Lessons in Love, Compassion, Truth (from our youth)

Denver School for International Studies at Montbello Graduation Ceremony

University of Denver

May 31, 2018

Seniors, class of 2018, I can tell you honestly that when they told me you chose me to be your graduation speaker, I had to take a pause because I really didn’t know in that moment whether you choosing me meant that you loved me….or hated me!  Is this payback for all the times I had you do seminars in my class? Because if it is, you win! Can I sit down now? No? Okay then, I guess here we go…

You all know I am no public speaker.  What I am is a teacher who loves teaching, and who loves you.  What few people know about being a teacher is that it is soul food.  It is a soul enriching experience, and as your teacher, you all have fed me–and our community well.  People think that children come to school to be taught, and to get tools they need for their futures, and to some extent, that is true.  But what they don’t know is that you all are teachers too. You teach lessons in love every day when you rally around your classmates in times they have struggled.  You teach compassion when you put your own academic progress to the side to help your bilingual peers with class work in Spanish when English won’t do the job. You teach truth when–in a society that claims to value multiculturalism in theory but elevates monolingualism in practice, you have unapologetically carved your own path, and I respect you so much for it.  What you may not realize is that all this time, you have taught the adults around you so much. If I have learned nothing else in my time with you, I have learned the importance of standing tall and being proud of who you are–no matter the cost. I have learned from you that with love, compassion, and truth, all things are possible.

It was my privilege to travel halfway around the world with some of you, watch you build vertical gardens, play with orphans, and pour love into painting a balcony at a pre-school in Brazil.  Even there, so far away from home, when you could have been more concerned with tourism and sightseeing, you carried with you a defining spirit of showing love and compassion, through concrete action, as your truth.  You feed the souls of those around you well, staying true to the warrior spirit that lives within you, and the tradition of your ancestors that came before you.

One of those ancestors, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and it reminds me of the time when not long after the most recent election, when our country fell into chaos the likes of which I have never seen, hate-fueled messages that ICE was coming to our school descended upon us–as the coldest winter frost, making so many of us feel vulnerable and victimized.  You could have scattered. You could have fled. You could have let your hearts harden over with hatred for those who would so cruelly and hypocritically rescind the promise of liberty and justice for all that America so brazenly offers and then systematically steals away. But you didn’t. You stood together in love. You rallied around your friends who justifiably felt betrayed, those whose hearts were laid bare.  You fed their souls with love, compassion, community–and together, we pulled through it. In doing so, you taught me and many adults around you (in these troubled times, where cowardice is all around) the truth of what it really means stand up for one another–to drive out hate with love, and light.

You stand up in the tradition of Cesar Chavez who said, “Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free,” and fight you have against those who would reduce you to a statistic, a robot that is only as good as a score on a standardized test written by those who lack any knowledge of your culture, stories, language, or community–because you know you are so much more than a number.  Your unshakeable faith in yourself is your sword of truth. You have been to board meetings and spoken back about what it means to build community only to have adults disagreements and discord attempt to burn it down. You have rejected the narrative that our school, our community, is less than. You have competed in cheer competitions and soccer matches carrying with you Montbello Warrior pride. You have rallied against gun violence in schools, marched for peace on MLK day, and united in the largest Women’s March to take place in the history of this country, because you know that despite the limitations many would try to place upon you, you are free.  You will not be boxed in by anyone’s limiting definitions of you. You know who you are and where you come from. It is from you that I have learned the importance of self-awareness, and holding on to one’s identity at all costs, because without knowledge of who we are both collectively and as individuals, we are as lost as our current government which, in the eyes of the rest of the world, is a sinking ship, adrift at sea–alone.

But I who have lived and learned beside you, been nurtured and taught by you, know that with you at the helm of this ship, we certainly will not be alone for long.  You who stand so firm in the knowledge of who you are, you who love boundlessly and faithfully, you who stand tall in your truth and are the best of us–will usher in a beautiful, bold and brave new world.

I know this because I have seen some of you spend days in hard physical labor on the Blackfeet reservation in order to make sure their youth had a place to escape the harsh realities of life in a country that has commited mass genocide of Native people, and continues to do so (to this day) while refusing to acknowledge that fact–or offer any kind of reparations–as if there could be any that would be sufficient.

I know this because when people say #BlackLivesMatter, you have pushed back and demanded they show it–in all places, especially at school–with concrete action.  You know to demand more, and better, from institutions designed to protect you when [as James Baldwin once said] you can’t believe what people say because you see what they do.

I know this because I have seen many of you come together to recognize International Women’s Day with messages of love and empowerment for all people regardless of gender, protecting and affirming everyone’s right be whomever they choose to be, and to love whomever they choose to love.  You have met wave after wave of painful revelations of sexual misconduct that came forth in the #MeToo movement with compassion, truth, and love for one another, protecting and standing up for each other as you always do.

I know this because I have seen you bravely and openly write and talk about your experiences as DACA recipients and Dreamers who have learned to live every day as though there is no tomorrow, because the promise of tomorrow and the freedoms that so many others take for granted–you cherish above everything.  You know that true freedom is a gift, one worth fighting for. So, you prize your intellectual freedom above all else. With all of your academic achievements, and despite, or maybe because of, all the systemic inequities we face, you make your families, your community, and your teachers proud. You have taught us that there is no excuse for not bringing your best to any task, and that through perseverance and hard work, all things are possible.

And so, when J.Cole says there are, “No role modelz” I see you right here right now.  When Cardi B says, “I’m the hottest in the street know you prolly heard of me” I picture each of you saying those words– you can be whoever you want to be. When Kendrick Lamar says, “We gon’ be alright.  Do you hear me? Do you feel me?” I believe him. When Banda Tierra Sagrada says, “Ojalá que lleguen a tu puerta solo puras bendiciones Ojalá que nunca te arrepientas de las malas decisiones.”– I know that when you do, because everybody does eventually, you’ll pick yourself up, keep it movin’. And when Drake says it’s, “God’s plan [you] hold back, sometimes [you] won’t. [you] feel good, sometimes [you] don’t– I just hope you know, that it’s a lotta good things that we wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ on you.”

You who teach us–will go on to be immigration lawyers, nurses, mechanics, social workers, and so much more.

You who inspire us–will go on to speak truth to power and refuse to stand by in silence while others, even the leaders of this country, would use their voices to oppress us and call it “freedom”.

You who love one another–will go on to be leaders in your communities and the world at large proving with selfless actions that love is the only truth there is.

You who know your worth–will refuse to stand by in silence while those who show blind and ignorant obedience to the unjust laws of this land would try to make you feel inferior.

“The revolution will not be televised,” it will come as a quiet storm. It will look like each of you with right fists of resistance raised high.  To teach you, to be taught by you, and to be a part of your story has been one of the great blessings of my life. Those of you that know me know that I always say, “I love you too much to lie to you.”  The adult world you are going into is one often fraught with woeful ignorance and chaotic confusion, contempt for all that is good and a bizarre fascination with all that is wrong with humanity. But Glória Anzaldúa has said, “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar./Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks,” and I know that you are the change we seek.  You will build the bridges we need to cross into a better future, a brighter tomorrow. This world needs your love, your compassion, your strength of spirit to sustain us, now more than ever.

So, kids…my hope for you is that you: Carry our love with you wherever you go/Lleven nuestro amor donde quiera que vayan/Remember that we will always be here for you when you return./Estaremos aqui siempre cuando vuelvan/Go into the world and make your mark/Ojalá que hagan su propio camino/We believe in you/Nosotros creemos en ustedes/The world is waiting for you/Y el mundo los espera/May you be blessed/Que sean bendecidos

And now, one last time, please rise and join me for In La’kech

Tu eres mi otro yo/You are my other me/ Se te hago dano a ti/If I do harm to you/ Me hago dano a mi mismo/I do harm to myself/ Si te amo y respeto/ If I love and respect you/ Me amo y respeto yo/I love and respect myself

We love you.  I love you. Congratulations, class of 2018.

Author: Julia E. Torres

I am a mother, high school Language Arts teacher, activist, world traveler, and reader. Here you will find the story of a woman making her way in the world and making her mark, one word, and one classroom at a time.

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