Stedman Graham was supposed to spend Saturday with his longtime partner Oprah Winfrey as a a guest at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But instead of sitting in a pew in London’s St. George’s Chapel, Graham stood at a podium in Coppin State University’s Physical Education Complex and gave 661 graduates advice for living a fulfilling life.
“I’d like to be at the wedding to support Oprah and all that,” Graham told the group. “Don’t tell her, but I’d actually rather be here.”
It was surprisingly easy to believe that Graham meant what he said, and not just because the large gymnasium was filled with palpable excitement and joy, including spontaneous outbreaks of dancing.
It was the second time in a year that Graham, president and CEO of his own management and consulting firm, had traveled to Baltimore to deliver his message of achieving personal freedom through self-actualization.
In October, he visited Coppin under the auspices of the Kaiser Permanente health care system to take part in a mentorship program for 400 high school and college students. He followed up that initial visit by meeting with the students again Friday, the day before he delivered the commencement address at Coppin’s graduation.
“The most important question anyone in your life will ever ask you, graduates, is do you know who you are?” he said. “The world says to you: ‘We know what you are. You’re still a slave. You’re still a follower.’ The challenge for you is to transform your life from being a slave to being an owner, and from being a follower to being a leader.”
While there were a few other high-profile events on Saturday (what royal wedding? what Preakness?), this weekend was also graduation central in Maryland. Morgan State University, Loyola University of Maryland and McDaniel College all held commencements Saturday. Notre Dame University of Maryland and the University of Maryland plan to tell their new graduates to flip the tassels from the right side of their caps to the left on Sunday.
At Coppin, a relative hoisted a little girl wearing a black ballerina skirt and a big white bow in her curls into the air so she could wave to one of the graduates. A little boy in a suit and tie and bowler hat who was so keyed up he couldn’t keep still ran up and down the bleacher stairs.
During the 60-second interval in which graduates were encouraged to let loose, one young man didn’t let his long gown keep him from executing the splits in the aisle. Another new graduate showed off his mortarboard, on which he’d written the words, “No debt. Too sweet.”
Graham told the graduates that it can take a lifetime to become secure inside their own skins. As a youngster growing up in New Jersey, he said, he blamed his struggles on external difficulties.
“I thought it was the white man,” he told the graduates. “I thought it was because my two brothers are developmentally disabled.
“When you don’t know who you are, the world defines you by your race, your house, your car or your relationship. I know a lot of you said it — ‘Oprah’s man is coming to our graduation.’ But it doesn’t matter how the world defines you. The only thing that matters is how you define yourselves.”
He urged members of the class of 2018 to identify their passions, develop them into a vision for the future, and make a plan how to achieve their dreams.
At least two of Coppin’s graduates seem to be taking his message to heart.
Myeshia T. Gayden graduated Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and human development. So did her mother, Geraldine Hinton.
Both Baltimore women work full time as teachers at Dayspring Head Start in Patterson Park. Hinton has taught at the center for 20 years, and Gayden, for eight years.
Mother and daughter are extremely close and took most of the same classes. But from the first day, they thought that it was important that they be judged separately and on their individual abilities.
“The teachers never knew we were mother and daughter,” Gayden, 30, said. “We would sit on different sides of the classroom, and we didn’t talk to each other in the halls.”
Away from campus, it was a different story. The two studied together and bolstered each other’s confidence when they ran into rough patches.
Hinton, 50, is the disciplined one who never missed a class or a day of work no matter how tired she might have felt. Tech-savvy Gayden typed her mother’s papers.
When they walked down the aisle on Saturday in alphabetical order to pick up their diplomas, their mortarboards told the story.
“Mommy, I did it,” Gayden’s mortarboard read. Right behind her and as if in reply, Hinton’s read, “No, we did it together.”