The following is my speech at convocation. I can’t think of anything to write about…just struggled with writing fewer than 700 words on my novel…and the goal was at least a thousand. I have got to get my brain working again…
April 3rd, 2015, my life completely changed. It was the Friday before Spring Break and all I could think about was getting on the road and driving to Florida to visit my parents. My car was loaded up; I was counting the hours. The ocean was calling my name and I was heeding the siren’s call.
Everything was good, and then I heard the beep indicating that the main office had turned on the intercom.
“Mrs. Graceless, please come to the main office.”
For me, getting paged to the office usually means that I’m in trouble. In the two minute walk to the office, I reflected on my actions from the week before, counting how many times I had thrown my shoe (hint, none), how many times I might have said something wrong (hint, more than fingers and toes), or whom I might have angered.
Right outside the office, my principal, department chair, and supervisor were waiting. My heart raced and I swear I aged a year for every step I took.
Without preamble, my principal asked me if I would be willing to teach Gifted and Talented English 10.
I would like to say that my panicky anxiety was swept away in a wave of euphoria. I would like to say that I leapt with joy and did a boogaloo in the hall.
I know I said yes. But the panicky anxiety didn’t leave. If anything, it exploded.
As much as I encourage students to embrace change, I am a hypocrite. Change terrifies me. And this change blew apart my sense of stability and confidence.
Spring break was a vacation characterized by me staring at the ocean and feeling paralyzed by the flailing sense that I had no idea what I was going to do and that a horrible mistake had been made. I love teaching. I’m good at teaching. But Gifted and Talented? I didn’t think I was that good of a teacher; I didn’t think I was worthy of such a calling.
Every morning and evening, my father and I stood waist deep in the water and fished. Side by side, we baited and cast our lines and waited for the surge that signaled a fish had taken the hook. And as we waited, Dad and I talked. I confessed my anxiety about teaching Gifted and Talented and Dad likely gave me advice.
I wish I could tell you about some magical, golden nugget of wisdom Dad gave me. I wish I could tell you about the Hollywood moment when the anxiety evaporated and everything was perfect and I caught the huge fish that was at least this big.
But that didn’t happen. What I remember was standing in the water and staring at my line, I was staring at the water, looking for the dorsal fins, waiting for the inevitable sound of the loud, reverse gasping sound of a dolphin exhaling. It’s not because I was terrified of sharks.
It’s because I love dolphins.
From the age of four, I have loved dolphins. At the top of my bucket list: swimming with wild dolphins. If I couldn’t be a teacher or a writer, I would be a marine biologist. In second grade, when my classmates and I would pretend to be superheros, while my peers fought to be Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman, I never had competition for my superhero. Flipper, the dolphin.
Sure, Flipper couldn’t fly or walk which presented problems given that most superhero battles happen on the land or in the air. And though Flipper can do some pretty amazing jumps and flips, he doesn’t come equipped with a flying pool capable of shooting down enemy targets. So I complained to my friends and they kindly created a story in which I, the amazing Flipper, could rescue all of the Superfriends.
Even Superman could use a helpful dolphin.
For me, being a dolphiny superhero was more realistic than the traditional, mythic superheros like the Justice League, X-Men or the Avengers. The idea of a man or woman endowed with superhuman abilities, cool gadgets, or a tragic past is all very nice, but these stereotypes presume that we can not be heroic.
Superheros rarely wear body armor that conforms to their six packs and bulging muscles. Most of the time, they are the people who stand on the edges, not necessarily waiting for that moment when they can leap into action and save the world. Many times, superheroes are so average and ordinary, they never planned on being heroic. So, when I had grown up enough to look for new heros, I found one in the shape of an eighteen year-old African American girl. Keshia Thomas
In 1996, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan . Naturally, this drew protestors and, without surprise, tempers flared and people began fighting. A white man amongst the protestors was accused of having links to the KKK because he purportedly had SS tattoos and wore a shirt with a confederate flag. As he tried to run away,though, he was caught and thrown to the ground.
The man was defenseless against the kicks, the punches, the fury about to rain down upon him. And this young woman, Keshia Thomas, literally stepped in and threw herself on top of him. She was African-American, a testament to everything the KKK hated. And she placed herself between the man who possibly hated her and the people wanting to hurt him. And as the assailants backed away, she pulled the man off the ground, stood in front of him, and wrapped her arms behind herself but around him to protect him.
In spite of the possibility that he was there to protest her skin color. There to protest her rights. There to protest….her.
Superheros are people who think beyond themselves. Superheros are those who are unafraid of stepping in and doing what is right and good and compassionate so that the world may continue to spin. Superheros are the people on Flight 93 on September 11 who chose to bring down the airplane as opposed to letting it catastrophically crash into its intended target.
Superheros are the people who step out of their comfort zones and choose not to stand idly by or pull out their cell phones and document the incident. They are the ones choosing to fix the problem, to solve the issue, to prevent the potentially destructive effects.
Superheros sit amongst you. They are the people who organized, participated in, or donated at the blood drives, the food drives, the book drives, the penny drives. Superheros are the people who offered comforting words when sadness struck, who wrote notes to their favorite teacher or their administrator or their counselor because showing gratitude is an act of self-sacrifice. You made yourselves vulnerable when you show that you needed help and that you’re thankful for the help given.
Superheros are the people who offered a hug when the day went wrong, who listened to the frustrations without judgment, who held someone while they cried but didn’t post about it on social media, who offered forgiveness when mistakes happened.
In August of 2015, I entered my classroom and started moving desks, unpacking boxes, and putting up pictures. The invariable change that haunted me starting Spring Break and lasted through summer vacation was at its crux. And as teacher work-week elapsed, different Gifted and Talented teachers visited my room, offering me reassurance, reminding me that I wasn’t such a newbie. And then the first day of school arrived. And I survived. I even made it past the second day.
When I came to this specialty center, I was terrified of the change. What I discovered, though, was that coming here was like coming home. The community of teachers, parents, and students created an environment where someone like me, a woman whose childhood superhero was a dolphin, found a place where she fit in, thrived, and excelled.
Seniors, change is upon you. You are standing at that brilliant horizon where you will step over the edge of your recognizable world and pioneer your way into an unknown future. Your next battles will be against the arch-nemeses of deadlines, cafeteria food, and dirty laundry. But if I learned anything from my father in all the hours of fishing, I definitely learned not to be afraid of every dorsal fin in the water.