The summer Trump rose to the epicenter of political spectacle, the garden grew thick with tomatoes ripening late into September, and I decided I wanted to have a baby.

Standing at the kitchen sink admiring the depth of color in the heirloom fruit the size of my fist I wondered if a German woman, in the early fall of 1931, had chosen to cultivate life, had grown tomatoes, as she watched in powerless horror as a madman rose to power. A generation later and from deep within the safety of American Democracy we learned that it was all her fault, that she by her silence allowed Hitler’s rise, allowed the genocide that followed.

I rinsed the tomato and watched the water bead and drip off its skin, shaking off the last drops.

In the borderlands of Ciudad Juarez/El Paso during the fall of 2004, my friends and I piled into minivans and pickup trucks and bumped along the unpaved roads of southern New Mexico handing out flyers for the Kerry campaign and registering voters in remote neighborhoods where a wrong turn meant a dead-end at a barbed wire fence beyond which a desert stretched to the horizon. Our Juarense “moms” laughed at our insistence on watching the debates, available on the American stations that drifted over checkpoints to Mexican TVs. They teased us over our moral outrage, called us naive and muy seria, as they reminded us that politicians say and do whatever they want. They kindly suggested we shake off our funeral-like post-election gloom and enjoy the life in front of us; we marveled at their laughter, and behind their backs we decided it must be some kind of coping strategy honed by centuries of political powerlessness.

I bit into the tomato I had grown in my own dirt, and as the juice dripped down my face and hands, I realized I had had very little to do with its growth, with its existence and perfection. It was the first moment that I’ve ever felt that I could actually grow, create, a little human being. I ate the rest of that perfect tomato standing in front of the sink.

The thought of bringing a child into this uncertain world seems selfish, and growing tomatoes and baking fresh fruit pies seems less than relevant. In mid-summer, when the tomatoes were barely more than buds on their stems, I wrote a facebook post about hope and despair and how to keep going. It read, “Well, we’ve been mourning hate crimes for a week, and at this point is pretty much certain that Donald Trump is the harbinger of the apocalypse, but surprise, it turns out I’m damn good at making pie.” It included pictures of the pie-in-process, and alluded to celebrating Father’s Day the next day, and got four times the number of “likes” than anything I typically post.

Did the German housewife, with Jewish friends and queer neighbors (though she didn’t pry), who thought differences made life interesting, and who imagined Hitler as a snake in her garden and fantasized smashing his head in with a shovel should he slither nearby, did she put her concerns aside to make a pie for her father just six months before Hitler ballooned from Chancellor to Fuhrer? Did that pie bring her a bit of joy amid the doom?

“While she was making pie we were being pushed into ghettos, killed in the gas chambers,” my sixth grade teacher would have said.

“While she was making pie, we were being targeted, called terrorists, shot in the streets,” they will say about me.

In elementary school I did a social studies project entitled, “Why Do We Study the Holocaust?” and learned, after interviewing local survivors and teachers, that the answer was unanimously “Because we can never let anything like it happen again.” If we study it, we can stop it, my teachers said. If we vote, we can stop it, my parents said. If we speak up, we can stop it, my friends said. But can we? I can hear the sighs of the Juarense mothers, see their heads shaking. No m’ija. She holds up a mirror. It is we who have cloaked ourselves in a coping strategy that’s beginning to fray.   

I was raised on the poetry of Martin Neimoller: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me. Beyond being a cautionary tale, the poem reflects and reinforces an assumption about individual power I never noticed until this year’s presidential campaign: the assumption that individuals are capable of stopping evil.

Tonight, independent journalists are on their way to North Dakota courts to face charges of inciting riots, body cameras document racial bias and manslaughter, the Republican nominee for President mocks allegations of sexual assault, and reporters covering the campaign have to exit Trump rallies flanked by police in riot gear so as not to be attacked by angry mobs of his supporters. I am beginning to think I’ve had the wrong answer all these years.

Maybe we teach about the Holocaust year after year because we need to to tell ourselves a version of the story in which we honest, freedom-loving civilians have the power to prevent such horror.

Maybe believing in poems like Martin Neimoller’s, believing that the German housewife could have stopped gardening and started screaming and that it would have made a difference, believing that we good Americans are in control of our democracy, helps us believe that evil won’t strike again.

Maybe gardening, and pie, and babies help ease the pain of powerlessness.


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Home: from StoryWell, July 20th

David’s instructions, with the invitation to participate in this event, are to share a story worth telling, and in this moment, I stand here unsure that anything I could say is “worth telling.”  

I went to a vigil the night after we watched Philando Castile die, two nights after Alton Sterling was murdered, a week after the anniversary of last summer’s hate crime that killed 9 in one of our country’s oldest African American churches, and two weeks after 49 mostly queer, mostly Latinx young people were killed in a targeted, premeditated attack. At that vigil, a woman spoke of hope, and from the crowd a sob erupted.

I listened to that strange dissonance between hope and tears and was reminded that though the story goes that out of depression comes hope, hope offered to soon sparks rage, desperation, and grief.

Though the evil made so evident these last few weeks hurts me to the core, the plain truth is that the black and brown bodies that are falling are not my own; their stories not mine to tell; my grief for their deaths, though honest, is distant. But in that moment of juxtaposition between hope and hopeless, I recalled a moment in my story, a moment when I too found the suggestion of hope offensive, insulting beyond comprehension. It is that moment that I return to as a source of empathy, and as such, I hope it is worth telling.


No one was around when I got back to campus, so I made myself comfortable on the futon mattress wedged between a dresser and an extra-high bunk bed, sinking in atop Ruth’s pile of Tibetan throw pillows. No one locked their doors, and this was a room we all floated in and out of as we pleased. Ruth and Elly would have it no other way. They entered the room a little while later as if on a wave of laughter, story overlapping story of Thanksgiving dinners cooked and shared, of reuniting with siblings as co-conspirators in mischief, of old loves kissed after those long first months apart. I listened, burrowing deeper into the comfort of the blankets and the company. But as it grew later and the stories were retold with the arrival of each friend, I felt a gap widen the floor between us. Wrapped in their stories of home and a hand-quilted blanket, I fell asleep.

Later that week, feeling as if I was on the other side of a cliff, I pulled Elly aside and blurted out something like: “But I didn’t have fun. My brother threw dinner at me. I left.”

Elly, being the patient person that she is, urged me to go on. I tried to explain, but I didn’t know where to begin.

At 8 years old, my younger brother Steven had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, which finally explained the severe facial and auditory tics he had always had. As he got older, at 11 and 12 and 13 years old, his tics became more extreme and often dangerous, and other diagnoses piled on: Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and something then called “Neurological Storms.” It sounds innocuous, but I googled it recently and found out that these are now referred to as “rage attacks” – a name I can get behind, a name that packs a punch, a name that explains that during my high school years I lived amid unpredictable, uncontrolled and undesired, personified, rage.

But I don’t think I told it to Elly like that.

I think I must have said, well, I had been home for a day or two, and everything had been fine. Calm. My brother and I were getting along-ish – which was a miracle in those days – My mom, newly vegetarian, had asked me to marinate tofu for us for dinner. So as I sliced through the squishy white block and dropped pieces into a bowl, my brother, then 15, came in and stood opposite me at the table. I don’t remember the details of our conversation – Were we arguing? Maybe. Was I barely faking interest while he excitedly told me about his construction plans for a new telescope? Just as likely. What I do remember is that I had let my guard down. As I dropped hunks of tofu into garlicky soy sauce, I was not thinking “Watch out! Be ready! Watch his hands! Anything could happen! ” Three months away must have quieted that voice, so when he suddenly grabbed the bowl and sent those soft white cubes flying, when I felt a splatter of sticky brown sauce as it rebounded off the wall to my right, an old feeling awoke in my chest.

I’m sure I yelled, cursed him, lunged for a paper towel, but I don’t remember.

What I do remember is grabbing keys off the counter and making a bee-line for the door without changing my shirt. What I remember is my mom thrusting a wadded up ten dollar bill in my hand as I stepped out the door, with the words, “Get some dinner.” I left without closing the door, tears streaming down my face as I backed the car down the steep driveway. I cursed myself for being so stupid to not think that would happen, for coming home for Thanksgiving in the first place, for believing there was life beyond these outbursts.

I spent the ten dollars at a noodle shop, trying to read a Creative Loafing.

But the headlines blurred, and my mind filled with the sound of the screams I remembered, while closed safely away in my darkened bedroom, as my brother compulsively slammed his arm against the hallway wall, my dad’s grunts as he tried and tried again to get between his 12 year old son and the wall, to soften the blow with his own skin.

In my mind, I heard Steven barking like a dog in the back of a crowded shul, I heard my silent prayers that no one turn and stare, and my gratitude that the boy I was sitting next to – the once ring leader of the Hebrew School Bad Kids – didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even flinch. (I was so grateful, in fact, that I even went on a date with him.)

As if in front of me now, I saw the hollow-eyed anger of someone who isn’t really there, lunging at me with a sharpened pencil.

I heard my mother’s whisper that the Hebrew School Director had told her he’d said, “I can’t go on like this.” The unspoken truth that none of us knew how to go on.

My dinner left an aftertaste that lingered, one I couldn’t describe: the complete inability to explain these events, their significance to me, over a mug of tea in a warm common room at Earlham College, with the person who was becoming my best friend.

“Why do you think you reacted like that after your brother ruined your dinner?” Elly asked, ever the mediator. “It’s just food.”

I remembered the stories I used to read – the inspirational kind of stories teenage girls often get given as gifts: stories of older sisters who stay by the side of the disabled younger sibling,  stories of families settling into normalcy with a renewed sense of hope after tragedy. In the light of day I used to snicker at the suckers who fall for that inspirational bullshit, but at night I used to read those stories and sob, because at 16 years old I couldn’t stretch my imagination far enough to see our family so full of light.

My solution had been to move 500 miles from Georgia to Indiana, to a private liberal arts college smaller than my high school, where people eat organic food, fight for social justice, talk about “spirituality” rather than “religion,” and practice living simply. Where we didn’t even lock our doors.

I had let – if not exactly hope – some calm – seep in at the edges of my world. I’d gotten comfortable in it, came home softer, and for that, I’d paid the price in a blotchy soy sauce stain and a re-amped voice in my head reminding me to: Watch out! Beware! Don’t be stupid enough to hope for anything different!

This was a voice I didn’t need in the shabby-but-peaceful dorms of Earlham College, a point made resoundingly clear by the way words failed every time I tried to explain why I returned from vacation more hollow, more suspicious, more relieved, than seemed appropriate.

In the years that followed, I set my sights on shaping my life around the values we lived into during our time at Earlham. Honesty. Listening. Simplicity.  I learned to feel safe in the homes we built. I travelled back to Atlanta by car or greyhound bus – never a plane – the nine or sixteen monotonous hours on the road giving tangible shape to the impossible-to-quantify distance between my two homes.

I learned and re-learned and re-learned to trust calm. At the time, I would have told you “hope” was naive, useless. Hope had hurt me, and I wasn’t about to let it knock me down again.

But in retrospect, it was during those years that, unbeknownst to me, hope shifted allegiances. Hope stopped being about how other people and other places would get better, and became a dream of the home I would create: a place of sunlight, and simple beauty, and peace.

And eventually, hope invited me to come home.


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Orlando II. Gratitude

Simone Bell opened her remarks with, “Yall. They were babies.” She let the silence echo for a minute. Because we, as a community, take care of our babies. Perhaps because we see our 18, 20, 23 year old selves reflected in their hairy armpits or their eyeliner, perhaps because we see both their boldness and their insecurity, we show up. But mostly, because someone showed up for us. So this morning, as I sit on the deck in the life that I love and that is mine I am thinking of the ones to whom those 49 are babies. The ones whose couches they slept on when home eluded them, the ones who cooked them vegetables when they didn’t have the money or the time, the ones who haven’t been much for the bar scene in a while but looked forward to hearing their stories of a night at the club. The ones who lived honestly, and in so doing, made it all seem possible. And so I grieve the nightmare that took these babies, and as I go on living with all my heart, it is with gratitude to the ones who showed up for me, when I was a baby.

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Orlando I. Dissonance

I went to a vigil thinking it would make it more real, but what I found was dissonance. As the crowd overflowed the sidewalk and spilled into the street, a cop appeared. “Step into the road, we’ve stopped traffic” he said. “That’s a first,” I mumbled. A young African-American woman turned and met my eyes. “Have you met the Liaison?” She pointed down 10th Street towards a group of three uniformed officers. “Oh. No.” They started that after the Eagle; I am unable to hide my skepticism. Earlier that day I’d read an article that described the 2009 incident at The Eagle as a “botched raid,” as if there is an acceptable way for police to “raid” anywhere, but specifically a not-exactly-mainstream gay bar. When I moved back to Atlanta nine months later, I found a queer community still raw with mistrust, still angry. “You should meet her,” the woman in front of me said as the crowd gently pulled us in opposite directions. The idea that police protect us hung with a question mark in the air between “back then” and “now,” between me white and her Black, between the snipers on the rooftop and the speakers at the podium, between what I believe about the basic goodness of individuals and the terrible realities of institutions and power. I can’t shake the feeling that the legitimacy that stopped traffic was handed to us as a Supreme Court ruling, announced in a windowless courtroom and celebrated nationwide while President Obama eulogized, and while the family buried, Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney. It seems as if the whole world is strung together by bullets.  

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Sometime around 2005 in a Congolese village, a little girl watched as men burst into her family’s home, pulled her grandparents outside, and brutally murdered them. On July 20, 2012, that same girl, then a teenager spending summer vacation in Colorado with her sister, went to the movies. Five months later, seated in a small desk in a cramped classroom trailer, she began her school day, like any other, by watching an excerpt from the morning news. But on this day, she learned of the 26 people, mostly children, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As pictures of the smiling children transitioned from Sandy Hook to the larger national horror story of mass shootings, scenes of the past summer’s terror at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater filled the screen, and she remembered.

But not in the way you might imagine.

She wasn’t tentative or shaky; she wasn’t tearing up, nor did she go on the offensive. She simply yelled out, as other eleventh graders might yell an answer to a friend sitting across the room, “Oh yeah, I was there!” And then she walked over to the pencil sharpener and stuck her pencil in.

The teenagers I teach are no strangers to trauma. They arrive in the US already survivors of being smuggled across international borders, of police raids on their neighborhoods, of having dropped out of school and taken jobs in factories, shops, and on the streets, of having been born in the middle of the jungle to mothers with no country to call home. They arrive in debt to the State Department for the cost of their international plane tickets, and quickly begin to discover that American poverty, though decorated with flatscreen TVs and two hundred dollar sneakers, is no less desperate than the circumstances from which they fled.

A sixth grader goes to the dumpster to take out the trash and finds a dead body.

A girl and her cousin are sitting on the stoop of their apartment building when some boys they don’t know walk up, flash guns, and demand their cell phones.

A grandmother is terrified in the middle of the night by a gang of young men pounding on doors throughout the building, making threats and rattling doorknobs. Her teenage granddaughter calls the police but doubts they will come.

A middle schooler shooting hoops in the parking lot is shot in the face in a driveby gone wrong. It doesn’t make the evening news, but everyone knows about it anyways.

The boys begin carrying knives and traveling in groups for protection. They don’t know it, but in the eyes of the law, they have just become a gang.

Others, desperate for a sense of family, join well-established gangs, skip school, get picked up for possession or robbery, and begin their American adulthood a statistic.

But most buckle down. They study harder than they ever dreamed possible, mastering a new language so they can earn top grades in subjects like Anatomy and British Literature; they apply to the most competitive scholarship programs in the nation. They worry about their little brothers and sisters, who are more easily influenced by American culture. They help their parents save to buy a house on a quiet street in a peaceful neighborhood. The kind of place they imagined America would be.

But therein lies the problem, for America is not the place of our imaginations. Those quiet streets are more and more frequently encircled by yellow police tape, the silence broken by the whir of news choppers lingering after tragedy. Teachers and students even in the most seemingly idyllic communities rehearse for disaster, and suburban parents lament that these drills are themselves traumatic for young children.

A week ago, my school was ordered into a series of Level 3 Lockdowns over the course of a school day, totaling two hours spent with 20 teenage students in a locked, darkened classroom, crouched under tables and crammed into the corner of the room. Intuition and experience told me that this time it was not a drill, and as that realization sunk in and the minutes ticked by (10 – Surely this will end soon; 23 – What is going on???; 35 – I just hope our security and front office staff are okay; 52 – How will this end?) my mind wandered. I shushed students, played bored and told them to “just take a nap.” I checked in via text with colleagues locked and huddled in other classrooms. I read articles on Huffington Post, checked and re-checked Facebook. I watched the kids. I watched them for signs of fear that could be triggered by past trauma. I was most concerned for the Iraqi students, many of whom were little kids when they experienced bombings and gun violence in their schools and homes. For much of that day, I was simultaneously bored out of my mind and ready for imminent panic.

When it was over, when we pulled each other off the floor and brushed off our pants, when the bell rang and we navigated the unchanged hallways, I understood the meaning of the word “shellshocked.”

In the hours after the lockdown ended, I felt an acute sense of connection with every teacher everywhere who has huddled with their kids and wondered if they are equipped to handle whatever might happen next, with every teacher who has worried that our colleagues and friends are confronting danger while we are safe. And in the days after, I mourned the mass shooting in that famous Connecticut elementary school in a way that I had never before felt for far-away tragedy.

But I also mourned for the three boys (now called “suspects”) who were the reason for our seemingly endless lockdown, who committed some kind of horrible act of violence and then ran towards or into our building, boys who are the victims of, the products of, and the causes of gun-related trauma, caught in an unyielding cycle of community violence.

Now, not even two weeks after our local incident, the tragic shooting in Oregon has prompted President Obama to make his fifteenth statement on US shootings. Op-eds are filling with calls for gun control, while the NRA puffs up its mighty chest and walks confidently into conference rooms, business as usual. While suburban moms are lamenting the loss of their children’s innocence, the nation’s lawmakers are effectively huddling in a darkened corner telling themselves that if they’re quiet enough, the bad guys will just go away.

Perhaps now is the time for me to join my fellow liberals in a loud cry for gun control. But more laws that will be unevenly enforced, that will add more years to prison sentences for a disproportionate number of Black, Brown, Latino, and poor men and women isn’t something I feel moved to rally behind.

Instead I find myself thinking about Syria, and about our nation’s promise to shelter 10,000 Syrian war refugees in the coming year. The events of the last few weeks, both local and national, beg the question, What can we offer these Syrians if not peace and a respite from trauma?

I marvel at our ability to close our eyes to the fact that although it is mass shootings that bring national attention to the matter of gun violence, the neighborhoods in which these Syrian refugees will be placed for their first few years in America (and where it will be left up to them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they wish for something different) are places where gun violence in the form of armed robberies, threats, carjackings, break-ins, and family violence are a normal part of life.

America has not been a place of refuge for the Congolese teenager who found herself surrounded by carnage in a Colorado movie theater. It is not a place of refuge for the parents of children who have stopped coming home at night. It is not a place of refuge for teens who, skipping school one day, get picked up and, when found with weapons, charged with a violent crime they did not commit.

In this community where families are impacted by gun violence more often than makes the news, I am constantly reminded that resilience is trauma’s cousin. Hope lingers in the air long after the sirens have passed.

In this community, education is the embodiment of that hope, yet children are escorted out of the schools in handcuffs. In a community where trauma is par for the course, we accept the horrors of policing instead of teaching, of humiliation, of crime and of criminalization inside our school buildings. We claim powerlessness to intervene in cycles of violence, choosing instead to focus on the inspirational stories of the young people who have excelled despite desperate circumstances. We tell and re-tell their stories, we deem them “mentors,” we hold them up as examples to troubled youth: See her over there…? She maintained a 4.0 GPA, got a full scholarship to an out-of-state college, all while navigating family violence, moving four times, and watching her younger brother barely survive a gang-related attack that left him brain-damaged…. Just be more like her. We marvel at the ways the children inspire each other, at their unceasing commitment to education, but we aren’t surprised that we loose a lot of them. We tell ourselves it’s a personal choice, not a symptom of a badly broken system.

If we are to welcome ten thousand war refugees to our cities, neighborhoods, and schools, we must acknowledge that mass shootings and the terror that their randomness brings to the American psyche is not unlike war. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the tens of thousands of people living in American poverty have experienced generations of traumatic violence akin to war. And we must begin to search for a way out of the cycle, for trauma-informed practices, for ways of facilitating healing.

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boat people

sitting up to the full height of her four foot frame
she paddles too aggressively
splashing us with water and giggles
leaning over to peer at her reflection in the water
and we yelp, shift our weight, cling to the sides
our laughter mixing with hers
floating up and around our small canoe
teetering in the four foot depths of this suburban river
that curves through highway underpasses tagged by teenage lovers
who learned but don’t remember
that this lazyday tubing water
that moved steamboat loads of cotton by day
secretly carried blistered bloody hands to dreams of freedom
under cover of night

on distant shores, a mother wraps her child in a blanket of darkness
looks up at a skyfull of stars
whispers dreams of freedom
waits for the boat she doesn’t know will come.
waits for the men she doesn’t know she can trust.
waits for the land she doesn’t know she will see.

on distant waters in salty wet wind
they have eaten the last of their rice
they have seen land close enough to touch
but touch does not suffice
when home is a crowded sinking boat

– a raft –
the news will later say
no bigger than the one floating by us today
children squealing, pushing, laughing,
lathering sunscreen on each others’ backs
carefree, on a hot summer day.

back on the bank,
arms poking out of a rented lifejacket
she had tugged on my arm. eyes wide
and with English still sticky on her tongue,
she had half-asked half-declared
I fall down water, I die?
no, I laughed, and pointed to her vest.
this will save you.

and so it is lifejackets tossed first
into rafts packed with migrants
adrift in the Agean
tempest-tossed and hope long lost
they buckle bags of air around empty bellies
they are pulled into fishing boats
like a good day’s catch
handed paper cups of water that can’t be spared
taken ashore in a country that shuns them,
shuffles them off to camps,
assures food and water fit to drink
but denies them work,
leaving them to wonder what good is safety
without a school
without a job
without a purpose.

the fisherman who found them bobbing in the sea
visits their camp with empty hands
having already given them all there is
he comes to hear stories
spoken in a language he doesn’t speak,
yet somehow understands.

there will always be boat people.

for as long as there is war, chasing us
to the edge of our known world,

she has heard her mother’s stories
told like fables
of soldiers’ boots and midnight raids,
of running with no place to hide,
of terror

her people didn’t escape by boat
but eventually, by a lottery and an airplane.

at nine years old, she was sleepily enthralled
by the shimmery bluegray ocean below
by the low but unceasing rumble of an engine,
by the miles of sea and sky between her and home.

once settled in our small canoe,
she paddles fiercely, relentlessly,
pulling us wobblingly forward in energetic spurts
until out of breath she folds,
sighs, and to her surprise –

we float.

today, we
are the boat people,
buoyed by laughter
by imaginary games of Olympic races
(she declares our boat TEAM AMERICA,
thus ensuring our victory)
the other teetering canoes
the only countries she can name,
places her friends can no longer call home.

today, we float,
and we splash,
surrounded on the calm water by our friends
rocking and squealing
crashing and singing,
learning that rowing is an art of memory and power,
of balance and communication,
of past and present.

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Inspiration Message to the Graduates

Last week, I was invited to speak at the Bhutanese Community Association’s graduation celebration. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to speak – but moreover – for the last four years in which I’ve been welcomed by this community. This group of graduates were freshman when I began teaching here. In many ways, we have grown up together. Here’s the speech:

Bhutanese Community Graduation

This week, the US appointed the new National Poet for 2015. The award of National Poet, or Poet Laureate as it is officially called, is given annually to a poet whose poems reflect the themes or values that are central to Americans’ experiences this year.

This week, this prestigious award went to a writer named Juan Felipe Herrera. I mention him today not simply because he won an award, and not because I am an English teacher who wants everyone to read more poetry, but because of what his appointment means for education, opportunity, and the America we live in today.

Juan Felipe Herrara is the son of Mexican immigrants. His parents, Felipe and Maria, were not highly educated, and worked as migrant farmworkers. Mr. Herrera spent is childhood years living with his family in a tent made in the back of a truck, so that the family could easily move from farm to farm, and from state to state to pick different crops in each new season.

When his family stopped moving from place to place, Mr. Herrera enrolled in the third grade speaking no English. Remembering that time, he recalls that “his tongue felt like a stone in his mouth.”

I’m sure many of you know exactly what he means. Do you remember your first few weeks here, when there was so much you wanted to say but you could not make the English words come out of your mouth?

To get to where you are today – high school graduates – you have worked hard to overcome the stones that stood in your way.

For some of you, that “stone” was the English language. You have worked tirelessly to pass high school courses that require a very advanced level of English. You have used English to build strong relationships with your teachers and classmates.

Others have overcome different obstacles. Increasing family responsibilities, pressure from friends who did not complete high school, the challenge of always making school your top priority when others around you told you other things are more important.

In May, you received your diploma. But what we really hope you got during the time you spent with us is education.

Those of you who took my American Literature class in 11th grade remember our study of “The American Dream.” We studied how for hundreds of years, immigrants and poor people have seen this country as “The Land of Opportunity,” a place where everyone who works hard will become rich, and where every generation is promised more success than their parents had.

But dreams are not always our reality. The economic situation in America has made it much more difficult for a family to rise out of poverty than it was only 30 years ago.

No one knows this better than you.

This group of graduates has seen many tragedies. You have faced many crossroads where you could have chosen to quit. Many of your peers, in fact, have left school and entered the workforce with limited English and none of the skills they would need for a professional-level job. Certainly, they work hard. But will they lead their families to integration into American society? Will they have the skills they will need to help their future children with their English or Math homework? Will they – like their parents – have to work physically exhausting and often dangerous jobs?

Studies show that refugee families must pull their families out of poverty within two generations of arrival, or the family will become stuck in an impoverished way of life. Young people who do not complete their education, who do not prepare for a career that they are passionate about, pass the responsibility of American Dream-Making on to the next generation – a generation that will be American born and grow up in American poverty.

Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet of 2015, lived in the back of a truck, did not speak English, and did not go to school until the third grade. His parents did back-breaking farm labor. They supported his education and encouraged him in the arts, and because of their support and his hard work, he stands before the nation, not as a farmworker or laborer but as a celebrated hero who proudly represents his cultural community to all of America.

And today – because of your hard work and the support of your families – you stand before your community as high school graduates. You have already made a difference in your communities: You have received scholarships, you have tutored younger children, you have stepped up to support your families in times of need. We are proud of you.

You stand before us as tomorrow’s nurses, engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, caregivers, and social workers. And as you move on to these new experiences and become part of new communities, you – like Juan Felipe Herrera – will continue bringing great pride to this community.

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