“You are the hero of the telenovela called your life, and whether you are the victim or victor is a choice each of you has to make..”
San Antonio, Texas
June 30, 2013
This past June I flew to Los Angeles for the inaugural 8th Grade Graduation of the Sandra Cisneros Learning Academy. I had visited them once before a year ago when the school just opened. Now here I was addressing the fifty-three members of the graduating class of 2013.
I'm sure the graduates had no idea how terrified I was. I'd been terrified for weeks. Having to write a commencement speech is the hardest thing for me, but having to address students at a school named after me raises the expectations.
So I tossed and turned and dreamed of what I might say. All my other writing stopped due to the stress. After all, what could I say to teenagers? I remembered when I was their age. I thought I knew everything and didn't want or need advice. This thought made writing my speech even harder.
I wrote and wrote and tossed away ideas, and finally, on the morning of the ceremony, settled on what I was going to say. I got to the school extra early, in time to meditate in the parking garage, because by then my heart was still beating too fast from the traffic on the Los Angeles freeways. And I didn't even drive. Did I tell you I'm a nervous passenger?
The ceremony was held outside, which I've come to realize is something that happens often in Los Angeles. Family members were seated on folding chairs beneath hats and umbrellas to shield themselves from a strong sun. Folks on the street were setting up bouquets of teddy bears and Mylar balloons. Back in the cafeteria, the graduates were gorgeous in their caps and gowns.
We ducked into the teacher's lounge and had a great heart-to-heart talk with principle Shannon Leonard. Even though the ceremony was fifteen minutes from beginning, Shannon sat down with me and chatted as if there was no one else in the world. I find it hard to chit chat, but fortunately, didn't have to. We talked about our lives and our past year, and about new beginnings with a frankness and honesty that I found refreshing.
Then the ceremony began, with the graduates walking and dancing their way to their seats. It was joyous and beautiful. There were words from other teachers besides their principal and me. And there was a speech by the class Valedictorian, Daysi Lazo, and Superstar Awards for Moises Duarte and Isabella Salano. I was deeply moved by their love for their teachers, and by the teachers' evident love for their students. Welcome relief from the stories you get in the newspapers.
I got to read my speech, and luckily these students were very polite and actually paid attention. I wish I had mentioned I had just finished reading The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. That's a book about someone their age who just wants to belong, and don't all teens just want to be a member of something — anything, as long as they aren't left out? But I was not so brilliant as to think of this, except in hindsight. I talked about their advantages over other kids graduating in L.A. Ultimately, what I had to say was this: You are the hero of the telenovela called your life, and whether you are the victim or victor is a choice each of you has to make.
After what seemed like a very long time — and it was long, because everyone said things twice, in English and then in Spanish — the ceremony was over and the graduates marched back inside to greet their families at a reception.
I hung around for a little bit to watch. The event was not about me. And then I said goodbye to Shannon Leonard and thanked him for an uplifting evening. Because by then it was dark, and I rode back to my lodgings the long way, all the way from Echo Park to the ocean via Sunset Blvd. Past all the old Los Angeles that I've only seen in the movies, past Hollywood and Vine, past Grauman's Theatre, past Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hills Hotel. A universe away from the world of the graduates of the Sandra Cisneros Academy, who had so many things going for them already as the children loved and adored by teachers and family, more than they'd ever know.