What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
Sandra Cisneros is writing about turning eleven, but I think that’s how graduating from middle school may be too. I think you may not feel quite like a graduate--yet. You may not feel like a high schooler—yet. Part of you will always be the sixth grader who was scared to go on that trip to Yakima. Part of you will always be that seventh grader who cried during the night hike. You are still the girl who forgot her lines in Willy Wonka or the girl who failed that math test because she forgot to study. Each of you is the person you are because you have experienced all that you have—you are the same girl, just with more layers, just with more rings.
And tonight, I want to encourage you to celebrate that. I want you to remember all that you have experienced—the successes and the failures—because your identity today was forged from the metal of those challenges and accomplishments.
Don’t misunderstand me—I don’t want you to live in the past. But I do want you to live with it. There is no question that your futures are bright and all of us are here tonight to affirm that. But remember where you came from, and honor the memory of the girl who has struggled and shined in the years that led you here, to this graduation ceremony.
I was tempted to read from your writer’s notebooks tonight. Tempted to share excerpts from your personal essays and memoirs and the GEMs that have adorned the walls for the last three years. You know I love to share your writing with others–and make you share it too–you know how I love to see your parents cry (so I’m not the only one)–but mostly I wanted to share those to remind you of your capacity for reflection and insight. I wanted to remind you that you know how to make meaning in your writing, and, in so doing, you know how to make meaning of your lives.
You have searched for your truths and found them in surprising places: in the bunk bed Mari bravely and defiantly descended when she was seven, in the tortuous Stehekin hike Grace endured in 100-degree weather, trying desperately to channel Charlie Bucket’s positivity, in Lucy’s high green-belt test and the martial art tenets that continue to inspire her to love and accept herself, in the third-grade geometry lesson that allowed Emmy to find her inner Hermione Granger. Meaning was discovered in Mengmeng’s triumphant bicycle ride and the wasps that swarmed her in second grade, in Ruby’s visit to the 9/11 memorial site where she finally understood her mom’s wisdom that small gestures do not go unrecognized, and in those Nanjing University classrooms where Maya Noble proved to herself that she was “good enough.”
A former L-Dub student recently shared an essay with me by Joan Didion, in which she explored her own reasons for keeping a writer’s notebook. She wrote:
Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one's self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
I like that idea of keeping “on nodding terms” with the people we once were. Sometimes, looking back helps us move forward, helps us be who we want to be and not simply who we accidentally become. I don’t know if you will continue keeping a writer’s notebook, but I hope you will always live in a way that honors your experiences, that you remember and reflect. As you know, you will not necessarily recognize the significance of those events as you live them; you know that those epiphanies often come much later. I’m sure that Sophia did not recognize her burgeoning feminism the very moment that boy offered to kick for her in that elementary school kickball game; nor did Alma realize how giving up soft drinks would bring her as close to God as it did. And as much as Mia has always loved and admired her big brother, she may not have realized just how much she relied on him until he went off to college.
The girls you once were are not far away from the young women you’ve become. Some days you will cry like you’re three or whine like you’re six or talk incessantly during a Monday morning meeting when you’ve been asked repeatedly to be quiet… (that was the eighth grader in you). And you may not want to be that girl again, but you might be, and that’s okay. You were your better selves too. Your smarter selves, your more compassionate selves, your braver selves.
You are the Rae who can show up at school with her pants on backwards and laugh about it, the Izzy who continually trips over her own feet but doesn’t really care because she always finds her footing eventually--and in cute shoes too, the Jumping Josephine who will always wear ponytails and old Converse and laugh as loud as she likes because --why not?. Azura will always be the girl who danced foolishly but fearlessly with her Monkey troupe during field day in 6th grade--and won, and Sadie the girl who enthusiastically donned a clam hat and rapped about ocean acidification in front of strangers, or Maya Lazo who proudly picked THE MOST green beans on Senor Alvarez’ farm. Helen is the same person who sang Girl on Fire at the top of her lungs around the fire pit where her daisy chain fed the flames, and Savita, the girl who dug deep for the courage to ROAR at Poetry Night. You are those girls. Take those selves with you too.
So when you open your eyes tomorrow morning after the tears and the hugs and the laughter and the festivities of tonight, and everything’s just like yesterday, when you wake up and still feel like an 8th grader only you’re really not anymore, don’t be disappointed. Be grateful. For the future that will arrive sooner than you expect, and the past that is over all too soon. Like that tree trunk, those rings remain, and you will grow new ones. And for that evolution, you can be grateful.
I cannot in good conscience end this speech without paying homage to a phenomenal woman whose wisdom and grace will outlive all of us. While Maya Angelou offered us countless gems of inspiration and sage advice, I found something that made me think of all of you and how much you enrich the lives of all of us:
When we find someone who is brave, fun, intelligent, and loving, we have to thank the universe.
On behalf of the L-Dub faculty and staff, I thank the universe for all of you. Congratulations, and good luck.