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Column: Thanking mama for helping me find my voice
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

Graduation season is upon us. For high schools, the graduation speech is generally limited to a valedictorian or salutatorian speech. This is due to the number of students who will walk across the stage to the delight of their kin-folks.

Colleges and universities generally have a graduation speaker. This ranges from public officials to authors or actors.

Does anyone really listen to these speakers?

What does a noted singer have to say to inspire a young adult? What about our nation’s secretary of state, who spoke at the Georgia Tech graduation?

Dr. Charles Bullock, a professor of politics and international affairs at the University of Georgia, will speak at one of their graduation ceremonies. When I was a reporter for The Times, I used to interview Bullock regularly. I would like to hear what he has to say.

A few years ago, Ryan Seacrest, the host of “American Idol,” was the speaker at UGA, a school he attended for a brief while. I can’t remember anything he had to say, except commenting on his own hair.

One of the most memorable undergraduate speakers was at Georgia when Ernie Johnson Jr., son of the late voice of the Braves and host of TBS sports coverage, talked about what is important. Johnson said no one nearing the sunset of their life ever says, “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

Johnson and his wife adopted children from outside the U.S. This included a boy who outlived expectations. Johnson talked about learning to say, “Love you, too,” in sign language. That was much more interesting than Ryan Seacrest’s hair.

I remember one graduation speaker who spoke of the need to pay one’s civic rent. That is, giving back in some way to your community. I’ve always remembered that line.

I have spoken at a few graduations myself. I told them the story of a boy who flinched when a doctor was attempting to remove his tonsils. The doctor told the boy’s mother that he would never speak normally.

I had known this boy since he entered the world. That’s because he was me. My mother carried me all over Atlanta to get therapy for the speech problem. I went to doctors, speech pathologists and anyone else Mama thought could help me. She wasn’t taking no for an answer.

One doctor, a guy named Gordon Brackett, suggested I read aloud, find a way to record it and play it back. This was in the era before cassettes. I was reading better than most 4-year-olds.

Eventually, I finished speech therapy. There was no cap and gown, but they should have given one to my Mama. She made it all happen and deserved to be honored summa cum laude.

For a woman who grew up dirt poor in a frame house with no electricity or running water, my mama was a smart woman. 

Her final graduation was 25 years ago. 

I honor her on Mother’s Day.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns publish weekly.