I recently finished my ten months of service with City Year, and I had the honor of serving as this year’s graduation speaker. Writing this speech was kind of like working on a blog, except with way more practice- and that whole speaking in front of 800 people thing. I have to say, I think I’ll stick to just the writing in the future. Following is what I wrote:
It’s perfect that I’ve served in an 8th grade English Language Arts classroom this year, because I’ve always loved metaphors. I love the idea that one thing can be another if we want, that two completely different ideas can be connected. A family is a metaphor for my team. An elephant is a metaphor for me trying to walk in my Timbs for the first time. You get the point.
Whenever I used to go through a challenge, I would always reconcile my thoughts using some kind of metaphor, or a storyline from my vast knowledge of romantic comedies and sitcoms. Truly, it was a talent. And with it came this little side effect of me wanting my life to be a movie; I thought of everything in terms of story arcs, character development, and of course, the happy ending.
I came from Hollywood, California, to City Year Boston because I saw the same optimism and idealism in this organization that I had myself. City Year focuses on the story of America’s high school dropout crisis, and it works to make better happen. When I arrived in Boston, I was ready to make better happen too.
But on day one, like all of us, I was thrown into a confusing and scary new world. People had no problem wearing slightly outdated khakis and vests (where was the costume design?!). There were so many acronyms, and I don’t even want to get started on the culture shock of discussing the Boston winter. At City Year, for the first time, I had met my match. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a movie or a TV show to guide me through my first interactions with middle schoolers, prepare me for the time Charlie Rose showed up in our team room at 6:45 in the morning and I had to pretend not to be intimidated while leading first circle, or help me cope with the fact that, sometimes, there was nothing I could do for a student except just being there for them. For the first time, I was making this story up from scratch. But thankfully, I wasn’t on my own. I had the incredible and inspiring leadership of my team leader Joanne Jan, my program manager Elizabeth Stein, and my perfectly matched partner teacher Mr. Greg Nelson to guide me. And then, there was my team.
Whether the challenge was a scavenger hunt, an AttenDANCE, or cheering each other on to create the best pancake puns, my team always worked as one united group, and nobody got left behind. Together, we were the Deloitte team, but we were also an extraordinary group of quirky and uniquely gifted individuals: Mir, Maddog, High and Dry Dauten, Smashlee, Bobby Fly, Sprinkles, Shut it Down Sammie, Wally Wall, and me- LeeLee. My team pushed me and appreciated me, and helped me to realize that I was more than what I could interpret from the stories of others. And because my team believed in me and treated me like was a person of worth and value, eventually that’s who I started to be.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even notice this change in myself until I saw it in terms of what I used to be. In the beginning of this year, I expected a happy vanilla story of change: I would find a sweet and virtuous student who was struggling in school, help that student to reach his or her goals, and end up learning more from them than they learned from me. We’ve all seen that storyline before, and it’s quite a crowd pleaser. Well, I did end up helping students, like Sam* and Jason*, who each brought their English grades up by a full letter grade, or Rachel*, who went from literally hiding in the corner to volunteering to share her own writing in front of the entire class- and I most certainly learned from them. But that’s not how I got my climactic, music-swelling moment. I got that from a student named Tim.*
Every day in class with Tim was an adventure. He had a lot of energy, and a lot of interest in everything and everyone in the room. This could be wonderful, but it could also be distracting. I began to take Tim for walks when class became too overwhelming, and he became so familiar with our one-on-one behavior conversations that he started giving me the talks. Through this process, Tim and I ended up forging a bond. One day recently, I asked him how he would describe me. “Miss Singerman,” he said, “You believe in everyone. And you never give up.”
And there it was, my very own music-swelling, tear-jerking moment. It came from where I least expected it- not from a model student, and not even from a student in whom I’m sure I saw a change. Instead it came from a story that’s untidy, and unfinished, and full of Ubuntu- the idea that we are all connected. What Tim learned from me is something I never put into a lesson plan. He learned from my idealism- my belief that everyone deserves a perfect ending, and that we should relish the journey toward that ending exactly because it’s hard work. So even though I won’t get to see the rest of Tim’s story, I know that I have written into it a legacy that I can be proud of.
That’s my story and my lesson learned, but the truth is that there is no one storyline or metaphor that encompasses all of the experiences that each of us has had this year. Each of us has become so much stronger than we were on day one. Each of us, whether we see it or not, has made it this far because we had the heart to do it. We have all experienced the challenges, the successes, and the pure grit that City Year brings, and we have each left behind a legacy that’s true to us. We have all grown- into giants, some might say. Now, we brace our shoulders for others to stand upon.
So as the next scene begins, whatever that may mean for each of us, I know that as much as I love my movies and my metaphors, I don’t have to depend on them anymore- and I don’t think that I’m the only one of us who has outgrown a crutch this year. My challenge to all of you today is to struggle, grow, and change your worldview in response to every experience you have moving forward as much as you did this year, because our own experiences and lessons learned are so much more powerful if we act upon them to change the story for someone else.
When I look back on my City Year, I’m going to remember the uniform, the winter, and all the other things that shocked me on day one. But, more importantly, I am going to remember this: it was scary, and challenging, in the best possible way. It forced us all to change, and empowered us to create change. This year we brought our country one small step closer to ending the dropout crisis- and I know I have come one giant leap closer to the person I want to be. So, this isn’t what I ever thought it would look like… but I’d say we got our happy ending.
*name changed for privacy