Today we held a graduation ceremony in honor of my 8th graders completing the AVID program for middle school. This is the commencement address I gave to them.
Two years ago, when I met many of you in the seventh grade, I stood in front of you and shared some statistics that were shown to me about kids like you. These statistics stated that only 25% of African-American students graduating from high school will attend college, and only 22% of Latino students will.
By showing you the odds were against you, my goal was not to tell you that your dreams were hopeless, or that you should live angry and strive for success spitefully. My goal was to show you why programs like AVID exist, why schools like Life exist, why teachers like me exist.
I was making a promise to you. A promise to stand behind you and have your backs. A promise to stand under you and lift you up. A promise to stand in front of you and protect you from the lies of the world.
In a world that constantly lets you down, so much that you may feel tempted to stay down, I thought this promise to be the best way to be there for you. While media tells you that black and Latino lives do not matter, while statistics of inequity point the finger of blame at those suffering and not the systems of oppression, while society stereotypes you into confining labels, I wanted to be at least one voice that told you—over and over—that the world is wrong.
I wanted to reveal the inaccuracies of these representations, the plot holes in overplayed and outdated media narratives, the shaky foundations of stereotypes sold as truth. I believe that I planted the seeds of uprooting these false ideas. But Dr. Beverly Tatum writes that “learning to recognize cultural and institutional racism and other forms of inequity without also learning strategies to respond to them is a prescription for despair.”
After showing you how society is wrong, how was I to show you what is right? Over the past two years, we have looked at and looked up to the lives of those who are telling better stories about our world—from Dr. King to Alejandro Iñárritu, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Malala Yousafzai, from John Legend and Common to common citizens standing up and saying, “Enough is enough.”
They have provided glimmers of hope in a world of despair, but today I want to tell you that the greatest hope I have found for a better future is you.
You have learned to spot stereotypes a mile away and say, “Those aren’t me.” You have spoken for yourself when the world has tried to silence you and speak for you. You have denied the false narratives of low standards in neighborhoods like ours to reach for greater heights than what anyone expects of you. You have swallowed your pride to apologize in a society that calls the youth of today disrespectful and selfish. You have deconstructed lies to tell the truth that only you can tell about yourself. You have untyped the stereotypes to write better stories than I or anyone else could ever imagine.
I want to speak bluntly: your work is far from over. The beginning of high school brings a long journey toward a hard goal. You will have to remain consistent for four years, and when you fail, you will face a choice between letting discouragement overrun your drive or learning from your mistakes and pressing on harder to the finish line. Sometimes you will feel that no one is rooting for you, that trying is pointless, that coasting is preferable.
But as AVID students, you are a different breed, made of material cut from a different cloth. You will hold your heads high as you have taught me to do. You will stare down challenges and overcome fear. You will ensure that your story is written well because it is written by you.
When I think back on that promise I was silently, subconsciously making to you, I realized that I was standing in the wrong place to support you. It is not helpful to stand behind you and have your back; sometimes you will make mistakes, and tough love will teach you more than defending you from consequences. It is not necessary to stand under you and lift you up; you have the skills and tenacity and drive to lift yourselves up. It is not realistic to stand in front of you; I cannot protect you from the lies of the world impacting you just by telling you they are wrong.
And so, today, I think a new promise is in order. No matter where you are in life, no matter how hard things get, no matter how bad your mistakes along the way to becoming the best you, I will stand next to you.
Next to you, I can see things the way you see them, try to better understand you—the same thing you want of the world at large. Next to you, I can push you to make better decisions without abandoning you when the going gets tough. Next to you, I can walk with you on the journey to better narratives for kids like you, the kids who succeed despite what the world predicts. Next to you, you know that someone is always walking beside you, who believes in you, who works for you, who loves you.
Years from now, should we lose touch, and you fear that I am no longer walking next to you, I want you to imagine what I will be doing. Somewhere, perhaps standing in front of a room of new seventh graders at Life, or sitting in a close circle of friends, I will share new statistics with them—the ones that you will create when you graduate from college, when you put an end to human trafficking, when you change laws affecting the rights of every woman and man, when you run for president, when you teach the next generation, when you write more accurate narratives that future generations will look up to, striving one day to stand next to you too.
I have found it is the best place in the world to be.