Hopes and Dreams
First, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude and thanks for the privilege of being selected by the students as this year’s faculty convocation speaker. I must admit that when I received the email a few weeks ago from Liz Thurston, our fabulous Director of Student Affairs, I experienced a flurry of emotions: I was surprised, elated, humbled, and then - terrified! Those of you who know me know that do I like to talk, but my goodness - not to so many of you all at once! I thought, what of any consequence do I have to say to this impressive gathering of people: the honored guests, my friends and colleagues, the families and friends of our students, and then finally, all of the students graduating in this great class of 2014?
After a few restless nights and the wringing of hands, I decided to focus my comments on a topic familiar to the students in my school-family and community partnership classes – the theme of hopes and dreams. Commencement ceremonies, after all, celebrate the realization of our collective hopes and dreams. I remember my own graduation from this fine institution, and how I wrapped myself in the joy and pride and love that exuded from my parents and extended family as many of their hopes and dreams for me were fulfilled.
I also remember how the hopes and dreams my parents had for me and my brother’s educational future led them to move, in the fall of 1966, from New Haven CT, to Branford, CT, a suburban shore town just east of New Haven. The first eight months we lived in Branford, my parents actually drove my brother and I back and forth to New Haven each day so that we could finish out the year with our classmates at Dwight Elementary School. By the way, when I asked my Mom how it was that the Dwight School allowed us to continue as students there even after we had moved to Branford, she said that she thought it was because she was the secretary of the PTA, and no one else wanted that job, so they were willing to do anything not to lose her.
So, finally, in the fall of 1967, I boarded the school bus to attend my new school, the junior high in Branford. I had already made friends with many of the neighborhood kids who were attending the school, and rode eagerly with them on the bus that fall day. Now, I LOVED school, and had done very well in elementary school, earning practical all A’s in every grade, so I had a pretty solid academic record. Upon arriving to the junior high school, I bolted to the classroom that had been assigned to me, all excited and ready to learn.
Back in 1967, the system of tracking was alive and well and quite overt. At my new junior high consisting of grades 7 and 8, students in the college placement track were assigned even numbered home rooms, as in 7-2, 7-4, 7-6, and so on. Students in the vocational or “trades” tracks were assigned odd numbered home rooms, 7-1, 7-3, 7-5, etc., and – check out this symbolism – special needs students were assigned to homeroom 7-13. Imagine my shock when I found as I entered my new classroom, that I had been assigned to 7-13. I remember that day as if it were yesterday: I was confused and bewildered, frightened and feeling helpless.
At dinner that evening, my parents were anxious to hear about my brother’s and my day at school. With tears welling in my eyes, I told my parents what had happened. I saw them look at each other in a way that I had not ever seen before. Calmly - they both assured me that there must have been some mistake -- that there must have been some confusion since my paperwork was coming from another district, and that I mustn’t worry, that they would straighten it out. Not once did they mention or let me think that it might, just might, have something to do with the color of my skin.
The next morning, as I prepared for school, my mother announced that she would be driving me to school that morning to speak to the principal about what had happened the day before. As a young adolescent who was trying her best to fit in, I was mortified that Mom was coming with me on my second day of school. Worse yet, she had on her Sunday church clothes – and when Mom is wearing her Sunday best on Tuesday – that means trouble.
Now, I know from my research on home-school partnerships that the front office experience for many parents is not always positive. There must have been something about my mother’s dignified stance, something about her presence, something about her ability to, without words, transmit her hopes and dreams for her daughter, that sent everyone in that front office in motion and, within minutes, the principal was there, welcoming my Mom into his office. Armed with a folder containing my past report cards, book reports and drawings, my Mom followed the principal into his office. I sat in a chair close to the door, and strained to hear their conversation, but heard nothing.
After 15 minutes that felt like 15 hours – the principal and my Mom emerged from his office. My Mom, still looking regal and dignified, explained to me that indeed, a mistake had been made, and that I was being reassigned to a new classroom. The principal, looking a bit red in the face, escorted me to my new homeroom – 7-6, led by Ms. Donadio, one of the best teachers in the district. The rest, as they say, is history.
I learned that day how much the hopes and dreams my parents had for me meant to them, and how they did not intend to let anything or anyone get in the way of those dreams being fulfilled.
That love, support, guidance, and determination of my family, both immediate and extended, has guided my work and shaped, borrowing a phrase from my friend and colleague Andres Alonso, the bones of my beliefs. Those beliefs fuel my commitment to create a space here at this institution for students to explore, to ponder, and to dream.
So, in turning back to today and to this moment, I want you, our fabulous students, to know that your Harvard family, the faculty and staff that have gotten to know you while you’ve been here and who deeply care for you, also have big expectations for what you will accomplish. In that spirit, I personally have a few hopes and dreams that I would like to share with you as you prepare to go out to do this important work.
First, I hope that you will stand up to injustice in whatever form it may take. We’ve seen so many instances lately of hatred, bigotry, homophobia, sexism - all sorts of intolerance. I hope that you will have the courage to initiate those tough, difficult conversations with colleagues, friends, family, and perhaps strangers, and lean in to the discomfort that is necessary for big change.
I dream that you will shift the current education narrative, one that seems to be stuck in a blame game cycle, where everyone is pointing fingers, and in the words of Rick Dufour, looking out the window for the cause of the problem, instead of looking in the mirror. I dream that you will change the negative narrative to one that embraces understanding and collaboration…from a narrative that sees our families, community members, our students, even our teachers and school leaders, as part of the problem, to a narrative that sees these stakeholders as part of the solution, where their funds of knowledge, their lived experiences and rich histories, are honored and validated.
I hope that you will fall in love with the communities, the families, and the children that are at the center of your work. And I mean that – that you love them, and you create opportunities whenever you can to let the families, the community members, see you loving them and their children. I dream that you will make this work personal – that you will always ask yourself – would I want this for my own child, or for my own niece, nephew, cousin, my brother or sister? – or for any child that is close to you. If you think that this expression of love that I’m talking about is going to going to be hard for you to do, then I ask you to reconsider your professional trajectory.
And finally, I hope that before you innovate, lead, design, interrogate, disrupt or scale-up, that you deeply LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to the various stakeholders. That you do your work not to others, but in solidarity with others, and that you see our parents, and students and community members as co-producers and co-creators of reform, rather than mere consumers of policy.
In closing, I would like to leave you with the statement that is at the end of every email I send out. I believe that it sums up the expectations, the hope and dreams that I have for you, my extended HGSE family. The quote is from Lila Watson, an Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic. Lila states:
If you have come to save me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because somehow your liberation is wrapped up in mine, then let us work together.
Thank you for the honor of speaking to you today, and congratulations to the “almost” graduates of the class of 2014!