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Speech for Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Event 2019

I was honored and humbled to be invited to speak at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration Event held January 20, 2019. For those of you unable to attend, here is my speech:

 

Guardians of the Dream                          January 20, 2019

Thank you, Pastor May.  I am Lou Pondolfino, CTE Director and Principal of King Tech High School.  Before I begin, I’d like to poll our audience, do we have King Career Center Alumni in the building?  Current students?  Future students?  Congratulations to all of you.  King Tech has been training young people for post-secondary education and the workforce for more than 45 years now.  And I think we’re just getting started.

I’ve been with the Anchorage School District for 28 years, 18 of them as an administrator.  Over that span, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about education in front of many groups of people: student groups, of course, parents, industry, community members, and elected bodies, but when the good pastor invited me to speak today, it was truly the honor of my professional life.  So, Pastor May, again, thank you.  I will do my best.

Incidentally, this opportunity is also the most daunting I’ve had in my professional life.  And I don’t take it lightly.  For not only do I get to speak to this esteemed group of community members who fall into all the categories of folks I’ve ever presented to, but I am feeling an immense sense of pressure to adequately honor Dr. King’s memory… and his mission, the Dream.  And to an adequate guardian.  And a disclaimer.  By no means am I a Martin Luther King scholar.  When I discuss him today, I am speaking simply as one of his countless admirers.

This afternoon, I want to discuss how education, particularly public education, and even more specifically how career and technical education that is offered at King Tech High School is and should be one of the guardians of the Dream.  But first if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you a little about myself and my background.

I grew up in New York, the 11th of 13 children.  Can I see a show of hands here.  Who else is from a large family, say, at least 8 siblings.  It’s an interesting upbringing for sure, right?  One thing that’s essential in growing up in a family that large is having a sense of humor.  And in learning to eat supper quickly.  If seconds were ever available, they never went to the deliberate eater.   

Anyway, both my parents were from immigrant families; my mother from Ireland was raised in the Bronx and my father, from Sicily, was raised in a railroad town upstate.  They met at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and the rest, as they say, is history.  They provided me and my brothers and sisters with a good upbringing --  love and optimism and hope and humor and a strong Christian foundation.  As one of the youngest in a very large family, I wasn’t as closely supervised as my older brothers and sisters.  My parents, I think, were getting tired by the time the last of us arrived, so independence probably came a little too early for me.  Consequently, I was not the best student.  My priorities as a teenager, in this order, were basketball, my girlfriend, basketball, my friends, my siblings and then, if time allowed, my schoolwork.  And in school, mostly disengaged, I skimped by. (I’ll talk more about that disengagement in a bit.)

But I survived.  And my basketball skills, rather than my grades, led me to college.  But I grew up when I went off to college, and there I began to find purpose in learning.  Inspired by great professors who exposed me to great thinkers, I pursued a liberal arts education, studying literature and history.  I’m not sure in which course that I was assigned to read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” -- for sure, it could have been my Integrated History course, or Philosophy, or Literature, as his work transcends many disciplines -- but his words had a profound effect on me, and it is there where I first truly discovered Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another brief sidebar.   Some years later, after I became an English teacher in the district, I took a workshop that focused on improving writing instruction.  Alaska author Nick Jans was the presenter, and he said to his students, all of us practicing teachers, that in his view good writing all possessed the same three qualities.  The first is that it is concise.  Conciseness, he emphasized, did not necessarily mean a scarcity of words, but rather that every word used in a piece of writing was necessary.  It had purpose.  And power. It moved the writing forward.  And was persuasive. The second quality to good writing is clarity. And in order to write clearly, he said, one must first be able to think clearly.  Not necessarily a trait that most teenagers possess.  The third was what Jans calls grace.  An intangible, for sure, but something you know is there when you read it, he said. 

I mention these three qualities because they made me think back to when I first read A Letter from Birmingham Jail.  And it helped me understand why I was so inspired by Dr. King’s words then and continue to be moved by them today.  That piece, like all of his writings, is lucid, clear, powerful, exceptionally graceful, and persuassive.

Dr. King possessed characteristics that inspired me.  He had a superior intellect. He was, of course, tenacious.  I don’t know if he was an athlete or not, but if so, I can only imagine what a fierce competitor he would have been.  And also, and in my book his most influential quality, Dr. King embodied goodness.  Every step he took, he walked in goodness.  Every breath he drew.  Every fiber.  Goodness.  Remarkable, these near perfect qualities all in a single human being.  For me, his inspiration is this: though I don’t have nearly the same god-given intellectual capacity, I work on exercising the intellect that I do possess. I will continue to be tenacious in my beliefs and actions – and that will be most evident in my belief in and defense of young people -- , and lastly I try, though I too often fail, I try to emulate his goodness.   So that is the story of my introduction to Dr. King’s influence.

In 1982, I moved to Alaska, looking both for adventure and for a more practical education.  With my bachelor’s degree in English Literary Studies hot off the press, I landed in Kodiak first and found work in canneries lopping off salmon heads; and then up to Nome I went where my athletic abilities came in handy and I agreed to play on a city basketball team in exchange for a job from the team captain, who owned a construction outfit.  Long story short, over the next five years I learned through on the job training how to build houses in that amazing Nome community.  Part of my heart is still there.  I met some of the most brilliant people in my life working construction, and most of them had never set foot on a college campus.  Education, though, was in my blood, I had the affliction, as it were, and I moved to Anchorage and enrolled in a Master’s program in 1989 and began my career in with the district in 91.  I taught English for 10 years, was the assistant principal at East High for 3, was promoted to be Service High’s principal where I spent 7 years, and then moved to KCC/King Tech in 2011. 

Each of the schools where I worked are exceptional – they have dedicated teachers, committed students, and supportive parents.  But not until I arrived at the King Career Center did I discover the possibility and promise of education.  I talked about my disengagement when I was a high school student earlier.  And maybe some of you had similar experiences.  Attended classes, mostly sat and received information/instruction, did a fair amount of daydreaming, was given homework assignments, and returned the next day to repeat the routine.  It didn’t work well for me.  It worked well for others, I’m sure, but not for me, and we all know it doesn’t work for many, many young people. 

Here’s what I found at KCC/KTHS.  Rigorous programs in STEM and CTE fields;  teachers who come directly from industry and who are committed to staying current in both their field and in the teaching practice;  Industry partners who are willing to advise and assist our teachers to ensure that what we are teaching will prepare young people for the next step.

I also found when I got to KCC that I had been living with a grave misunderstanding of the purpose of the school.  I had heard that it was a school for students who “couldn’t cut it” in traditional schools. Students who weren’t “college material.”  Troubled or aimless students.  Man was I wrong. 

Here’s what King Tech truly is. We are a school where students explore and study for STEM and CTE careers.  Where students receive rigorous instruction daily from industry experts, much of it book instruction – vocabulary, procedures, formulas, terminology, theory -- and then where they apply their learning on a daily basis.  It is also a school where professionalism and character are instilled.  Where basics like reliability, punctuality, appearance, and team work are practiced.  When I talk to prospective students and their parents, I let them know how KTHS differs from more traditional schooling, but I also let them know this:  That their formal education cannot stop upon graduation from high school.  Many of our grads go to colleges and universities.  Many to technical schools;  many to apprenticeship programs; some to the military.  Many will go into entry level positions in the workforce and find out from their employers what their next step professional development needs to be for advancement. 

State economists tell us that nearly 85 percent of the jobs in Alaska don’t require a bachelor or advanced degree.  Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.  I hope that every young person goes to college if that is the path they need and choose and that college is affordable to them.  But data tells us that college degrees are not necessarily the type of post-secondary education that our young people will need for the jobs of future.  Again, continuing education of some sort == absolutely, yes.  

So I believe that it is a fitting tribute that our school bears Dr. King’s name.  He once said this:  “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education.”   Imagine this, a career and technical school where classes are taught by highly skilled professionals who come from industry and who genuinely care about helping young people match their interests and aptitude and follow their dreams into successful careers, who have high expectations of them and who stand beside them and help them meet those expectations.  That is what King Tech High School is about.  I hope that Dr. King would be pleased with our efforts and would tell us that we’re on the right track and to keep up the good work.         

Dr. King used the word tension in his description of the process of improvement and growth.  In public education today, I feel that tension and I understand the mandate for improvement. 

So, I’ll close with a passage from A Letter from Birmingham Jail.

 

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” 

Pastor May, thank you again for the opportunity to speak today.  It’s been a privilege.  And I commit to you, and to everyone here,  that I will remain a guardian of Dr. King’s Dream.