Two time Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington was asked this year to be the commencement speaker at Dillard University, a traditionally black college in New Orleans. Dillard boasts such well-known alumni such as Coretta Scott King and Marvin Gaye, but 40 years ago, Denzel himself was flunking out of Fordham University with a 1.7 GPA.
Denzel did eventually go back to Fordham, and he did graduate, but not without first some “laps around Mt. Zion.” Perhaps Denzel was invited to be the keynote speaker because the Dillard administration knew he would unashamedly exhort the grads to have a healthy dose of humility. Perhaps it was his willingness to publically command the cap-and-gown clad young people to “put God first.”
In the 11-minute speech, he “went there,” talking about how arrogant he had been when he first began to gain success as an actor. His mother basically told him that he could take himself outside, get a mop and a bucket, and start cleaning. However, that was not until she asked him, “Do you have any idea how many people have been praying for you?” But Providence was not finished with Mr. W. While still in his “all that and a bag of chips” state of mind; he went and visited his mom at her beauty shop, and a woman sitting under the salon dryer kept staring at him. Finally, she asked someone to get her a piece of paper and a pencil, and she said she had a prophetic word for him. She told him many things, including that he “would travel the world, and speak to millions.”
At the time, he said, that did not seem very likely. But it has indeed come to pass. And, now that he is 60, is successful by anyone’s estimation, and is an open book, he has earned the right to speak to what works, and what doesn’t. So, imagining myself as someone who was sitting in the audience, I decided to apply what he said had helped him get there.
First, he said, “Put God first.” No political correctness there, thankfully. He made it clear that everything he had and is was due to the grace of God. He spoke of goal setting, and said, “Don’t confuse movement with progress.” His mom would be the one to remind him that he could move while running in place, but not go anywhere. He spoke of service, and the fact that there is no greater joy than serving. It is indeed a divine selfishness, because nothing feels better. He described himself as being three things: “Protected, directed, and corrected.” He was quick to point out that even when he had not been faithful to God, God had been faithful to him.
However, there was one admonition he gave that I shall never forget. He told the students when they go to bed at night, to put their slippers way back under the bed. As the well-trained actor that he is, he paused the perfect amount of time, and then told them that the only way to get to the slippers was to get on their knees. Once there, he said, “Say thank you in advance for what you already have.” Timeless gratitude, and thus good advice for grads and grandparents. Thank you, Mr. Washington!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner