Good afternoon. It’s great to see so many of you again!
As you may know, I had the privilege of spending a year at this high school while writing a book about the students here. Just recently, I moved to Massachusetts. It’s exciting to live somewhere new, though leaving Brooklyn has been really hard. I had to say goodbye to friends, neighbors, and my old street. But by far the hardest part for me was saying goodbye to you, the students at International.
I never thought that a high school would be one of my favorite places on Earth. I mean, you guys can be really LOUD, and more than once I’ve been around after someone set off a stink bomb. On most days, though, this school fits my idea of what a better world could be. I love walking down the halls and seeing faces that reflect countries I’ve never been to, and places I want to go. I love being surrounded by students who have so much promise and such big personalities. As I’ve gotten to know many of you, I’ve often wondered: “What will you do with your lives?” “Who will you become?”
The thing is, every single one of you has become someone important already. You’ve had experiences that other kids your age couldn’t imagine: Leaving home, coming to a new country, a new city, a new school. Learning a new language.
Each of you also has an amazing story about how you came to America. Some of you crossed deserts and mountains to get here. Some of you escaped wars. But just as important as where you came from is where you are going next. Just as important is the story you have yet to tell.
First, I want to tell you a story. It’s about a young girl from Poland who came to America around 1917. She arrived at Ellis Island, where thousands of immigrants first entered the United States. Sometimes the officers at Ellis Island would ask questions to learn more about a person’s background. They might ask, “What is one plus one?” to find out if someone had gone to school. Or they might ask what someone did for work back home. In this case, the officers asked the young Polish girl, “How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?” And this girl answered, “I don’t come to America to wash stairs.”
I love this story because almost 100 years later, the point is still the same: People come to America in search of a better life. At the same time, working hard is something to be proud of—it is the first step toward a better life. The people who passed through Ellis Island thought of America as the land of opportunity, and it can be. But life can be difficult here. Around the same time that this Polish girl arrived at Ellis Island, my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. They died young, when my grandfather was just a baby, but their struggles helped pave the way for future generations of my family, and many years later, we are grateful for their sacrifices.
The way I see it, each one of you is doing something heroic just by being here. You are pioneers, paving the way for future generations of your own families. Many of you will have children someday, and they will have children, and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know your stories and your sacrifices. These future generations will wonder about you. They’ll want to know more about your life as a yak herder in Tibet or as a young girl in Yemen. Your history will be passed on much in the same way as the histories of countless immigrants who have come to America before you.
But here’s where you are different. You have gotten something that others before you have not: a first-rate education. At International, you are also fortunate enough to have a community of people who support you now and will continue to support you, long after you walk off this stage.
So, today, YOU’RE the ones who have to say goodbye. When you leave this building, what will you take with you? Maybe you’ll remember the boys of 718 La Familia rapping in the cafeteria. Maybe you’ll remember the Elevator Lady, and how Pascal always got a free ride. Long after you’ve forgotten your lock combinations, many of you will remember a certain teacher who inspired you or fought for you, who took care of you or simply took the time to listen to you when no one else did. And, of course, you will probably never, ever forget your first day.
All of you have traveled and grown so much in the past four years. You’ve learned English! But I also hope that you remember the important lessons that you learned outside of the classroom.
*Be open to new ideas. Surround yourself with people who are different than you, and you will never stop learning.
*Advocate for yourself. Never be afraid to ask for what you want. If you know your own value and worth, the people around you will see it, too. If they don’t see it right away, then you need to speak LOUDER.
*Don’t give up. I know that many of you are still waiting for The DREAM Act to pass. Until it does, keep fighting, and remember: “No human being is illegal.” I also want to say to the students who may not be graduating this year: Keep going! There are plenty of students who take more than four years to graduate, but the reward is exactly the same.
In life, it’s rare that you meet people who really influence the way you think about the world—people who make you smarter, wiser, stronger. So many of you have done that for me. You’ve shared your stories and your perspectives, and I have learned so much from you. Thanks to you, I have tasted yak-butter tea, and now I can speak a few words in Krio. Here goes: “Ow di bodi?” “Di bodi fine!”
I’ve also learned that the American Dream is very real. What is the American Dream? Everybody has a different definition, but to me, it is the act of striving for something more. It is the boy who is the first person in his family to graduate high school. It is the girl who came here not knowing how to read or write, but who practiced forming her letters until the letters became words, and those words became sentences, and those sentences became stories and college essays. It is the students who came here alone, without family, and found a new family at this school; a second home. And it is all the students who worked long hours after school—washing dishes, selling groceries, or cleaning other people’s houses—and still came to class with their homework done.
To me, the American Dream is you.