Mind the Gap: Saying Farewell
An inner-city schoolteacher says farewell to his first graduating class.
Dear Class of 2010:
We had an inauspicious start two years ago—one of you stormed cursing and bellowing out of class on the second day of school after getting into an argument with a classmate. I felt like the world's most impotent teacher, and the next two years of my commitment to Teach for America felt like a jail sentence.
But we persevered. We worked hard, very hard, on everything from interpersonal relationships to literacy strategies to restaurant etiquette, and two years later you are set to graduate from high school. Some of you are the first in your family to do so—either way, you are deserving of much praise and celebration.
My message to you going forward is a simple one—while life is about to get much more difficult, you can handle it. And always remember our classroom motto: Anything is possible.
College is tough, and you'll encounter all sorts of challenges along the way—academically, socially, financially, even emotionally. By and large you haven't received the rigorous education that is necessary to immediately handle college-level work. This sad fact does not mean you will not be able to cut it in college, it just means you’ll need to wholeheartedly commit yourself to your studies.
When you have issues with the quality and quantity of work expected of you, seek help. Your tuition covers a writing center, peer tutoring, or other types of academic services—utilize them! There's no need to be a hero, and when in doubt, group up with classmates and forge through these challenges together.
The real trick will be juggling this academic work with increased financial pressures in a new social environment, all the while living or commuting farther from home. Be proactive, steering clear of the factors in your community that stress you out, and candidly tell your support system that you are really going to need their help over the course of the next few years.
While the reality of the situation you face is grim, the sooner we confront it and talk about how to deal with it, the better. About 95 percent of you are going to community college in the city, schools that are part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Yet only 28 percent of students attending CUNY two-year schools graduate within six years, their associate's degree in hand.
My experiences with you over the last two years give me faith that you can meet and exceed the challenges you will soon confront. You have navigated your way through myriad obstacles to earn your high school diploma. Some of you have lost relatives along the way, been by your mother’s side when she passed away in the hospital, or watched as your brother got stabbed in your kitchen. You’ve watched friends and neighbors fall off the school track—more than 100 students were in your freshmen class four years ago, yet only 52 of you are graduating today.
And as the refrain of that Langston Hughes poem goes, you’re still here. I will never forget when you stood last year in Washington, D.C., a place most of you had viewed as distant and foreign, just months prior to watching President Obama’s inaugural address. At that moment, on what for some of you was your first foray out of New York City, as you stood on the spot where Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech and danced in front of the Capitol Building, you metaphorically screamed out: "You can’t hide us anymore—here we are, world!"
Whatever deficits you may have with some skills, you are enormously perceptive and expressive in other areas. Your social commentary has moved me. Your persistence has inspired me. You are an agent for change in this world, and you cannot let others—adults, most especially—inhibit you.
Most of you have faced an uphill battle since the day you were born. For better or worse, you are largely unaware of how severely the deck has been stacked against you. The world you are about to encounter is full of people trying to get theirs. You need to get yours, too, and you need to find allies along the way to help ensure that you do.
I believe in you. Believe in yourself. Anything is possible.
Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx.