Fort Hamilton High School Commencement Address
June 23, 2021
Commencement address to Fort Hamilton High School, Class of 2021. This address was filmed and delivered virtually. This address was also the focus of a profile of Secretary Yellen in the New York Times, Yellen Steers the Economy with Brooklyn on Her Mind.
To Principal Houlihan and the Fort Hamilton faculty and staff; to the proud parents and family and friends; and, of course, to the graduating class of 2021: Congratulations!
I am especially honored to be part of your graduation. Because for more than fifty years, I have been saying what you can say now. “I am a proud alum. A proud alum of Fort Hamilton High School!”
The Fort provided the foundation for my life’s journey. It has been a half century since my graduation; but I retain the values that I learned here. And I am confident that they will serve as the same solid foundation for your lives that they have for mine.
I would like to recount two stories that illustrate how Fort Hamilton provided that foundation for me.
The first story is about being open to what life throws at you; rolling with the punches.
Of all my high school memories, the ones of The Pilot — the school newspaper — are among the most vivid. That is largely due to our advisor, Jacob Solovay. He was a poet and our English teacher.
Before I had arrived at the Fort, Mr. Solovay had started a course to train The Pilot’s writers. I took it in my sophomore year. He cared deeply about every student. He also cared about every single story in The Pilot.
We worked on many special articles together. For example, we uncovered Bay Ridge’s forgotten Revolutionary War cemetery. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was being built. And we reported on its construction, which progressed rapidly during our senior year.
Mr. Solovay cared about such special articles. But he was equally fastidious regarding every story: such as the announcement of the homecoming theme; the interview with the valedictorian; the usual stuff.
We learned the lesson that you could not always choose your assignment. He taught us that you should look for the joy in every assignment, in every story, big and small. And, furthermore, those presumably small stories might be the ones that ended up as your favorites.
I never became a reporter, and after leaving Fort Hamilton, Mr. Solovay — and his big lesson about journalism — slipped to the back of my mind. It was not until I was around 30, and starting a new job, that I began thinking about The Pilot again.
I had been denied tenure at my first job, which was at a university. I confess that failure was a real disappointment.
I took a new job, at the Federal Reserve. And my previous disappointment vanished from my mind. My respect for the incredible Federal Reserve staff, and the important work of the Federal Reserve became the heart of my life. I had discovered a new joy.
There was also another joy that I discovered at the Federal Reserve. Shortly after I came there, I sat in the cafeteria across from a young economist named George. We struck up a friendship, and over the next four decades, we did some of our best research together. Fast forward to 2014. When I was sworn in to be Chair of the Federal Reserve, there he was again. He had become my husband.
I have been incredibly fortunate. I have lived a life of Big Joys and Small Sorrows. There’s really no accounting for what assignment life will hand you next, but as Mr. Solovay taught me, it is important to find the joy in what you do.
Of course, your class knows something about this. In many ways, you are experiencing two graduations now — this one and a national graduation of sorts, a graduation from a very difficult chapter in our history.
I know that your last two years have been tough. I know you missed things, and especially your friends. And I know some families are still missing so much more. Some lost jobs. Some lost loved ones.
I want you to know I am sorry. But you should also know I am inspired by your resilience. I still keep tabs on The Pilot, and I noted that in last June’s issue, there was a page with students’ observations about the pandemic.
What was life like in quarantine?
Everyone acknowledged the loss, the loneliness. But everyone also managed to find at least some small unexpected pleasure. One student described dusting off an old piano in the basement and learning how to play again.
Another student wrote about the terrible loss of his grandfather. But he also related how in his grief he gained a new appreciation his grandfather’s life — from learning the remarkable story of how he had come to America as an immigrant.
My second lesson is about this community, Bay Ridge — and keeping a piece of it. with you.
A few years ago, I met with a dozen close friends for an informal Fort Hamilton reunion. It was our 50th, give or take a few. We were a bit surprised at how gray we had all become. But we were much more surprised that all of us had chosen careers involving public service: such as in education; in social work; in health care; in journalism; in other forms of government.
Was it all a coincidence? Or was there a common reason we all chose working on behalf of the public — and loved the jobs too?
My classmate Jackie Leo gave the answer: “Growing up in Bay Ridge,” she said, “was a gift.”
I, myself, was born in Bay Ridge because my father had come here. He had trained to become a doctor. He had studied in Scotland, and when he returned to New York, he looked for a place to start a practice and raise a family. He chose Bay Ridge.
From an early age, it seemed to me that Bay Ridge was a community that just worked.
We lived in a house off Ridge Boulevard. My dad’s office was on the ground floor, and some of my earliest memories are of watching his patients walk up to our stoop. They would stop and chat. Over the years, so many became our friends, our neighbors.
It was clear: Bay Ridge was home to people of many different backgrounds, but there was a mutual respect, an abiding desire to make the neighborhood work.
That was the gift my friend Jackie had been talking about, and it was the reason, I think, so many of us went into public service. The lesson Bay Ridge taught us was that a happy and successful life — like a happy successful community — depends not just on others’ love and respect for you, but, even more, on your love and respect for them.
Of course, I know your Bay Ridge is different than mine. No community goes unchanged over half a century. But that gift is still here.
When I became Treasury Secretary, quite a few people mentioned Alexander Hamilton. That made sense. The man helped establish the Treasury Department, and even now he is having a moment. The Broadway show is a hit.
But I confess: The Hamilton association I am proudest of — the one closest to my heart — is my association with this school. Because if any institution deserves to bear the name of our first Treasury Secretary — of Alexander Hamilton — it’s this one.
This school, this place, and all the people in it are living monuments to the man and what he represents: that a community isn’t just something that happens; it’s not just a group of people living in proximity to one another. A community — like a country — has to be made. And made by people. People who come here and pour their heart and their soul into building it.
So, that is the piece of this place I especially hope you take with you. Take it with you wherever you go and in whatever form it works.
At that reunion with my friends, they brought tokens of our high school years. For example, some of them brought old issues of The Anchor and The Pilot. I also have my own special keepsake. It is Jacob Solovay’s book of poetry. Let me give you an excerpt from that which may be particularly appropriate for this occasion.
It is from his poem titled, “Commencement Address.”
Cling fast to learning, you who bid farewell,
With ribboned scroll clutched tightly in your hand,
Proud in your moment’s wonder as you stand
Between two worlds, like one caught in the spell
And then he writes: “Wisdom is living. but where you live determines wisdom, too.”
I am so lucky to come from Bay Ridge and to be a graduate of Fort Hamilton High. My heart will always be here. Fifty years from now you will be saying the same thing. And, as you know, your heart will be here too.
Let me finish with one more remark, beyond a second, “Congratulations!”
I know that because of the pandemic you missed going to Hamilton — the show. I wish I could make that up for you.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any theater tickets. But sometimes Treasury Secretaries get to commune with one another. Accordingly, let me introduce you to my predecessor, Alexander Hamilton. More precisely I will introduce you to the man who will play Hamilton on Broadway. He is the actor, Miguel Cervantes.