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Commencement 2013 Student Speaker

Daris B. Jackson

Graduates: Good morning, and thank you for allowing your friends, family, and other invited guests the wonderful opportunity to experience all of my fabulousness on this wonderful occasion of our graduation! It is my sincere honor to stand before you all, as the 2013 class speaker. You know, receiving an acknowledgment of the respect and admiration of your peers is an overwhelming experience, and I humbly thank you for entrusting me with this duty.

The faculty has requested that I contain my address to you all in a brief period, which in my head means 10 minutes; well, in one final act of defiance, I have prepared what should be an 11-minute speech. So, let’s see how far we get before they cue up the music and drag me off the stage.

In preparation for this moment, I have spent countless hours running marathons, and learning how to use every machine at the New York Sports Club. Really, my results have been quite phenomenal! I have literally transformed my body . . . and I did it for all of you! My stomach, once a testament to my affection for Blue Moon and Yuengling, now consists of a six-pack; that’s one ab for each semester we spent here . . . and for the evening students graduating today, I have two plum-sized tri-cepts to represent the extra two semesters you all have spent here. In essence you all are in the presence of a successful artistic experiment. I am now the physical representation of “the law school experience” and it’s quite a tragedy this art is covered by this regalia . . . but, tradition dictates here, and who am I to confuse that?

Daris Jackson 2013 commencement
Daris Jackson was managing notes and comments editor of the Rutgers Race and the Law Review, a student in the Special Education Clinic, and co-chair of the LGBTQ Caucus. He interned in the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office and for Bankruptcy Court Judge Michael Kaplan. A competitive runner with the New York Road Runners Club, he received an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s in urban affairs from Hunter College. Jackson will begin working in September as an assistant district attorney in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.

So, it is my personal belief that all great speeches should have some sort of appropriate musical references, and as such I intend to conform. My friends Antwan, Adina and I often joke about how we have running soundtracks in our heads, and when I woke up this morning the one song that came to mind was “I’m Feeling Good” covered by many, including Jennifer Hudson, but best done by Nina Simone, in my opinion. I am sure many of the graduates, and guests can relate to the sentiments on this day, in this moment, that this song tends to arouse so I want to share a few of the lyrics with you. I was going to try and sing it, but I think I have settled on just reading it:

It’s a New Dawn; It’s a New Day, It’s a NEW LIFE for me . . . And I’m feeling good.

Now if those words speak to you I want you to clap right now, and even if they don’t speak to you, clap anyway because everyone else is going to be clapping.

A few weeks ago, I had the awesome pleasure to drive through the Canadian countryside alone and to reflect on my thoughts about law school, particularly our experience at Rutgers. Our Journey. Journey as a noun is “an act of traveling from one place to another.” Now, the drive from Toronto to Montreal is about six hours, so I thought about this a lot and I came up with a few thoughts. Journey. Can be physical, right? Can be mental . . . emotional . . . internal or external. People can be on multiple journeys simultaneously. But what happens when you take a group of people, all going through various journeys, and put them on one journey together and call it “Law School?” Well, I can’t speak for how things happen at other places, but here it has been quite magical. Not always pleasant. Far from easy . . . but magical.

When I turned 24 — yes, I know my flawless skin belies my age — but, I went to my favorite Chinese Restaurant in New York, Sammy’s Noodle Shop on 6th Avenue, and at the end of my meal I got a fortune cookie. The fortune said, “You do not have to know where you are going to be headed in the right direction” This fortune spoke volumes to me. First, this is not a fortune. I don’t even know why they call these things fortune cookies; it’s more like a proverb. Anyway, I have carried this fortune/proverb with me in my wallet every day since, and I often have to pull it out to remind myself that journeys happen when they need to.

Journeys are always important, and I honestly believe the best way to have a healthy journey is to do regular self “check-ins” so you gain better understanding of the lessons associated with your journey. Some journeys are great and grand and others are, well . . . awful. Which brings me to THE INCIDENT. Now, graduates, those of you who know me well know EXACTLY what I am referring to, but for our guests I will give the VERY QUICK “wikipdia” version:

SO, as a first-year law student there are these mandatory classes you must take, one of which is about this really old document (some people argue that it’s still living). Anyway this document is the basis for our entire legal profession. So this class . . . I didn’t do so well in this class. As a matter of fact, I did so “unwell” in this class, I was left with two options: 1) I could drop out of school and spend the rest of my life depressed, wondering what could have been, or 2) I could have cried for a day or two, pulled myself together, came back the following semester, taken the class over, got a better grade, took other classes and continued to get good grades and then stand up at NJPAC to tell you all about it. I think it’s apparent which option I chose. BOOM! 

But you see, this all relates back to journeys and being headed in the right direction even when you do not know where you are going. Although many of you never had the misfortune to fail a class, I’m sure you can relate to that feeling of “this is not what is supposed to happen” only later to realize “I’m so glad that happened, because look at all of the wonderful doors that opened up for me!” I am a practicing Buddhist, have been for almost 13 years now, and the one lesson that has stayed with me all these years is “Find Victory in Defeat.” Now, this is not easy to do; that journey is tough. We have been faced with defeat many times, in many ways. Defeat is tricky; it wears all sorts of masks. But today we are here, and we have found our victory. And to that, I congratulate you. I congratulate us.

THE INCIDENT was a low point for me, but the recovery was awesome, and on that journey of recovery I had the opportunity to peak into all of your journeys. And it’s been great! It was great to “babysit” Laura Deek’s plants while she traveled to Europe with Elizabeth Lee to represent our school in an international moot court competition; it was great to see Delilah Magao and Khari Edwards walking through the cold streets of Newark to engage young people in our Street Law program. It was wonderful to walk with Tabitha Clarke as we mentored young people together at the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Essex County.

It felt good to say “hey, congratulations” as I passed Dave Baumwoll, Amanda Ribustello, Kory Ramkowsky, David Nathan, and Elizabeth Bergamo for representing our school so well in so many competitions. It felt good to congratulate all of the associate editors who found out their student notes were being published; it felt good to co-chair the LGBTQ Law Caucus with Iris Bromberg, and to serve as a respected member of the Student Bar Association. I absolutely loved the opportunity to take evening classes and to make life-long friends, like Catherine O’Hearn. I enjoyed every minute of shambles that was the UVA Softball Invitational. I found it particularly heartwarming to turn on the television, and to see Zerlina Maxwell representing us, and our school so well — Zerlina I am so proud of you!

There are so many moments that made this journey magical, and although I cannot address them all in this particular forum, please know that my heart has been touched by many of you. Emily Bisnauth (who I must note won best dressed female as I won best dressed male in our 1L Barrister’s Ball) put it best when she looked me in my face and told me “sometimes you have to let a seemingly perfect opportunity pass, so you can be free to accept the real perfect opportunity. I hold you all in the highest regard and I am so happy we experienced this journey together.

If I may speak on behalf of the class, there are a few people that deserve a special acknowledgment. First, Joanne. You are a Gem. How you manage to know everyone’s name and always greet us with a “hello dear” is priceless. And for those of us who take evening classes, Zack, your smile does the same thing. Fran Skipper, you are always right on time! Nicky Fornoratto . . .  all I have to say is your name. To anyone who has ever written anything worth anything, you understand why I praise out the entire library staff, as well as the Westlaw and Lexis reps.

To everyone who has taken a clinic, I wish to extend a heartfelt expression of love and admiration to the entire clinical faculty and just acknowledge that NONE of the clinical law students would have EVER made it through without Quin. Quin, you and the clinical faculty have MADE us Lawyers and we will forever hold you all in the highest regard.

On a personal level, I want to thank Professors Weiner, Paradise, and Blum for engaging me in ways I never thought my mind could handle. Deans Weisbord, Garbaccio, and Professor Henderson, thank you for always having your door open for me. Judges Kaplan, Futey, and the entire Warren County Prosecutor’s office, thank you for taking a chance on me when few others would. Jenny Rosen-Valverde: You are truly something rare. They don’t make them like you anymore! Thank you for reminding me to never compromise my voice, to be in control of my breath and for being a fine example of how to be an excellent lawyer. Thank you to Kelsey Tylus and Priscilla Monico for showing the world what it looks like when courage meets class. Alex Hayes, Chrissy DeSimone and all of my friends and family who supported, encouraged, and helped me follow my dream, you will forever be in my heart. Thank you to Jonathan Pepin for being a true friend, always. 

To my mother, mommy I love you and I thank you a thousand times over for reminding me that quitter blood never ran through my veins. To my father who departed this world four years ago, I blame this all on you! If you never had “lent” me the money to cover my application to Rutgers, none of this would have ever happened! Last but not least, to the families, spouses, partners, children, and friends of the graduates: thank you for producing such wonderful people who have allowed me to share this moment with them. To the graduates, I leave you with the words of the ever-great Diana Ross: Thank you. You all have been much more than I could have ever expected.