On Tuesday, May 17th, I delivered the following address at the 8th grade promotion of Santa Rosa Boarding School, a school for American Indian children in Arizona.
Thank you Principal Barajas. Good morning. Seventeen years ago, I stood on this stage as the student council president and delivered the class of 1994 commencement address. I thanked the teachers, administrators, and mentors, but when I got home, my mother asked me why I didn’t thank the parents. I’ve always kind of regretted that. Life has a funny way of giving you opportunities to make things right, and today is such an opportunity for me. On behalf the class of 1994 and the class of 2011, I thank the parents. Without your encouragement, support, and guidance, none of these students would be sitting here today ready to graduate. Graduates, let this be a lesson to you. Remember that you could not have done this on your own. You will always have people behind you. And it’s never to late to say thank you.
This year’s theme “Never Give Up On Something You Long For” is not just a reminder to stay the course as you continue on to high school and college but it’s also a reminder that you have the right to have longings, to have goals, and you have the right to pursue and fulfill your goals. You will meet people along the way that will tell you, you don’t have the right to long for something bigger and greater than the life they see for you. I’m here to tell you, you do. No matter what they say, you can never give up on yourself.
When I left SRBS for Casa Grande Union High School, I felt like I could compete with my classmates and match their achievements. I was placed in accelerated courses, earned honors status, won essay contests, and was the only representative of our school to win a medal at the 1997 Arizona Academic Decathlon. When it came time to start applying for colleges I had east coast schools in mind, because I wanted to see the world outside Arizona. I also wanted to be a writer and I wanted to study English at Cornell University in New York or Boston University in Massachusetts. I had the grades for it. I had the writing skills necessary to compose strong and convincing entrance essays, but my counselor at the time said I shouldn’t think so big. She said, apply locally. You’ll definitely get into a local school, and I did. I got into U of A and ASU.
At ASU I started by studying English and creative writing but hung out with older English majors who persuaded me to drop out of English, because they said it was too hard. They had to read thick books, which they couldn’t understand, and they also couldn’t understand why anyone who had the chance to get out before it was too late wouldn’t get out, so I got out. I switched my major to Journalism, which for me was the next best thing. Still researching and reporting but most importantly still writing and telling stories. I was fascinated with stories, writing them, telling them, learning from them, and I had never read stories by a Native writer before, but I had seen a Native news reporter on TV, and figured I could do that.
The Journalism program required an internship for graduation, so I applied and interviewed for a summer internship with National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. After one summer there, I fell in love with the city and knew I had to go back, and I soon did. And the desire to write continued to grow in me, so I applied to the Johns Hopkins University writing program where I finished my masters in fiction in one and a half years. The next semester I began to teach writing part-time in Rockville, Maryland.
I was 24, one of the youngest part-time professors at Montgomery College. So young that there was an article about me in the campus newspaper with the title, “Is That a Teacher or a Student?” I used to hate being mistaken for a student, but as I get older, with some of my own students now in graduate school, I am starting to appreciate those earlier days a little more.
Adjunct or part-time professors often share one office. At my school, there are over 30 part-timers in the English department alone, and many of these people are competing for the same full-time positions. One semester I was in the adjunct office, and I saw the school’s advertisement for a full-time professor. I told one of the adjunct professors in the room that I was going to apply. He said, “They’ll never look at your application. You’re too young. You haven’t been here long enough.” At the time, I had been building my resume by teaching part-time at local universities and had even gone on a few interviews at private schools and had been offered those teaching jobs, but I liked MC so I wanted to see if I could get this job, too. I applied, was interviewed, and I got the job.
At the same time, I had been applying to area universities to study English, and when I started my full-time teaching position, I also started a full-time graduate program again, this time at Georgetown. Doing both was hard. I had to teach in the mornings and drive through D.C. rush hour traffic in the evenings to attend classes, and I nearly had a nervous breakdown, but I did it. What really got me through was the idea of home, which I found surprisingly in an American Indian Literature class where I read works by Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. These Native authors changed my life. I had gone so far away from the reservation in order to write stories, and in the halls of a private university on the east coast, I was called back home in the stories by these writers.
My point is this: whenever I longed for something, someone was always there to tell me to give up. Sometimes I redirected or changed my goals, or put them on hold, but I never gave up. This year’s graduation theme rings so true for me. If you really long for something, you can never give up. Your spirit won’t let you. I wanted to attend an east coast school, and was told no, but eventually I attended two. I wanted to study English and creative writing, and was told it was too hard, but now I have degrees in both. And I wanted to be a full-time professor at a college, and was told my age and inexperience would work against me, but I still applied and got the job. Just like there will always be people behind you, there will always be people against you. You have to recognise the difference between encouragement and discouragement, but never let either one distract you from the goals you want to achieve for yourself.
I don’t think I would haveever given up on any of my goals because I had a strong foundation early on. That foundation was set for me here. At SRBS, I was allowed to thrive in the classroom, as student council president, as a member of the school band, at the science fair, and at the annual Christmas pageants. The teachers here – and I can name every single one of mine from Ms. Tyce and Ms. Fire Thunder to Ms. Walker and Ms. Antone – all helped to build my academic confidence, and thankfully they prepared me for what was waiting for me out there.
I know the same strong foundation has been set for each one of you. I’m told you have been a very outspoken group that has thrived in the sciences with class projects on building model roller coasters, bridges, and aluminum boats. And I know you did class presentations with ease. You also understand the value of education by having maintained excellent attendance. Be proud of all of that. Your family and teachers are certainly proud of you. I asked Ms. Antone last week to tell me something about you, and she said, “I feel there will be many potential leaders of the nation in this group of students.” From what I understand of the upcoming tribal elections, we need your leadership fast!
When I get back to D.C. on Wednesday, I have to present at my school’s awards ceremony and attend our commencement on Friday. Two weeks ago, I sat on the valedictorian selection committee. At large schools, there is usually no clear valedictorian, so all the graduating students with 4.0 GPAs are invited to compete with one another to earn the spot as commencement speaker. One of our top students told us she wouldn’t be continuing her education, and this really saddened me. She’s at the top of her class, and could continue to excel, but for some reason or another she has decided that she won’t be continuing. I shared my disappointment with the committee and got very interesting responses. One colleague told me I was not in agreement with our school’s completion agenda, which focuses on our students finishing only our degree programs. Another said I sounded like President Obama who considers community colleges mere stepping-stones not educational experiences in their own right. And another colleague said I was disregarding any number of reasons students attend a two-year college. It was as if wanting more for my students was the worst possible thing to want. This absolutely boggles my mind. Since when has it become a bad thing to encourage completion as well as continuation? When I finished my undergraduate degree, I was congratulated and then encouraged to get back to work, to go even further, and I did. Shouldn’t we regard all educational experiences as stepping-stones on a longer and more fulfilling path? I was told our students attend our school for any number of reasons, and they have their own goals that may not be academic. I’m here to tell you, that is not a luxury we as Native people can afford. We cannot stop here. I’m going to congratulate you then tell you to get back to work. Let this day be the beginning of a longer journey in education. After you kick butt in high school, knock ‘em dead in college. And after you do that, show ‘em what you’ve got in graduate school. It will be a long and challenging road ahead, but trust me you have a lot of support, just look all around you. Never give up. Never give up on something you long for.
Thank you and congratulations!