To all students graduating from high school and going on to new chapters in life: this is a simple message of encouragement embodied in the humble U.S. one-cent coin, the penny, practically considered worthless today.
On the head side of the coin, you will find a side profile of President Abraham Lincoln. May you be inspired by his remarkable life story, especially by the fact that he was self-educated. He had parents who were basically illiterate. Yet he became someone who could put into words the profound historical significance of all the deaths at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Whatever you do next after high school, may you take ownership of your own learning and the habits that are the foundations of learning, like time management, asking questions, and self-discipline. May you embark on a life-long journey of a personal pursuit of knowledge.
On the penny next to Lincoln’s head, you will find the word “Liberty.” This is your inheritance as an American. I hope you will confidently exercise your right to free speech and freedom of thought to engage in rigorous conversations and debates with your peers and professors. May your ideas be challenged as often as you challenge others. And may you never self-censor and always eschew groupthink.
This may feel “messy” at times, but our country’s bright future depends upon all of us striving for serious conversations between opposing viewpoints. I do mean conversations. Words of reason and persuasion to win hearts and minds in a debate, not extreme personal attacks to dehumanize adversaries. Pyrrhic victories are pyrrhic.
Lincoln was not perfect, he violated civil liberties in his war effort, but he wanted immediate forgiveness and amnesty for the Southern states to return to an equal union. One can only wonder how Reconstruction would have been different had Lincoln not been assassinated.
Above Lincoln’s head it says, “In God We Trust.” When times get hard, as they will, I hope you will find comfort and strength in something greater than ourselves. It is not about finding religion, as much as it is about making a faith-commitment to set a course for one’s life towards what is morally right and good.
On the tail side of the penny, if minted before 2010, you will find a tiny detailed version of the Lincoln Memorial that includes an impression of the central statute of a seated Lincoln. The memorial built in the form of a Greek neoclassical temple with fluted Doric columns is a testament to mathematically beautiful architecture. I hope you will find time to learn about and appreciate beauty created by man in classical art and architecture.
And lastly above the Lincoln Memorial are the words “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning in Latin, “Out of many, one.” I hope you will take heart in our country’s traditional motto that you are a wholly unique individual; there is no one else exactly like you in all the universe. At the same time, you are loved, appreciated and treasured as are all fellow human being in America as having an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is the ideal upon which millions and millions of wholly unique American individuals of all stripes have shared a spirited camaraderie in living the American Dream. Hence, on Memorial Day or Independence Day, perfect strangers become family under the banner of the stars and stripes at a town parade or park picnic.
May the words “E Pluribus Unum” be real to you, manifested in how you treat others to have the equal rights to hold thoughts and make decisions that are different from yours and vice versa. We are in this experiment together with shared responsibilities to ensure that this nation “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” does indeed long endure.
Did you know there was so much inspiration in the humble penny? President Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial. Liberty. In God We Trust. E Pluribus Unum. Indeed, find a penny, pick it up; all day long you’ll have good luck. And if it’s found with President Lincoln facing up, the luckier you are!
Congratulations to all students graduating from high school. Bravo. Job well done. I wish you all the best in your next endeavors. Congratulations, too, to your parents.
Kimberly Fiorello, a Republican, serves as State Representative for the 149th District which includes the towns of Greenwich and Stamford.