By Mayor Kevin Hanley
Placer High School Auditorium, May 22, 2012

It’s my honor to be here to congratulate 2012 graduates of the Placer School for Adults.

I always enjoy this time of year because all around the country commencement speakers try to convey a few pearls of wisdom to the graduating students. The late Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer company told the graduates of Stanford University in 2005 that “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

J.K. Rowling, who before she wrote and published the Harry Potter books was an unemployed single parent, just a step from homelessness. She told the graduates of Harvard University in 2008, “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, or all that is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

This similar theme of being tested by adversity can be seen in one of the most famous commencement addresses by Winston Churchill. In 1941, as Britain faced Hitler’s forces alone, he and his countrymen worried every day that Nazi paratroopers would descend from the sky, kill, and impose a brutal dictatorship on Great Britain.

Winston Churchill returned to his old school to make a few remarks. He the boys at Harrow, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never –in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

When I look into the faces of the 2012 graduates of the Placer School for Adults, I know two things. First, you faced obstacles. Second, you never gave up in overcoming those obstacles to obtain your high school diploma.

When I was asked to give a few remarks tonight, I not only wanted to honor your individual achievements, but I also wanted to put what the Placer School for Adults means to us in the larger context of the opportunities provided by this country.

I thought back and remembered a book called “More Like Us,” by James Fallows. It was written in the late 1980s when there was a fear that America was declining and Japan was rising as a world power. Japanese manufacturers were out competing American manufacturers. The Japanese were taking their profits and buying the Rockefeller Center in New York and the Pebble Beach golf course in Carmel.

The book raised an interesting question. Should Americans become more like the Japanese? We hear the same question today about the rise of China. Should the government take a larger role in directing the economy, picking winners and losers?

James Fallows, the author, says no, we shouldn’t try to copy the Japanese, to become more like them. Culture matters. Instead, we as Americans should try to build on our strengths and on our historical path. Fallows writes, “Men and women who believed they could change their lives found America different from any other society, and continue to make it unique.”

Fallows argues that one unique aspect about America is the opportunity for a second chance. We sometimes forget about how rare it is to have a second chance.
If you were born in an advanced nation like England, France, Japan or South Korea, you take a test when you are 14 years old. That test will determine the path in your life, whether you go to college or not, or go to a more prestigious college or not. And this will determine what kind of job you get.

If you are born in a rising nation like China, you have to get an internal passport to work in another part of the country. Just imagine being forced by the government to ask whether you can move to Arizona, Nevada, or Florida and have the government make the “yes” or “no” decision based only on the decision of a bureaucrat on what maximizes national production.

But in America, as a nation of immigrants we have the character of offering second chances. In the 1850s, my Irish forebears escaped the Potato Famine for a second chance in America. In 1910, my Portuguese grandmother, when she was just 14 years old, was put on a ship for a one-way trip to America and a second chance.

And when I think about our educational institutions, like the Placer School for Adults, community colleges, CSU and UC I see a foundation for giving Americans a second chance. Money problems, divorce, illness or injury can throw us off a timetable.

For me, when I went to high school in the late 1970s, educational standards were lax. I was rarely required to read a book or to write a paper. But I was given a high school diploma. So to my surprise and embarrassment, when I took the entrance exam for Foothill Community College, I flunked.

My English language scores were low and I was enrolled in what was informally called “Bonehead English.” But there, my teacher made me write, and write and write. And pretty soon I could.

I am very grateful that California supported my community college that gave me a second chance.

I’m grateful that the Placer School for Adults is here in Auburn to give our citizens an opportunity to succeed in America.

And so to the 2012 graduates, I salute your achievement and offer you good wishes as you set new goals, and jump over those hurdles with grace and honor.  Thank you.