WCSU Undergraduate Commencement Speech

Ms. Patricia Llodra

Commencement, May 12, 2013
Western Connecticut State University

Good morning graduates. Congratulations to you for having reached this milestone in life’s journey. And congratulations also to the moms and dads out there who are so proud of your accomplishment and who so wish you happiness and success as you venture forth. I have had the pleasure of sitting in the audience for the graduations of my own children and soon for my grandchildren. Those events always fill me with satisfaction that I, too, had accomplished one of life’s most important goals – the successful shepherding and parenting of those for whom I have boundless love and for whom I am filled with great hopes and expectations for their years to come.

I describe myself these days as an accidental politician. I never intended to have this role, never thought of myself in an elected position. I spent more than 30 years as a teacher, administrator, and consultant with the bureau of education and at the Connecticut Association of Schools. For the last eight years, though, I have been involved in local government, and now for four years as the first selectman in the town of Newtown – where I have lived with my family for more than 42 years. A town that I care for a great deal – a town that I believe is special in many ways. A town that loves children and families and is especially proud of its schools. On December 14, 2012, a horrible tragedy came to this town. We lost 20 children and 6 adults to a terrible, violent crime – the worst school shooting in history.

That violence perpetrated upon us by an angry, confused young man left us fragile beyond words. Our sense of self, our confidence and our surety that we are safe was destroyed in a five-minute hail of bullets. But that heinous act also set into motion a resolve that we would prevail, that this one event would not define us, that this community of Newtown would be known for its courage, for acts of love and kindness; that we would not fall into that emotional abyss and we will not let the violence rob us further – that the loss of 26 innocent lives is more than we ever would want to sacrifice to hate and that we will allow the killer no more.

There is magnificence in that sense of resolve. It lifts the spirit and provides strength needed to go on in the face of unspeakable hurt. I think it is a tool for self-preservation. It was the anchor and the lifeline used by many, including me, to get through those first weeks after the event. The positive spirit was almost palpable in gatherings as we grieved together, set aside differences that we knew mattered little in the face of this new challenge. Pledges of perseverance were communicated over and over again – unbidden, spontaneous. I hear that same resolve in the voices of Boston and even still in those I talk with from Aurora, Tucson, Columbine and Blacksburg. I marvel every day at the conviction expressed by so many in Newtown that we will make something good come from that evil act. Still today, 130 days after the event, the commitment to do good continues unabated. That those ‘initiatives for good’ differ in scope, scale, content and focus matters not. In fact, I am pleased and proud to witness the great diversity of efforts – even if some of those efforts appear to diverge from the norm. The importance for me and our community is that everyone find their voice and use their talent – whatever it is – to improve the lot for the common good.

Newtown is a special place, yes, but I think, too, that we humans are basically good and kind. Given the choice, I believe that each of us individually and collectively would more often than not choose the good act over the evil act. I believe that we don’t like it at all when the balance between good and evil is tipped away from us. Our personal security is threatened and is at stake when evil gains too much ground and threatens to overtake the power of goodness. And when that evil happens in a place like Sandy Hook Elementary School it brings fear to all of us – if a school known to do all the right things to ensure student and staff safety, and which was known to be a loving and inclusive place, could be the site of a mass killing, then none of us are safe.

I sensed right away on December 14 that the world would be watching us – that what we said and did would make a difference in how our community would be perceived. That mattered a great deal to me and still does. I care that Newtown and Sandy Hook are not synonymous with a horrible, tragic event. The future viability of our town depends on how we are perceived by those who would become our new residents, schoolchildren, families, businessmen, shopkeepers. We are and always have been a good place – we deserve to be seen for that goodness. But how to go forward?  How am I to lead this town out of the chaos, the confusion, the overwhelming sadness and sense of violation? And how to do it in such a way that the others watching us would recognize the steely resolve to persevere mixed with a strong dose of compassion and acts of kindness. As I read and hear comments about my town, I think we have done fairly well in this regard. There is no handbook to guide us in this event so we have had to rely on our instincts about what is right and good, balanced by what is possible – I recognized pretty quickly that I was to lead with my heart, not just my head.

My role as the town’s leader was and is to model the calm and confidence that we will recover, that our community will be known for its courage, dignity, resolve and compassion. That we will move past tragedy to hope and vision. That we will put our arms around each other in love and support for as long as it takes to restore our balance. It helped us in Newtown to know that the world was not only watching but that they cared, too. The outpouring of love, hope and prayers was overwhelming. All quarters of the world were represented in that outpouring … every country in every continent, every major government and most minor states; messages in more than 20 languages – from schools, churches, families, individuals and organizations. We learned through our experience that we are one people the world over.

Let me leave you with just a few messages from my experience:

  1. Find time in your life, in your busy schedules, to perform a service to others. That service is itself one of the greatest rewards you will experience in your adult life. Service to others is restorative to the human spirit;
  2. Embrace every leadership opportunity – and make sure that your heart is the most active ingredient in that leadership function, and BE the change you see needed in the world – practice those ways of being which are helpful to mankind;
  3. Engage at a personal level in social dynamics, make yourself part of a group – a community of like-minded or diverse individuals – look for that communal resolve, with others make communities that care for its members – our future as a society will depend on these communities.

Finally, let me congratulate you again on this occasion. I wish you well in your endeavors – and most of all I wish for you to embrace and care for our mother earth and all its peoples. I believe that your generation possesses the answers to the problems we face today. I look forward to the future you create for my grandchildren and their children.

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