It’s Saturday, June 18 and I’m at the Robert Treat hotel in downtown Newark. The conference room is jam packed and there’s a buzz throughout the place. I take my seat along the side and wait for the ceremony to start. In the middle of the room sit 134 eager students, and behind them are hundreds of proud family members with their cameras poised, ready to snap a photo of their child walking across the stage.
It’s graduation day, and although it’s much like every graduation happening across the country, it feels even more special because all of the seniors are young people of color who grew up in low-income communities. The weight of the occasion comes not only because these students made it to high school graduation; it’s also because they finally have a day to celebrate, which is not easy to come by in the tough city of Newark. More often than not, they are mourning, angry, sad, or frustrated, but today is all about joy. The ceremony proceeds like graduations do, but with a few highlights: the scholarship winners are announced, which causes an eruption of cheers from the crowd and a flow of tears from the students who are shocked to discover they’ve won thousands of dollars towards their college education; the keynote speaker brings her own DJ, and part of her speech is to play “All the Way Up” by Fat Joe and Remy Ma, during which the students pop out of their seats and dance; and a fellow 2016 classmate, who passed away from cancer, is honored, and her family is given a diploma in her name. All of this culminates with the students walking across the stage to receive their high school diploma, while their families run up to take the photo they’ve been waiting for, big smiles across everyone’s faces.
Once caps have been thrown in the air and degrees have officially been conferred, I make my way across the crowd to congratulate the seniors. While doing so, I can’t help but pause and revel in what’s going on. Everywhere I turn, the students from the Class of 2016 are embracing. And my favorite part about it is it’s mostly the boys. I see Malik, the scholar athlete, and Saheed, the class videographer, hugging and clapping each other’s backs. I see James, the class clown, doing the same with his best friend from 5th grade. It’s such an emotional scene that I’m frozen - all I can do is look around and smile for these amazing young people. To be in this room is to experience the purest and most acute sense of joy and possibility. I leave the graduation feeling uplifted and energetic, hoping that my students’ lives are filled with days like this one.
I’m an educator at KIPP NJ, and I, like everyone in the US, have been overwhelmed with the news of violence in this country and throughout the world. The feeling of hopelessness, anger and frustration is permeating, which only leads to more violence. I believe much of this stems from the stories and images we see, and the stories of black men and women are far too often negative and violent. This is not my experience at all - the students that I work with are hilarious, smart, generous, and strong. I wanted to share this story of them as a way to spread positivity - positivity within schools, within the black community, within the US; I hope you all find your own positive story despite this mess we’re in and share it with others.