The words of the Honorable Margaret Marshall, Groton’s keynote Prize Day speaker and former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, carried unique gravitas and conviction because they followed a powerful retelling of her own personal story of courage.
After a childhood in South Africa that she described as “secure, comfortable, stable, with no hint of threat or fear,” she became keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid.
“It made no difference under apartheid that Temba was the grandson of a most distinguished South African scholar and educator, or Vuyelwa the daughter of an important South African author,” she said, referring to the Groton headmaster and his wife. “In the eyes of apartheid, their race, their blackness, defined them completely as inferior human beings.”
As a white university student, Marshall might have ignored what appalled her, but instead she spoke out against apartheid and eventually “came to fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night . . . to know that if the government arrested or banned me, as it had so many other student leaders, no court could or would protect me.”
With government power growing, she sometimes wondered if student protests were futile. Then a group at the University of Cape Town invited Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who was assassinated in 1968) to visit. He would come to the university not just on any day, but on the day the government was shutting blacks out of attending university.
The young man who extended the invitation to RFK was “banned”—essentially put on house arrest. Marshall, for whom doing the right thing trumped fear, stepped into the student leader’s position and traveled with Kennedy. Marshall’s Prize Day address came a day before the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s speech at the University of Cape Town.
Marshall said that RFK’s speech inspired her, and continues to, particularly his message about the impact of individual gestures. She says she has never forgotten this quote from that day:
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Marshall also told of speaking at the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Lutuli, who headed the African National Congress in South Africa. “The feared security police were everywhere, listening and watching and recording,” she recalled. “I confess, I was afraid. . . . I knew the speakers could be, would be, arrested. One, a student I knew well, Stephen Biko, was later tortured to death in a prison cell.
"At Lutuli’s funeral, I came face-to-face with true courage. And I understood with searing clarity the harvest of bitterness reaped by a government that denies its people equality and justice.”
Listeners may have found it unfathomable when the speaker referred to herself as “a nobody,” but they understood clearly her point that anyone who stands up for ideals and justice can have enormous influence.
Preceding Marshall's keynote address were words of welcome and messages of tolerance and inclusion from Headmaster Maqubela and Board of Trustees President Jonathan Klein. Mr. Klein urged the graduates to mine the inexhaustible supply of a precious natural resource—gratitude—then went on to speak of tolerance, understanding, and the notion—inspired by Boston Assistant District Attorney Adam Foss and reinforced by Mr. Maqubela’s belief in restorative justice—that no one should be defined by their mistakes or lapses.
Mr. Maqubela specifically described students who are carrying on the message of inclusion, including one who asked that American History be renamed U.S. History (because there is more to “America” than the U.S.) and a young alumnus who is trumpeting the ideal of inclusion on his college campus.
Another highlight of the day was Zahin Das ’16, who was chosen by his peers to be the student Prize Day speaker. With droll delivery and spot-on comic timing, Zahin chronicled his life growing up on campus—his parents are teachers Nishad Das and Sravani Sen-Das.
Listeners heard of the dormitory fish named J’uhwah Shanaynay (don’t ask), which had its own Twitter account and used the hashtag #bubbles. Alas, that story ended with a paper-bag coffin and final rites in the Nashua River. There was the softball game, too, where a teammate purposely rounded the bases in the wrong direction.
After the humorous tales came a serious message about the care that has surrounded Zahin at Groton. “When I was a toddler, a physics teacher at Groton gave me a tiny, blue bench painted with my name and yellow stars. When I was a middle schooler, practicing in the squash courts and silently idolizing the Groton squash team, that same teacher stopped in regularly to watch me and help with my game.
"When I was a senior in one of my last matches on that Groton team, at the height of physical exhaustion and on the brink of defeat, his hand was on my shoulder to guide me and spur me back into the fight. I can speak confidently for the Form of 2016 when I say that we have all had those figures.”
Zahin concluded with a message of friendship and gratitude: “As I look back, I don’t ask myself what I’ve done or accomplished here; I ask, ‘whom did I care about?’ In the end, that’s what matters.”
When Prize Day ended, graduates left the tent on the Circle buoyed by the messages of each speaker. When Mr. Maqubela, per Groton tradition, shouted “Go well," off they went, inspired to make a difference.See Prize Day photos. Photo by Mike Sperling