As I graduate from The University of Texas at Austin, I first want to talk about potential. Since I was little, I was always the kid that was full of this magical potential– I was a quick learner, I enjoyed reading and writing, I was clever, and I was the kid who always wanted to sit at the adult table instead of play with kids my age. My grandparents always said that I was an adult at age 9, because they had to pay adult prices for me when they took my family to Disney World. I have been blessed with a personality and interests that jive well with what our culture calls “successful”– I have many talents and skills, my interests are fairly mature, and I am a responsible, somewhat disciplined woman that sets high expectations for myself, and often meets them. And so, I have heard dozens of comments throughout the years from friends and strangers about how much potential I possess.
I was born with my personality, and for today alone I will put humility aside and acknowledge that, yes, I am pretty awesome. But my potential, however, also derives from how I was raised. My parents and my grandparents have always been intensely devoted to my development and success. As a child, I remember sitting with various members of my family to read books, play Hooked on Phonics, create Polymer clay masterpieces, and learn cursive. I spent several summers directing my younger cousins in original plays (written by myself) at Gee Camp, and learning how to craft and sew with Gee. I remember my dad taking me out for “Daddy Dates,” where we would visit Java Cafe, and play backgammon or chess. A few years ago, Meemaw gave me an album of photos from my first twelve birthdays, and in each one of those photos I see a smiling girl with a doting family. While no childhood is perfect, and no family is perfect, I still felt loved and adored as a child.
My family dreamed big things for me, and as I tended to be a people-pleaser, I always wanted to be the fulfillment of those dreams. Others may have felt suffocated by the dreams of their family for them, but your dreams made me push myself further, inspired me to set higher goals, and established the potential everyone always saw in me. So, to those who raised me, I want to say thank you. You loved me so much that I wanted to make you proud, and the pride that I see in your face as I graduate has been one of the most encouraging and motivating things in my journey.
In addition, thank you to my newer family, the Reeds. You have welcomed me as a daughter and sister in the last (almost) two years, and I also see that pride in your faces, too. You all have been a powerful force of love, encouragement, and inspiration in my recent years. Your investment in me is deeply appreciated.
And Devin, thank you for seeing everything that I am, and loving me through it. Especially when I am not as awesome as everyone thinks I am. You have been my ally, and I don’t know if I would have have made it across this finish line without you by my side. Thank you for dreaming impossible dreams with me.
The second thing I want to talk about is opportunity. There are many individuals in this world with neither a loving family, nor opportunity. There are kids who are never given a chance. There are personality types that do not jive with what our society defines as “successful,” and there are people that seem to have no potential because they lack the love and support I have. I am white, raised in a middle-class home in America, with a devoted family, and with some natural talent. I am the third generation in my family to graduate college. I never have faced racial discrimination, generational poverty, extreme death or loss, abuse or violence, hunger and starvation, and I have not had to climb many of the hurdles that so many people do just to survive. While our culture still has a lot of work to do for womankind, I can’t even recall missing out on any opportunity due to being a girl. For those of you familiar with Maslow’s pyramid: I was born at the top, directly into safety and security. Others are born with far less.
Some might call this favor or blessing, but I know this is luck of the draw. I did not choose the leg-up I was given, and I did nothing to earn the giant stepping stones that have been laid before me– not just by my family, but by our society. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the privilege that I’ve been born into. So, I want to express my utmost admiration, and support to those that have achieved an equal measure of success to mine, but with a much longer and more difficult journey. Those classmates of mine that raised their siblings, or immigrated here from an impoverished or war-torn country, or have been abused by someone that said they loved them, or were never told that they were clever, smart, pretty, or talented, when they were. Those individuals that did not have the dreams of their family to push them forward. I do not deserve the opportunity I have had, and while I will take advantage of it, I will not take it for granted.
Finally, I want to talk about passion. I left high school not knowing what I wanted to do with so much potential and opportunity. I liked art, film, and writing, but I couldn’t see a career in those things. Through working many jobs and volunteering many hours, I finally found teaching in my second year of college. Funny enough, it began very early and I never saw it. When I was 13 or 14, I was invited by Mrs. Mela, my middle-school TV Production teacher, to teach a class for my peers at summer camp two consecutive years. None of the other students taught classes, but I knew a certain program very well and wanted to leave a legacy in that department. When I started working in church childcare, it was just babysitting. But 17-year-old me wanted to make some ground-rules, put together some activities to do, plan snacks, and reorganize the supply closets. Looking back, the passion to be a teacher was always there, following me around like a shadow. The “teacher” persona fits with almost everything that I am and that I love to do. My personality fits with teaching like a puzzle piece.
But, while I enjoy lesson planning and classroom organization more than most, it is also one of the most challenging professions I could have chosen. The state of education today is poor at best. Teachers are quitting every single day due to the overwhelming workload we are given. The guilt that teachers carry because they do not have enough time, money, energy, and resources to give every kid what they deserve is back-breaking. I am about to willingly run the gauntlet, for an undetermined number of years. And I fear that I may not make it.
My future students at Bryan Collegiate High School, which is an early-college high school, will be the under-served population– those that are first-generation college, often first-generation American, from low-low-income households, and those with big dreams. My students will be born into much lower tiers on Maslow’s pyramid, they will encounter struggles daily that I have never faced. Going forward from college and into my passion, I know that passion may not be enough. My potential may not be enough.
But I will not waste the potential, opportunity, and passion that I have been given. I know that teaching is one of the most important callings, and even if I feel inadequate, unprepared, and out of my depth, I must reject fear of failure. My students definitely have potential and talent, as any young people do. But they deserve more opportunity. They deserve a chance to find a passion, and pursue it as I have. I refuse to dismiss the opportunity that I have to turn around, look down from my place of privilege, and pull others up with me.
Thank you for celebrating with me on my graduation from the world-class University of Texas at Austin. I am proud of myself in this endeavor, which is my greatest achievement so far. Thank you all for dreaming this dream with me. And now, because you dreamed big things for me, I am able to dream big things for my students.