Good Morning! It’s nice to see you again; I’ve missed you over the last week.
I’m honored to stand up here today, not just as your Senior Class Teacher of the Year, but more so as one of your biggest fans. From the time I met you as sophomores in 2016, I have been wowed by your accomplishments, your tendency for kindness, and your universal hatred for learning vocabulary— I know those orange Sadlier Oxford books will likely stay in your memory longer than the words ever did. But for as much as you hated learning vocabulary, it wouldn’t feel on brand for me to send you off without one last lesson. This one starts with the word ACCEPTANCE.
ACCEPTANCE. Undoubtedly, many of you have become acquainted with this word over the last year. It has represented your anxiety for the future and served as validation of your hard-work. It’s a word I, myself, chased furiously throughout my own senior year. But it came into your lives, and mine, long before we understood it to mean the big white envelope or carefully worded email that granted us entrance into a program or institution. No, our first interpretation was instilled in us at a young age, and has no doubt been reinforced by the school system you, and I, have had the privilege of attending. We were taught to ACCEPT those who were different regardless of race, gender, or religion. We were encouraged to ACCEPT kids who didn’t look like us, who didn’t talk like us, and who didn’t dress like us. You were taught that. And YOU HAVE DONE that. YOU have ACCEPTED a student body that represents six of the seven continents, speaks over 20 languages, and practices just as many religions.
And though you, like I, have had the privilege of growing up in communities that allow for the possibility of this kind of ACCEPTANCE, ACCEPTANCE of difference is just NOT ENOUGH.
Several years ago, I came across a poem by William Stafford that challenged my own compliance with ACCEPTANCE. [The first stanza has ingrained itself into the fiber of my core; he writes:]
“If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss OUR star.”
This poem reinforces a vital need to UNDERSTAND difference. An UNDERSTANDING that goes beyond what we have been taught: The blind ACCEPTANCE borne out of privilege– the privilege you and I share– which asks us to passively allow difference into our lives, even encourages us to look past it. This lesson is dangerously limiting.
On my first day at Centennial– before any students even showed up– one of my colleagues (whom I won’t name) insisted I was a student, so much so that I wasn’t allowed into my classroom. I’ll admit, I was flattered. Here I was, several years out of high school, and apparently I still looked like a high schooler. But since then. My age is not the only thing for which I have been MISUNDERSTOOD. TO CLARIFY: Yes, I speak Spanish, but no, I am not a Spanish teacher. No, I was not born in the US, but YES, I’m a US citizen. In each of these instances, I was ACCEPTED for my differences, but my story was not UNDERSTOOD. I bring this up not to throw shade at any individual, but rather, to demonstrate the need for actively seeking UNDERSTANDING of others. Because, as William Stafford explains in his poem, “if you don’t know the kind of person I am” you will be inclined to ACCEPT the truths inherited through your privilege, but not driven to discover if they actually are true. And “if I don’t know the kind of person you are,” I will ACCEPT the position in the world my privilege has limited me to. So we must change the word. From ACCEPT to UNDERSTAND.
In UNDERSTANDING others, you have to recognize your privilege as graduates of the Howard County Public School System, for which you should be grateful, but which you cannot allow to limit you to passive ACCEPTANCE. You must seek to do more than allow difference into your lives. You must actively seek out the stories of those who are not like you. You must learn their names, their histories, their voices. You must do more than ACCEPT difference as those things that set you apart in just race, gender, and religion. You must pursue difference as everything that is not you. You must force difference to change you. Continually. ALWAYS.
So as you seek your star, immerse yourself in environments that are different from your own. Engross yourself in the people who fill those spaces. Absorb their stories into your own. And only then can you truly UNDERSTAND.
Ultimately, it all comes back to words, right? It has always been about words. It will always be about words. Acceptance. Understanding. Words that don’t even appear in that little orange book. And they never will, because the words that really matter are the words that are defined by the actions of our lives.
Moving into the next scene of your story, your encounters will span the world over, will include languages you’ve never even heard of, and will present belief systems that can’t be quantified. SO live this word. Expand your ability to ACCEPT into your capacity to UNDERSTAND. In turn, you will manifest greatness into the world.
You already know that I think you’re remarkable. So I will give back to you the words you offered me a couple weeks ago: “YOU GOT THIS. And it’s okay to cry if you need to.”
Congratulations, Class of 2019. Now, for the last time, I’m gonna have to ask you to please spit out your gum.
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