Families and friends, faculty, staff and honored guests, here we are – at long last – to gather together to celebrate the graduation of an outstanding group of young people – the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2021. To say that the road to this moment had more twists and turns — and yes, potholes and speed bumps — than the average high school class has had to face is probably pushing a metaphor far too hard, but here we are.
And, students, before I talk about you and all your accomplishments, I want to talk a little to your families. Parents and guardians – one of the things that makes graduation so emotional for all of us at SLA is we aren’t just saying goodbye to your kids, but to all of you as well. For many families, today is the end of a four year journey that you have embarked on with us, and for more than a few families in the Class of 2021 – today is the end of a journey that has spanned many years and multiple children. You all have been such an essential part of the SLA family, and I know I speak for all of the adults at SLA when I say – thank you. Thank you for sharing your children with us. Thank you for every Parent-Advisor conference. Thank you for cheering at all the sporting events. Thank you for believing in the idea of the little school that could – even when I am sure there were times in the past two years where that belief was sorely tested.
And in that vein, let us honor the work of all of those who have helped these amazing young people reach this moment in time. And I want to take a moment to specifically thank our Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christina Grant. Thank you for all you have done to advocate for these students and our school. We will miss you and DC is very lucky to get you.
Graduates, your class reached this moment in no small part because of the commitment of so many who helped you get to today. And in a year where — all over the world — people have had to learn in new ways, extend support beyond what they thought they were capable of, and face challenges that the world has not faced in over 100 years, there was a community here that faced all of that down and was unwavering in their goal in getting you to this moment. So please, Class of 2021, let us have a round of applause for the parents and friends and teachers and loved ones who have helped you reach this milestone in your life.
And what a journey it has been to get to this moment. Let’s be honest, if we gave this script to a movie producer and tried to sell this story, I imagine the conversation would go something like this:
“Wait… so a school has to move… and the building isn’t finished. And they move in anyway… and then there’s asbestos… and they move where? School District conference rooms and a synagogue down the block? And then what happens? They finally move in… happy ending right? Wait… what? A global pandemic? For how long are they out of school? Fifteen months??? Come on… no one will ever believe that!!!”
But – as you all can attest – that’s what happened. And I am quite sure that – to a person – this was not the high school experience you all thought you were getting back in September 2017.
There is an old saying, “We are the stories we tell.” And in no other year is that more true than now. We all can tell a story of loss for the last two years. Loss of trust in a system that pledged to keep you safe. Loss of a building to call home for the better part of your junior year. Loss of a spring season of sports last year. Loss of time in each other’s company for these past 15 months of school. And so much more. And no one would fault you for that.
And all of us who walked this walk with you would understand that. You need to know that all throughout Capstone week, as we watched you present project after project that showed off each and all of your unique talents and passions and abilities, we on staff kept looking at each other and realized our own loss this year. We all acutely felt the loss of the time we would have gotten to spend with all of you this year, because you are an extraordinary group of young people, and we won’t get back this time with all of you, and we are sad for that.
And then, we realized something. As much as this wasn’t what any of us wanted for the past two years, we were lucky enough to go through it with all of you. And what we realized was that for all of the loss that we felt as a faculty, we could tell the story of working with a group of young people who never gave up and never gave in and who all persevered in ways that defy description.
And with that, it is my hope… my most fervent wish for all of you… that when you tell the story of your high school years, you tell a story that recognizes what you lost, but also celebrates all that you achieved.
You can tell the story of justice. Whether it was when you were faced with a school building that was not fit to be occupied and you spoke up for not just one school, but for two, or when you lent your voices to the many who have called for profound and fundamental change to address the long-standing issues of systemic racism in this country, or the ways that those of you on our building design committee convinced the architects and the School District that, yes, a high school could and should have all-gender bathrooms as a powerful and profound way to ensure that gender-fluid and transgender students can feel safe in school, you all have spoken up and worked hard to create a more just community.
You can tell the story of community. Because wherever you went, the community showed through. Whether it was the photo on the steps of the apartment building next to 440, or PE in the basement of Rodeph Shalom, or forming the SLA Student Action Boardand the SLA Youth Dialogue Institute as a way to keep people together and informed or the Food Truck Prom, what you did, you did together, and you did it in a way that brought people together in ways that made us proud.
You can tell a story of leadership. This year would have been so much harder were it not for the XX of you who were SATs, teaching younger SLA students what it means to be an SLA student, even through “Zoom School.” Your classmates would not have had the success they had in the college process were it not for the work of the College Access Leaders. And our teams would never have gotten back on the fields and courts without the leadership of our seniors who made sure that we represented our school with pride.
You can tell the story of dedication. Whether it was 6:30 am practices, pulling all-nighters to finish your benchmark projects, or working with your mentors to create Capstones that made people rethink what high school kids are capable of, or running EduCon inside 440 and still pulling off a conference that made educators from all over the country rethink what school can be, you always gave so much of yourself in your time at SLA, and we are better for it.
You can tell the story of excellence. Despite not having your CTE facilities for two years, you still completed Capstones that were ambitious engineering projects and meaningful documentaries and original and art projects. And in a year where there was news story after news story about how hard it was going to be for the Class of 2021 to get into college, you *ROCKED* the college process in ways that defy description, and as student-athletes, you came back and won on courts and fields across this city, and tomorrow, you will represent us one last time in the Public League Baseball Championships — and I know you will do us proud.
You can tell the story of perseverance. Simply – nothing stopped you. You proved you could overcome all obstacles – from the building to the pandemic, you all kept going no matter what, and I don’t know if you all have realized this, but every member of this year’s Class of 2021 is graduating today. I know that it wasn’t always easy, and there were plenty of moments of doubt, but you all made it.
And you did so in the most “SLA” way I can imagine. You all honored the spirit of inquiry and the ethic of care in all that you did. What you proved is what we have said over and over again, “SLA is not just a place. It’s an ideal that we all hold dear.”
In short, you learn. You create. You lead. And that is all we could ever ask of you.
And, as you well know, the world is crying out right now for the people who can do those things.
And you are ready.
And that matters, because you have never been more needed. If the past year and a half have shown us anything, it is how deeply needed you are. As you know, you are inheriting a world where we must explicitly say “Black Lives Matter” because for too long they have not. You are inheriting a world where a pandemic has laid bare all the ways in which we as a nation fall short of our best ideals – health care inequity, educational inequity, economic inequity, environmental injustice, electoral injustice – to name just a few. You are coming of age at a time where the twin sins of inequality and inaction have come to roost and the status quo can no longer be allowed to hold by people of conscience and conviction.
These problems will not be easy to solve, nor will resistance be easy to overcome. But I have no doubt that you are all up to the challenge. And, as you all go forward, remember that we are here for you, to always remind you of your brilliance and resolve, and to be that touchstone in your lives when you need a reminder of all that you are.
For you are our best hope for the future, because you truly are what we hope for our SLA graduates – you are thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind. And you are — all of you — what the world needs.
And you must remember — you do not have the luxury of hoping that other people will say what must be said, do what is needed, work to make the world a better place. That is not the world in which we live. You must be smarter than we have been, more compassionate than we have been able to be, and braver than we can imagine.
But as I think of all of you now, I can see a group of young people more than able to rise to any challenge. And that is the story you all must tell. The story of your high school career is the story of success and community and celebration and achievement in the face of overwhelming odds, and for all of you, it is the first of so many amazing stories you will be able to tell.
On behalf of the entire SLA community – faculty and staff, family and friends – we are so proud of all you have done, and we cannot wait to see what you do next. Congratulations to the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2021. Long may you shine.