I wish I had taken photos of the top of each graduation cap that I saw on Monday. I can remember a few (and peruse student photos on FB for a few more).
“First Generation Latina”
“Well behaved women seldom make history”
“Proud of my B.S.”
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
“B.A.B.” (Bad Ass Bitch)
My former students are the quintessential critically conscious, self-aware, proud and bold young people that I dream of when I think about why I teach and who I hope to support young people in becoming. Pride is the wrong word for my own feelings because I think it implies taking some responsibility, and as much as I was present for their high school education, I know that it was them, their families and the community that they created among themselves that got them where they are today.
I don’t know what percentage of the 2016 graduating class from the selective public school where I used to teach in Brooklyn was first-gen college going (I’m guessing more than 50%, maybe close to 75%?), but I do know that 100% of the students got into colleges and many if not the vast majority of them plan to go and are excited about it. It’s not the realization of the college dream that filled me up at graduation but the love and joy that surrounded the students, their families, and their relationships with each other as well as with their teachers and yes, even administrators. Somewhere we did something right enough that they know how special they are, they know they are valued and they value themselves.
One of my biggest fears about being in graduate school is losing the motivation to be here as I lose my close ties with young people. These kids that graduated Monday are my primary inspiration – so much of what I do is for them and because of them. I will never learn more from my peers and colleagues than I have learned from being close with this particular group of young people, especially my own advisory who I spent three years with before jumping ship their Senior year. They have each pushed themselves and grown in ways that they never would have expected or articulated way back in 9th grade. Even last year as we began to work on college essays I watched each of them doubt that they had something valuable to say, a worthwhile story to tell. And yet they wrote, and they put their faith in me and all of their other teachers and college counselors and pushed themselves to do the work, submitting one application after the next, sitting for the SAT or the ACT up to three times in order to achieve something that was (and still is) totally unfamiliar – college.
College will be a whole new adventure but I am so impressed with their personal resources already. I spoke with one of my former students, a first-gen Latina woman with a fabulous ‘fro who is going to an elite private, predominantly white college about finding support systems when she gets there. She explained her plans to get there early for the students of color orientation, and to reach out to student groups on campus. She will be more than fine. But I do at times fret, and at other times rage, about what it means for a private, predominantly white college to offer admission without being able to offer acceptance, support, inclusion and validation. The children are ready to take over the world. But we have have some work to do if the world is going to embrace their brilliance.