New Graduate Tyler Kirk Defied Odds, Surmounted "Elephant on Chest"


James "Tyler" Kirk, who graduated from Miami Law last week with the Class of 2012, wrote the following remarks for his fellow graduates. William P. VanderWyden, Assistant Dean for Professional Development, said Kirk's speech was one of several finalists for the Student Address at the Commencement ceremony on May 12:

To the Class of 2012, welcome to the light at the end of the tunnel! Please, give yourselves a hand. To family, friends and honored guests, welcome to The U! My name is Tyler Kirk and my black Lab's name is Sailor. But more on him and blindness later.

Law school has indeed been a journey I will never forget. I will especially not forget our first year. It was a stressful time. I recall getting about three weeks into our first semester and feeling completely, utterly overwhelmed. So I did what any 21st century law student would do. I went to Google. I searched for how to perform a self diagnosis. Of course Google pointed me to WebMD. I went on to WebMD and typed in the symptoms box – "feeling of impending doom," "weight of the world on my shoulders." I decided to be completely honest with myself and I typed in, "elephant sitting on chest." It said, "sorry dude, there is no cure for law school." Today, one journey has ended. It has been but one of many more to come. On Monday another will begin, preparing for the bar exam. Best of luck to all of you.

In our lifetimes, we will embark on many journeys. They will be sometimes physical and others metaphysical. These journeys may even be hybrids of these categories, not unlike law school. The process of obtaining a formal education is likely the most curious of these hybrid journeys, because the physical experience of college, sitting in class, sitting and drinking beer at The Rat, is inextricably intertwined with the purely mental experience of college, learning calculus and debating who got it right, Karl Marx or Adam Smith. All, of course, being discussed while sitting and drinking beer at The Rat.

As with all journeys, they have a beginning. For me, my journey of obtaining a formal education almost ended before it even began. As many of you know, I am blind. While I could see pretty well through the third grade, a genetic disorder rapidly took my sight. I was taught Braille in the fifth grade. I am using it right now as I am speaking to you. As college grew nearer, the experts cautioned my parents, "Don't expect Tyler to go to college." As a matter of statistics, their expectancy was not wrong. However, my family and I were determined to shatter all expectations. My first day of college was September 11, 2001 – one hell of a day to start any journey.

My birthday was May 10, this past Thursday. Ten years ago I was just 19. In my birthday card, my parents gave me a flat, highly polished stone. It had an etching on one side.

Knowing I couldn't read it, they told me it said, "Dream big!" I am holding that stone right now, and I have held on to that stone ever since my 19th birthday, one decade ago. It took having big dreams for me to defy the odds and go to college. But, I did not stop dreaming big there. I graduated in three-and-a-half years, earned a Master's degree in economics, and I stand here today with you, at The U, where we have finally earned our law degree. "Asterisk" – please see the footnote at the bottom of the program stating that today's ceremony is not binding or final, and all degrees are subject to approval by the registrar's office. What can I say, we are lawyers.

Our journeys in life undoubtedly shape each of us. And it is true that where you come from influences who you are. But you are responsible for who you become. This means that for those of you going off to New York, Boston and D.C. to practice law, you just can't go up and kiss people hello on the cheek every time you meet them. And as a blind person, learning this custom has at times presented some very awkward moments.

When I decided that I wanted to volunteer to speak at graduation, my girlfriend said, "You can't be so serious." I responded, "What do you mean?" She said, people are there for a celebration – you need to be funny. You tend to act very serious." While I think I have gotten a few grins out of you during these past few minutes, I have one last story to share with you. As my classmates will remember, and perhaps many of you in the audience may also have heard, during our 1L year we had these chats with Dean White. They took place in the Field House, just adjacent to where we are today. This particular chat, my classmates and I had just returned from our winter break. Our first semester grades were soon to be released. The apprehension and tension was palpable. The Dean called a preemptive chat to sort of talk us off the ledge, so to speak. So, roughly 500 of us piled into the Field House. We tore into our boxed lunches and listened to a story about how one of Dean White's professors had lost her Civil Procedure exam and had her then perform it orally.

Well, thanking God that I didn't have to endure a similar torture, I was successfully relieved about my current position in life. This was where for me, these chats got interesting. It was time for the 500 of us to pour out of the Field House. You see, I attack this relatively routine event from a different perspective. For a blind guy and his seeing-eye dog, it wasn't the 500 bodies which made leaving the Field House adventurous – rather the 1,000 individual feet which could march over top of Sailor. Our approach was to wait until things got quiet and then make our move. The Field House was arranged in a very similar fashion to how the students are seated before us, two groups of seats with an isle down the middle. Once I thought it was safe, we proceeded down that center aisle. As we did so I heard a young female voice call out, "Hey, Tyler. Hey, Sailor, it's Najla. Do you want to walk back to the law school together?" I replied, of course we did. Then another female voice called out: "Hey, Tyler, it's Trish. How is everything going? Is the law school providing you with everything you need?" First, I thought, I don't recognize that voice and I don't know anybody named Trish. But I said, "Yes. Dean Stearns has done a wonderful job making sure I have gotten adjusted. Iris in the Disability Services office has made sure all my books and materials are accessible. I have no complaints. And by the way, what do you do Trish?" She said, "I work for the law school." I thought that answer was awfully vague, so I asked her, "What do you do for the law school?" She replied, "I'm the dean."

My message is to never be afraid to dream big. For many of us, the fact that we are here this morning is evidence of dreaming big. Don't lose that. Carry it with you always. Our country, our world, depends on dreamers. Thank you to all of you for indulging me for the past several minutes. Congratulations again to my friends and classmates for a strong finish and to a bright future.