Next To You

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I wanted to reveal the inaccuracies of these representations, the plot holes in overplayed and outdated media narratives, the shaky foundations of stereotypes sold as truth.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.

Soundtrack to My Year, Volume 2

My greatest love is for music, but I rarely write about it because it’s hard to write about something you’ll only end up gushing over. However, last year I started a tradition of sharing my favorite albums of the year. Here are the 10 (plus a few) albums that shaped 2014.

15. Coldplay—Ghost Stories
14. The Black Keys—Turn Blue
13. Karen O—Crush Songs
12. Thom Yorke—Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
11. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Original Soundtrack (major props to Lorde for this one) Beck

  1. Beck—Morning Phase 

Although I am big fan of Beck’s carefree, genre-bending albums, my all-time favorite is the brooding Sea Change. It is easily in my top five breakup albums. Morning Phase picks up where Sea Change left off—albeit twelve years later. “These are the words we use to say goodbye,” Beck muses, and the album is rife with those words. The music keeps a steady, sad tempo to walk you through a sun setting on a relationship not meant to last. Morning Phase provides the perfect backdrop for reflecting on the memories that “leave you somewhere you can’t make it home.”


  1. Copeland—Ixora 

CopelandI listen to different genres of music based on the season like any decent human being. I typically reserve my extensive collection of moody indie rock for the winter, and Copeland must have had the heads up. Ixora swooped down upon my Christmas music playlist and took over my December listening. From questions like “what if you can’t turn back when you’re finally tired of running?” to the haunting ‘Ordinary’, where Marsh describes a relationship where “we laugh just like yesterday/and I kiss you like the day before/and I hold you just like ordinary,” this album makes me feel all of the feels. Add in the subtle keys and low-pulsing drumbeats, and Ixora will not only be on your feelings playlist; it will be your feelings playlist.



  1. St. Vincent—St. Vincent St. Vincent

 As a relatively new Dallas resident, I like to not-so-casually mention how St. Vincent is from Dallas to anyone who will listen. St. Vincent was the quirkiest, most wonderful thing to happen to my ears this year. It is an album that questions the digital age we live in (“if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/what’s the point of doing anything?”) in search of some solitude (“follow the power lines back from the road/no one around so I take off my clothes”) and sincerity (“the truth is ugly, well, I feel ugly too”)—all while bouncing through upbeat guitars and grooving synthesizers. But St. Vincent is strongest when it slows down for an ode to her dying mother, confessing, “I prefer your love to Jesus.” Annie Clark explained that she wrote this song because people try to console you with religious hope when someone is dying, but the reality is that these messages are not always helpful in a moment of overwhelming grief. Here’s to an album that finds beauty in the ugly truth.



  1. Theophilus London—Vibes 

Theophilus LondnThis is the most aptly-titled album of the year. London’s debut is full of funky vibes and dance numbers, as he effortlessly moves from crooning to rapping and back again—often on the same song. The Kanye-produced album is polished but not overproduced, as we’ve come to expect from Mr. West, and Yeezy even throws in a vintage-sounding verse on ‘Can’t Stop’. London clearly has a great career ahead of him, and he knows it: “Right ‘bout now reset your clock/to our time now/yeah you was with the —- all summer but/I shine now.” Keep the good vibes coming, Theo.





  1. Ed Sheeran—


Ed SheeranOn the note of crooning to rapping and back again, there is my boy Ed Sheeran. He is not the next Macklemore, but the lyrical genius of Sheeran kept X in heavy rotation on my iPod this year. You would probably never make a playlist that mixes slow romantic numbers like ‘One’ and acoustic raps like ‘Take It Back’, if it weren’t for the lyrical bravado that Sheeran loops into even the sweetest sentiments: “All my sins have come to life/when I’m stumbling home as drunk as I have ever been/and I’ll never leave again/’cause you are the only one.” The album’s highlight is the sweetly sad ‘Afire Love’, where Sheeran mourns the loss of his grandfather: “My father told me, ‘Son, it’s not your fault he doesn’t know your face.” As the song climaxes with a dramatic memorial service (“my father and all of my family rise from their seats to sing hallelujah”), you can feel the genuine sense of loss and love that Sheeran captures so perfectly throughout X.



  1. UltraviolenceLana Del Rey—Ultraviolence

On Lana’s second album, her bittersweet tunes lose a little sweetness and are better for it. “I’ve got your Bible and your gun/and I’m finally happy now that you’re gone,” she sings on the six-minute opener ‘Cruel World’. Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the dark tone is set for Lana’s ever-improving brand of moody mystique. A cloud seems to hang over both the music and lyrics of Ultraviolence, and when Lana explains that she “can’t do nothing about this strange weather,” you’re just thankful she is there for your rainy day blues.




  1. Sam Smith—In The Lonely Hour Sam Smith

Apparently John Legend and Adele had a baby behind all of our backs, and he grew up to become Sam Smith. In The Lonely Hour was my most-played album of the year, because—simply—the guy can sing. And not only sing, but capture the emotions of love lost or love never had; it truly feels like the follow-up to Adele’s 21. “I’ll watch where I trip before I fall,” he laments on ‘Good Thing’. Sam Smith said that he made the album gender-neutral so that no one got hung up on his sexuality and missed the message he was trying to convey. Hopefully In The Lonely Hour will help people appreciate the universality of pain and heartbreak and free artists like Smith from having to tiptoe around honest, soul-baring expression.



  1. Taylor Swift—1989

Taylor SwiftI strongly believe in having no guilty pleasures. As writer and artist Austin Kleon argues, if you like something you shouldn’t cheapen it by feeling guilty about it. With that, I proudly place 1989 at #3 on my year-end list. Swift has truly come into her own, as she sheds the “country” labels that never seem to fit her just right and embraces her incredible pop sensibilities. From the brilliance of ‘Blank Space’, where Swift expertly details the masks we wear at the beginning of relationships (“find out what he wants/be that girl for a month”), to the devastating ‘Wildest Dreams’, where Swift requests one last thing at the demise of a relationship (“say you’ll see me again/even if it’s just in your wildest dreams”), 1989 displays Swift becoming fully relatable as a lyricist. As she matures as an artist and a person, her lyrics have moved from revenge-seeking and promise-making to moment-embracing (“I know places we won’t get found/and they’ll be chasing their tails trying to track us down”) and sincere personal reflection (“and by morning, gone was any trace of you/I think I am finally clean”).
You go girl.



  1. J. Cole—2014 Forest Hills Drive J Cole

I experienced a great hip-hop drought this year. After getting spoiled in 2013 with excellent albums from Kanye, Jay Z, J. Cole, Pusha T, etc., most of this year was a bummer for me. Then J. Cole announced a new album three weeks before its release, and my hope was restored. Hardly any rappers have spoken up about the tragic events in Ferguson, New York, and other cities this year. J. Cole, on the other hand, spoke earlier this year about being woken up by these events and released a tribute to Michael Brown called ‘Be Free’. Although the song didn’t make the album, Forest Hills Drive is here to make a statement. “What’s the price for a black man life?” he asks, then answers angrily, “I check the toe tag/not one zero in sight/turn the TV on/not one hero in sight/unless he dribbles or he fiddles with mics.”

With “no role modelz” in sight, he takes you on a journey through his rise to fame, his loss of focus on what matters, then his awakening to his true mission as an emcee. On “G.O.M.D.”, Cole begins by bragging about his success (“I put my city on the map/but let me tell you ‘bout it”), echoing the boastful raps of others in the hook. By verse two, however, he takes a 180 turn to vulnerability: “Lord, will you tell me if I changed?/I won’t tell nobody.” It is the turning point of the whole album, as Cole drops the boasts for thoughtful insights he’s gained (“ain’t no life that’s better than yours”), those he misses (“I thought about that little kid/and I thought about the things we did/I always thought that we would be together”), and those he holds closer now (“wish that you could live forever/so that we could spend more time together,” he tells his mom on ‘Apparently’). In a time when we need more rappers speaking up and using their position to spread messages of hope, J. Cole poises himself as a leader for the new generation of hip-hop.



  1. Bleachers—Strange Desire

Bleachers2014 was a year of ambivalence for me. I went through a lot of growing pains and experienced both great moments of joy and great moments of unknowing, doubt, and regret. Strange Desire provided the perfect soundtrack for growing when it hurts. As the album opens, Jack Antonoff looks back, sitting “with the echoes of lies that I told.” Confessions like these (another favorite is “I keep finding my way to the harshest words”) make this album deeply relatable for its admissions of regret. It is also a challenging listen, as Jack seems gripped not by the regret but an overwhelming sense of love (“if you’re feeling small, I’ll love your shadow”) and hope (“I was broken till I wanted to change”). If you’re in a dark place, Strange Desire will empathize, but it won’t allow you to stay down. Instead it pushes you with the theme of self-reflection and improvement (see the lead single and most inspirational song ever made, ‘I Wanna Get Better’) to lift yourself up and treat others better. I could sit here and quote the entire album, or I could tell you to trust me that it’s as good as I’m making it out to be, but I would prefer you just buy it and hear for yourself. And that goes for the rest on this list.

What albums did I miss this year? I am always looking for more to love.

In Spite Of Fear

Although my sister and I disagree about a lot—mainly which movies are worth sitting through (I say all; she says none)—we are likeminded when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. Her 2014 resolution was “to do better than last year.”

Vague resolutions make it easy to define a year as successful. If you resolve to “exercise,” then you could easily call walking to and from your car a good year (not that I have done this myself).

In Spite Of FearIn the same vein as my sister, I have made a vague but meaningful resolution for 2015: I will live in spite of fear rather than living in fear.

I tend to undermine myself by downplaying my dreams to others. It is an easy defense mechanism that I have practiced subconsciously since childhood. On the surface, people see my passion for writing as a mere hobby because that’s exactly how I paint it. I wrote about this earlier in the year, but I have since decided to take real, measurable steps toward reversing that tendency.

I fear that my writing is not good enough to be read by others. I fear that I write and write and write and that it is not worthy of sharing. I fear that someone is going to rip my writing apart and that my skin won’t be thick enough to handle it. I fear that I will share the wrong thing one day and lose the small list of followers I have built over the last two years.

This year I started the slow process of hurdling over those fears by posting blogs more regularly. It may seem small or insignificant, but I used to share my writing very irregularly due to a little voice in my head always telling me, “You’re not good enough.” Although the voice still taunts me, I quiet it a little more each time I click ‘publish’.

Despite this progress, I still live in fear of chasing a dream I have had for many years. I want to spend 2015 actively living in spite of that fear (because a fear doesn’t just vanish like an easily-swayed ghost). I want to acknowledge my fear, stare it down, and decide to live anyway. I want to stop running from my fears, or standing stagnant, and trudge forward.

So, here goes… something.

I have been working on a book of poems for a year. I have showed some of the poems to two trusted friends who I knew would give me thoughtful criticism without destroying my self-esteem. I keep revising, rewriting, and rehashing ideas. I daydream about sharing them with others, then laugh about it minutes later.

It’s time to live in spite of fear.

All of the poems center on a theme of the future our world is headed toward—from technological advances and my fear of their disadvantages to modern romance and the increasingly lonely culture we live in.

For months I have tossed around how to share the poems. I wanted to use technology as a medium for sharing in order to show that the very thing I question is still necessary to my purposes.

Then I read Sherry Terkel’s wonderful book Alone Together, which talks about how and why “we expect more from technology and less from each other.” In it, she writes about the weight that many people still place on receiving physical letters in the mail. She talks about how she cherishes her mother’s letters, but worries that her daughter will not have such mementos in the age of technology.

And with that, I decided that I want to mail my poems as letters. It is a strange idea, and it may flop, but I am going for it. I will send a monthly dispatch that includes poems, unique artwork, and other random goodies like short stories or my music—another passion of mine.

Here is what I hope to accomplish with this project:

1. I want to share my passion as an active pursuit to live in spite of fear and not in fear.

2. I will hopefully receive some feedback—both encouraging and challenging.

3. People will enjoy receiving something personal in the mail each month.

4. Some people may feel compelled to mail me back, maybe with passions of their own, letters they feel like writing, or other positive, personal interactions I can’t possibly dream of yet. In an over-connected world, it would be nice to share some smaller, realer connections with others outside of the social media realm. Basically, I want to bring back the pen pal in 2015.

5. Surprising revelations I won’t know about until they happen because this project is an open-ended, malleable venture.Pen Pal

If you would like to be part of this quaint little project, I would love for you to take this journey with me. It is absolutely FREE. I don’t want this to be about money—just idea-sharing and personal connection. Send me an email at with your home address (I promise I won’t show up unannounced), and each month I will send you a small dispatch of poems and the occasional CD, short story, or yet-to-be-thought-of idea.

Will you help me live in spite of fear in 2015? Can I help you do the same?