Through the wonders of Social Media, it was suggested that I deliver the commencement speech to the last graduating class of Wilson Junior High School, my old Alma Mater. I took on the honored job with some trepidation and with some “boyhood” enthusiasm. The school was one of the schools that the Detroit Public Education system had decided to close, even though there is a strong group of former students from the school that has their own page on Facebook. The most illustrious alumni of the school, no matter one’s political standing was the eminent retired neurosurgeon and former American Presidential runner Ben Carson, and while I am not in his league, I attempted to say some words to the last class from my school and it was a most bittersweet moment for me. I think I did a fine job, considering that I am not a public speaker, though my Bride has training in this art, and she liked the speech that I penned and I offer the words for your consideration:
“I just want to congratulate all the graduates of Phoenix Multicultural Academy and their families. I am sure that you are all proud of the work and success these students have achieved. They were looking for an alumni or former graduate to speak for a few minutes and I guess Ben Carson could not, so they had to look further down the ladder. Actually this was all done through Social Media, just like the page we have for Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Detroit, and we have a couple thousand former graduates that still keep in touch.
I am sure that you are aware that the Phoenix according to Greek Mythology was a long lived bird that is cyclically regenerated and reborn. How fitting the name is, because my Alma Mater is Woodrow Wilson Junior High and it was reborn as Phoenix Multicultural Academy. I walked these same halls and classrooms as you did, but they needed a good paint job back then. Back then there were only three grades that were taught here, but the mix of classes was great; there was band, home economics (where the girls learned sewing and cooking), wood and metal shop (where the boys built different items for the house, and if I looked hard enough, I am sure that there are still some of them floating around), graphic arts with the printing presses and Civics, where I even learned how to do taxes for my parents. What a great education. Then again I did it back from 1966 to 1969 and I graduated here in June of 1969 and that was some forty-seven years ago and I am sure that most of your parents are not that old yet. Woodrow Wilson was the 28’Th President of the United States of America and this school was named after him. I have always enjoyed historical side notes, and he was the first President to ever throw out the first baseball at a World Series, which leads me to my John F. Bennett Elementary School, named after the original owner of the Detroit Tigers, and how do I know that, because one of my teachers at Bennett thought it was worthy information for all of the students to know. Then I finished my public education at Cass Technical High School, which was named for the Territorial Governor of Michigan. It was because of the great education that I received all those years ago, which enabled me to gain a scholarship and get my Bachelor of Science degree in four years after High School. All along the way in my education I had wonderful teachers, many that I can still recall, and many that can still recognize me. Looking back, the three years that I spent here, were some of my best childhood memories. I am sure that you enjoyed that same quality of an education here at the academy and that years from now; you too can look back with fond memories.
The other thing that makes me smile about Phoenix Multicultural Academy is the word Multicultural, and this area, Southwest Detroit was always multicultural. From the early days when the area at West Vernor and Central Avenue was referred to as Ferndale, just as about a dozen blocks South of us, the area was known as Delray and this area was Springwells Township. I mention this because this was a true Melting Pot of America; there were assorted nationalities all around. Some of the nationalities were among the oldest of the world and others were from politically cobbled new entities that were created. Most of the children that I grew up with here in the neighborhood were either first or second generation Americans, and if not their parents had emigrated mostly from the Southern States to work in the factories that made Detroit famous. All of our names were funny sounding to us all, and yet we all became a loose knit family and some of these ties are still going strong. Some of us spoke strange secondary languages at home, though our parents and grandparents really only wanted us to speak English, so that they could learn this new language. And might I add that one never was hungry, because every house had such unique foods that they wanted to share with their friends. How else can you explain that we are celebrating our Sixth Open Year Reunion for Wilson Junior High School, and I hope that you can enjoy what we are enjoying in your future.
As I look at all of these rooms and halls once again, I remember how we used to walk to school everyday with our school books, lunch bags and yes our musical instruments, in all sorts of weather. We did it because we were learning and we had good friends to see each day. I was lucky as I only had to walk four short blocks to get here with no major intersections and we usually walked in the alleys to shorten the walks. Though some of my friends walked twenty some blocks to get their education, and of course we walked together in groups, because we had to catch up on what was going on since the last time we saw each other. We didn’t have computers, or cell phones, but we all had great lungs and vocal cords, because we could call each other from a block away. And a lot of us would meet again on Monday evenings at the Bookmobile, which was a bus converted into a rolling library, so that we could check out more books for research and for studying. We played outside until the street lights came on, and then we would all go home and do our homework.
So it is such an honor to say some words to you, as you go and begin the next phase of your education. May you retain what you have learned and may you especially keep your friends and memories. You may not realize it at the moment, but you will and you will cherish these days and all the people that you have met. I also wish that the Phoenix will one day again rise from the proverbial ashes and make this building a cornerstone to other generations of students. I thank you all and wish you all the best in your future.”
After the graduation ceremony, I decided to have lunch and while the area is having a resurgence of restaurants, I had to go to a restaurant that I have written about a couple of times ago, but it is in the DNA of most of the former graduates from the time that they started off as just a carryout pizzeria and now they are a full blown table-clothed restaurant that has clientele from not only the neighborhood, but from far-flung suburbs as well. I had lunch at Vince’s and it brought back more great memories, the day was a true journey of nostalgia for me. I started off with the house salad and the hot bread that they have been serving since I can remember. I then had a plate of Gnocchi with Meat Sauce, another dish that I have been enjoying there forever. I also had another old friend with the meal, a classic Italian wine to go with the lunch. I had some Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico 2012. Ruffino has been making wine since 1877 under the Tuscan sky, and Chianti Classico is probably one of the most famous wines from Italy forever. It is made from the Sangiovese grape and that is the varietal that is required for the DOCG designation, though there are so many other wines that also come from this area. Chianti is the oldest designation in Italy and the black cockerel emblem is usually found on the neck of the bottle. The Classico part of the label refers to the ancient demarcation of the area, and the Riserva means that the wine has been aged for twenty-four months before it is commercially released. I was awash in nostalgia that day, and so far I still am, each time I think of this day.