Step On The Train

May 29, 2021


It’s a brilliant graduation message. Although it wasn’t wasn’t among the speeches I heard last Sunday, it would have been perfect. It’s a piece written by historian, author and teacher Heather Cox Richardson that was published that same day the twins walked across the stage. It’s the story of Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery.

A free black man with similar physical features gave his papers to Douglass so he could travel north to freedom. It was an act that risked the lives of both men. Here is part of what Heather wrote and there’s a link below to the rest.

To escape from slavery, all Douglass had to do was board a train. That’s it: he just had to step on a train. If he were lucky, and the railroad conductor didn’t catch him, and no one recognized him and called him out, he could be free. But if he were caught, he would be sold down river, almost certainly to his death.

Tomorrow, my students will graduate, and every year, students ask me if I have any advice for them as they leave college or university, advice I wish I had had at their age. The answer is yes, after all these years of living and of studying history, I have one piece of advice: When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right… find the courage to step on the train.

The story I heard in Boulder was one of my niece Jaimi stepping on the train.

Jaimi is an accomplished musician, especially proficient in clarinet and saxophone. And her love is marching band. She had been chosen by her peers and the faculty to be the band’s drum major when the pandemic hit. Her dream of leading the band in her senior year would not be realized. However she continued to bring the band members together through zoom, encouraging them to do their best and inspiring them with her humor and optimism. She would be recognized for her leadership with awards from both the band and faculty. 

Then on the last day of school when they were actually in person and in the band room together again, Jaimi was in tears. Tears of joy for once again playing together, tears of grief for all the playing that had been lost to them. That’s when the band teacher turned to her and held out the baton. “Here, Jaimi, you conduct today.”

She was reluctant, fearing she wouldn’t be good enough. But he insisted. “Jaimi, it’s your band. Lead them.”

And so she did with tears streaming down her face the whole time. When she got emotionally choked up, the band cheered her on. She overcame her fear of not conducting well enough and her horror of crying in front of her peers and teacher. Sitting among the band members and crying would have been good enough for her but she chose what was right in that moment. She stepped on the train. No. For Jaimi it wasn’t a matter of life and death but it was life changing. She found a piece of courage she didn’t know was in her. Resilience. 

When faced with adversity and challenge, no matter the size and nature of it, may we all find the resilience and courage to step on the train.

Step On The Train Full Transcript

Judith – judith