As an education reporter, I’ve covered many commencements in Southern California — but last week I got a taste of what it feels like to be on the other side of the microphone.
Roger Lowenstein, the founder of L.A. Leadership Academy, asked me to give the commencement for the school’s small graduating high school class.
After some handwringing, I said yes. And then I thought, "How am I going to do this?"
Googling didn’t help. I got back 799,000 results when I looked up how to write a commencement speech.
Videos were an easier way to go.
“Oh, my goodness, I’m at Harvard,” Oprah said at Harvard’s commencement three years ago.
That’s what I had to do: Make sure there’s wonder and amazement, then inject some social justice.
"My one hope today is that I can be a source of some inspiration. I’m going to address my remarks to anybody who has ever felt inferior or felt disadvantaged, felt screwed by life," she said.
Or maybe some David Foster Wallace-style philosophy, like in his epic but dense commencement speech “This is water.”
But I have to tell the graduates to seize the moment, like Steve Jobs did in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech.
“Because death is very likely the single very best invention of life,” he told them. But isn’t that too dark? “It’s life’s change agent, it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you.”
It sounds like a downer — I have to end on a high note.
I tapped into my online friends and followers. "I’ll crowd-source the commencement speech," I thought.
That was a mistake. This is some of what I got:
- Write the speech telenovela style.
- Throw in some spoken word.
- Show them videos (What, like Pitbull?)
- Tell them there’s no red carpet...
- ... and to fight to create a space for themselves.
- Tell them to be nosy.
- Tell them to register to vote.
- Tell them your name was on "The Simpsons."
A waste of time? Well, I got a lot of likes — I’ll call it "public engagement" since it was on the clock.
A few of the comments were interesting:
“You need to have a heart story, you need to have statistics, and you need to have inspiration,” said Arcadia high school English teacher Ashley Novak.
She told me she had a student with a C-plus average who enrolled at Pasadena City College after high school, became valedictorian and is in his second year at Yale University.
“Students need to understand that there are many paths to success,” she said.
Some said teens need to know that the working world waiting for them will be very different than that of their parents and teachers.
“I think we are moving towards a country and a world that is primarily run by women and men who can work with them,” said Loyola Marymount University researcher David Ayon.
“Talk to them as if you were talking to yourself,” said Selene Santiago.
She’s been talking to herself a lot about tearing down male and female barriers.
“Being mindful about communicating out of love — which sounds crazy hippie, and it is. But I think that’s such a great way to take gender out of the dialogue, out of the narrative, and really communicate with each other as human beings,” she said.
The school’s 12th graders grew up in Spanish-speaking immigrant families, like mine.
“Growing up Latino, you learn to work hard and have a really strong work ethic,” said Kris Fortin, who also grew up in a Spanish-speaking family, “but sometimes that means you learn how to do it all on your own.”
But that’s not always the best way, he said — tell the high school seniors that there’s a better way, to find a mentor even if they’re not used to asking for help.
“If you put trust in other people that you know that care for you, they’re going to really help you along the way and make your journey that much easier,” he said.
How could I put all of this into one commencement speech, under 15 minutes? Well, if I’ve learned to love one thing about reporting, it’s the deadline and to make sure you make it.
I made the deadline.
So there I was — nice gray suit, no tie — sitting with the school’s principal on the stage, and hundreds of family members in the audience.
My commencement speech was great! The seniors liked it, the parents liked it, the principal gave me a thumbs up.
Ego trip aside — who doesn’t love being on stage while hundreds of people listen to your advice — the highlight of the day was hearing the stories of the L.A. Leadership Academy graduating class of 2016.
“It feels really good to graduate from school and make my mom and my family proud,” said Alma Cruz as she held her baby daughter.
Alma said she wanted to give up this year, but looked at her baby and found her focus.
Maria Elizabeth Galarza Rojas was born in Guerrero, Mexico and will be starting Cal State Long Beach in the fall.
“I got accepted into a university honors program, then from there I’m going to go to medical school, specialty school, one day become the anesthesiologist I dream of becoming,” she said.
Andy Jacobo is headed to Cal State Fullerton.
“I’m here, I’m standing, I’m not a statistic saying that I’m one of those Latinos that doesn’t do nothing in this country, no I’m here I’m graduating from high school and I'm going to be someone in this life,” he said.
Andy said there’s a lot of crime in his northeast L.A. neighborhood, and that’s shaped what he wants to study in college.
“I want to be an honorable police officer that’s going to come back to the community and help. I want to leave but I’m going to come back. I’m never going to forget where I came from,” he said.
So, I have good news for people who believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket. There is love, motivation and persistence in this corner of the world, at this high school commencement.
And that’s good news for all of us.