that random-turned-fortuitous episode was that an obstacle can be an opportunity under disguise if seen from the viewpoint of overcoming the challenge, and not fall for the trap called despair, veering into surrender. Every conversation I have had with my companion since has been a collection of real, helpful fillips. Thank you very much my darling.

My exuberance for the learning process was at times misinterpreted, challenged, mistaken for misplaced hubris, misguided boldness or utopia dreaming. ‘Not smart enough to major in math,’ or ‘only a fluke explains a perfect score,’ and ‘2 majors, are you serious?’ such comments were thrown at me on a regular basis by students and teachers alike because of my background. Luckily my solid footing and grounding helped me. Such refrain had the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than a headwind, or a turbulence, the negative feedback created a wind beneath my wings giving me a lift and resolve with the propulsion of a tailwind. We need to remember that talent is color, gender, nationality blind. This will serve us well in the future when competition for scarce natural resources becomes fiercer and the fittest to help in our survival will come from all origins and backgrounds.

My goal in mentioning these facts is not to pat myself on the back or to show off. Far from it. I am sharing with many of you the observation that measured self-confidence is a good antidote to potential depression engendered by constant criticism. It ranks among the top at the pyramid of qualities to have for success and serves as a fillip in its own right.

My story is not that different from others’ who were able to overcome adversity. Mine may have its particular twists but the obvious truth is relationships matter and can make all the difference. No matter my resolve, there were many moments of self-doubt and my companion’s steadfast presence and encouragement soothed bruised feelings, for as a human, cumulative negative comments can levy a toll.

Our diploma today smells like a fresh and blooming rose that has been playing hard to get. It looks like a coveted prize at the end of an obstacles course, irradiates like a bright and shiny light at the end of a dark tunnel, excels in its role as the ultimate fillip for our self-esteem. It anoints one with membership to a respected club and bestows upon us a seal of approval for attaining a well sought-after and deserved level of accomplishment. Last but not least, it reeks of a special look and feel begging for the showiest if not most ostentatious frame. Let the love fest begin!

Nonetheless we need to remember that going forward, we will not always have ready-made answers, we will need to build on what we learned in the classroom, we need to keep an open mind about new ideas and concepts while holding fast to time-tested values like friendship, true love, reliability. May our many morrows be bright and sunny and when they are not, let’s not be so ready to fall into despair and be reminded that no matter how bad our lot is, others have it worse.”

Reynald Altéma, MD.


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