But the latest statesman to take the famed Harlem stage made it clear up front no such musical evocation would be had.
“I always dreamed of appearing live at the Apollo,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, addressing the first graduating class from Democracy Prep Charter High School on Monday. “The problem is, I really can’t sing.”
Ban’s appearance marked a significant moment for Democracy Prep, a local charter network that has gained attention for its educational success—the high school’s graduating class boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate—and its South Korea-inspired educational practices.
Ban, a former South Korean diplomat and foreign minister, urged the graduates to “think beyond the borders of the United States” and “respond as one human family” to global problems like climate change, poverty, and violence.
“I want you to keep dreaming,” Ban said. “You are my inspiration. Keep changing our world.”
“You prove my belief that education transforms the world,” he added.
Ban discussed his days in school, telling the yellow-gowned seniors how he was forced to study under a tree because his elementary school lacked a building.
When it opened in 2005, Democracy Prep didn’t have a roof either. Students spent long days without air conditioning in the gym of P.S. 92, which shares a building with Democracy Prep, founder Seth Andrew said in his own speech.
Now, the high school is just one of a network of Democracy Prep schools in the neighborhood.
Andrew, who first became a teacher in South Korea, credited an emphasis on education with the country’s rise from one of the poorest countries in the world after World War II to a leading, economically successful democracy today.
That “path from poverty to prosperity” came because of the Korean education system, Andrew said.
Andrew, wearing his signature yellow baseball cap emblazoned with Democracy Prep’s logo, encouraged the students to “live lives of active citizenship” in order to help “others pass down the trail that you have blazed for them.”
Steven Medina, a graduating senior who spoke at the ceremony, recalled in his speech how Andrew personally visited his apartment to encourage him to apply to Democracy Prep, promising “to get us to four continents” and to “get us all the way to college.”
Medina, who will attend Middlebury College in the fall with a full scholarship, said that “success is also about the people that surround you,” citing the efforts of his classmates, families, and teachers.
The ceremony featured other big names, including Rep. Charles Rangel, who described education as a key to carry and share with the rest of the world.
“These are the jewels that honored the Harlems all over,” Rangel said, referring to the graduates. “It took a lot of luck, a lot of parents, a lot of scholars, a lot of people to take these rocks and to shine them and to sculpt them and to have them be so brightened that their sparkles are heard throughout institutions throughout the United States.”
“When I left Korea in 1951, it was nothing but ashes,” Rangel, who fought in the Korean War, said. “What Democracy Prep has done here, we can do throughout the world.”
City Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott played up the day’s international theme, telling the graduating class that they have a big responsibility: to “be the leaders of the world.”
“You are global citizens and we expect global success from all of you,” Walcott said.
The graduating seniors have already gone on class trips to South Korea, Ecuador, and London. In July, they’ll interrupt their summer vacation to visit South Africa, Lesotho, and Egypt (with a stop in Tahrir Square).
Beyond the international travel, the Democracy Prep seniors have had other opportunities most of their peers don’t, including Korean language and dance classes and the chance to testify before Congress during a visit to Washington, D.C.
But Andrew reminded the graduates to not “forget that you were chosen by a random lottery” for admission to the school.
Democracy Prep High School's Korean Dance Team performed a traditional Korean fan dance, and the high school's cast of Rent sang "Seasons of Love."
The ceremony also featured a number of performances from the Democracy Prep school system, including the Harlem Prep Middle Pride Steppers and the Harlem Prep Elementary Hawks Chorus. Families cheered and sang along to a rendition of “Vote for Somebody,” a song created by students set to the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” The song has been seen on YouTube by over 400,000 people.
After lingering on the stage to take photos once the festivities were complete, the seniors spilled out of the Apollo onto 125th Street, pausing to embrace their parents, teachers, and fellow students.