In preparation for a high school graduation speech, I bought 70 journals and pens from the Dollar store out west off Cicero. I would’ve bought all 70 from Walgreens, but a lady stopped me and said, “You know, those are cheaper across the street at the dollar store.” She was right.
I did end up buying a label maker from Walgreens, though. Later that day, I spent hours inputting and finally printing out the words “My Success Story” and applied the labels to the front cover of all 70 journals. Somewhere around the 46th label, the cartridge ran out of labels, and I had to go to Walmart for refills. In one day, I'd been to the Dollar Store, Walmart, and Walgreens.
Then I spent all night putting the labels on just right. The next morning, I arrived to the gymnasium early and placed a journal on each the high school graduate's seats. I opened my presentation by telling the students to write their names on the cover of the journals and take great notes, because years from now some of them will look back on the lessons I talked about and hopefully they’ll have helped them with family, education, and business, and, just as hopefully, they’ll share their success stories with me. I urged the students to take great notes during my presentations.
The first note that I asked them to take was “If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere in the world!” This has to be true because we see rappers come to Chicago and jump out of their vehicles and start taking selfies and going live, saying, “Look world, I’m in Chicago and I'm walking around. It ain’t so bad here. I’m not even scared; I’m built tough. I walked around in Chicago.”
I told the graduates that these empty displays of bravado are comedy, and they prove my point that Chicago streets breed resiliency. The graduates I spoke to actually walk the streets of Chicago every day and merely walking isn’t enough to earn any stripes. You don’t get a medal for surviving, but it should be noted that every day the graduates all had to order their food through bulletproof glass windows, like it’s regular and routine. German Shepherds sniffed them on the train like it’s regular. Helicopters flew above their homes, like it’s regular. There are liquor stores on every corner, like it’s that way everywhere. Red tape blocks off the streets, like it’s regular. People sleep outside on benches, like it’s regular. This reality isn’t regular. But as I said, if you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere in the world.
I then posed a question to the grads: How come you all made it and nobody else did? How come you all graduated and are walking the stage, and people your same age didn’t make it? The answer to that question is, "Who knows?! The answer is who knows!" I raised my voice and yelled, "Who knows!! Don’t waste time trying to figure that stuff out. You walk into a room with ten people and five people like you but the other five people don’t. Who knows who the five people are who don’t like you. Who knows! Don’t take that class about why people don’t like you. Take the easy route."
I continued, “Some of y’all heard me say take notes and still won’t take them today. Who knows why you won’t take them! I don’t waste time trying to figure that stuff out anymore. Some people will see you graduate high school today, and some people will be proud. Some people will be unhappy. Some people will say, “She thinks she’s better than us. Who knows? The best answer I have is they are the haters and that’s what haters do! Who knows! It’s a mystery!"
I then challenged the students to set big goals for themselves. Long story short, after the presentation and the students moved their graduation tassels from right to left, they were the graduating class of 2018. They accomplished something that isn’t to be taken for granted in a city where only one out of two black males graduate from high school and two out of three black females graduate from high school. There are so many pitfalls in the streets that it’s almost regular to hear the excuse laden stories of dropouts. These graduates defied the odds today. As they got up to leave the gymnasium, about 30 of the 70 graduates just left their journals behind on the gym floor, next to their chairs. I looked on at them while they walked away from the journals I’d spent hours working on. Their names were written on the covers, but they’d left them behind and now those success stories won’t belong to anyone. Maybe it was the excitement of graduating and some of them forgot. Maybe it’s impossible to reach all of them. Who knows! Just proud to have shared some ideas with them on such a big day in their lives.