Everyone wants to hear an uplifting graduation speech, not a five-minute spiel on the follies of the public school system. But to me and many of my friends, receiving our diplomas symbolized the relief that we have long anticipated to meet a new freedom. I would love to talk about the upsides of my high school career—the cross-country races that delivered a rush of euphoria, the inspirational students and teachers I’ve had the honor to work with, the projects that helped me realize my eagerness to be an active learner. But as I exited Hayfield Secondary on graduation day, I imagined what the future held. I want to enjoy the summer air on the campus of George Mason University as I walk to class. I look forward to pulling the sleeves of my sweater over my hands as I exit the Patriot Center after a school-sponsored poetry slam. I aspire to balance academic work with building new friendships and maintaining old ones. Overall, I want to feel that I am part of a greater community, an aspect of the high school experience of which I often felt deprived.
On my last day of school, I asked several teachers to sign my yearbook. Mr. Viviani, a dedicated track coach and avid athlete. Ms. Passino, a bubbly English teacher who promotes an inclusive environment. Mrs. Poquis, an intelligent and experienced English teacher who demonstrates powerful leadership skills. And many, many more. As I read the uplifting remarks in my yearbook, I was dumbfounded. A substantial portion of my school schedule was spent with teachers who didn’t express their support for me that it was shocking to meet with those who did. It almost became normal to me that some staff members found it suitable to play a passive role in the school community and, well, just let time pass before the clock hit 2:45P.M. But it is crucial to work with those who strive to create an inclusive, uplifting, and productive environment rather than to criticize those who fail to do so.
Today, I attended my friend’s graduation party and met with parents and graduates who live up to the values that our high school represents. Feelings of support, care, and inclusiveness hung in the air. But it felt so foreign to me, to simply be asked if I was doing alright (as I had been sick for the past few days), to be embraced in the arms of countless individuals, and to be uplifted by members of the Hayfield community. And in the midst of laughter, conversation, and music, I remembered another adult who had supported me for many years, my cross-country coach. Before the graduation ceremony began, Coach Geraty said, “Hey Naima, it’s been a pleasure.” We exchanged expressions of gratitude and a heartfelt goodbye. As I met with these supportive individuals, I realized I had spent so much time in the dark that I forgot there was light.
The signatures in my yearbook symbolize a goal that I will satisfy as a college student. I will surround myself with teachers, peers, and friends who have a genuine desire to promote a productive learning environment. I will promote values that are vital for a healthy school, such as inclusiveness and freedom of expression.
As I walked onto the stage to receive my diploma, I thought of all the times I had imagined this moment. I didn’t know how to feel. Should I smile, or just carry on in the blur of short-lived applause? The diploma in my hand was tangible freedom from a staff member and classroom that triggered my anxiety time and time again (for reasons that are disclosed here). I felt that I was finally given permission to move forward—physically and emotionally—from the peaks and valleys of my high school days. I can now integrate myself as a part of an adult community at George Mason University where I will meet students who wear the green and gold with pride. I hope to meet individuals who demonstrate a genuine eagerness to learn, make a difference in the world, and take responsibility for the community.
Congratulations to the Class of 2016! I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.