Emma Mele’s Class of Twenty-Twenty Speech
“First, congratulations to the class of 2020! Every student in this graduating class deserves to be fully acknowledged and congratulated for their achievements. I know that these past four years have not been painless for some of you. Many of you have had personal conflicts outside of the school environment that resulted in a shift in your academic performance. Many of you have had to deal with the mindset that anything short of perfection is failure. Many of you, like myself, in these past few weeks specifically, have found it increasingly hard to focus on any school work, or exciting milestones such as this graduation. It is not always laziness that prevents people from performing a task that may seem effortless to others. Certain obstacles such as financial instability, mental health concerns, family issues and many others have also played a large role in the lives of many students. I am speaking so that I can openly appreciate those who have worked incredibly hard throughout high school, not only to achieve academic mastery but to maintain a positive psyche.
As much as I would have loved for this graduation to be in person and without the melancholic mood that many students of color are experiencing right now, this is the reality of our circumstance and I don’t believe it should go unnoticed. For me personally, I have faced interruptions that demoted academics to second on my list of “important things to think about”. Many of these interruptions have had to do with my ethnicity. Feeling like I did not fully belong in a classroom with no other black students. Knowing that my teacher did not have faith in my ability to be a STEM major. Feeling as though my own classmates did not value my voice when I told them that it was not okay to say a racial slur in front of me and then laugh it off. And now, feeling overwhelmingly sad when faced with yet another unjust death in the black community. How many white students can say that they were unable to focus in class or complete an assignment because they were overwhelmed by racial injustice?
Many of us know that the killing of George Floyd is one more added to the long list of people that we have mourned over the past decade. The pain of knowing that your country has never fully accepted you while simultaneously trying to fool you into thinking that “the past is the past” by giving you rose colored goggles, has deeply impacted the lives of many of the graduating seniors and their families. I am, and we are, the minority at (name of school excluded for privacy purposes), and I believe that it’s important to put a spotlight on the minority, especially during these unprecedented times. Race relations are still a taboo subject for many people, no matter how liberal or, quote un quote, “politically correct” they are.
No matter where you are going next year, a Cal State, a Community college, a private school, a UC, or no college at all, you have hit a major milestone. I hope you all feel tremendously proud of yourselves and your accomplishments. Success is not something that is measured by another person’s standards or expectations, it is truly something that you must define for yourself. Let’s face it, there is a lot of pressure to get into a well known school. Every student wants to receive a “wow congratulations you did amazing!” but somehow that anticipated accolade fails to materialize when the institution is not in the top twenty in the nation. And sadly, that is without the added pressure of being black, latino, or female and having extremely negative stereotypes placed upon you that can hinder your opportunities before you even have the chance to prove yourself. How unfortunate is it that we are even working to prove ourselves in the first place because of race or gender or the debilitating combination of both. The pressure to perform when you are a minority is unmatched. There is this preconceived notion of what it means to be intelligent, and an image of what it means to “look smart” and I fail to believe that the standards I witnessed were coincidental. I can not speak for others but I personally felt that my academic experience was very different from my non minority classmates. It felt as though some people in the race got a head start and the rest of us had to push and push just to close the gap. Now add the news reporters shouting about which black person died today and add the bystanders who feed encouragement to the front runner and de facto discouragement to the field and what you are left with is an extremely unfair race. Now THAT is an equation that many of us know far too well.
Despite the struggles and challenges, I can say many of you have inspired me in ways that you do not understand. Whether it was starting a girls basketball team, being vulnerable on stage at a poetry slam, excelling in your calc BC class as much as or more than your male counterparts, or simply speaking up when you felt disrespected in class. These efforts deserved more attention and proved to me that you don’t need a fancy title to be a strong leader and a driving force for change. I would also like to end by saying that racism does not rest because you fail to acknowledge it, or just wish it away, and it will never rest if we don’t face it head on and address it as a school, a city, a state, and as a country. As exciting as this event is, I wanted to state that many of us do not have the privilege to put our mourning on pause at any given time. As a female of color I understand that the road is long (and often biased), and the work may be hard (often harder than those around you for the wrong reasons), but we have proved that we embody excellence and that we will keep pushing to better ourselves and the broken, oppressive system that fails to reward those who work just as hard.
Congratulations to everyone and keep fighting. Now is not the time to be silent against injustice. If you feel discomfort right now due to the many conversations and topics circulating, I advise you to reflect on what that means. Class of 2020, I ask you to be resilient and unwilling to let this get swept under the rug yet again. Value the humanity of all people, despite their differences and continue to hold important conversations. And of course… Black Lives Matter.”