I always get misty-eyed at graduations, particularly when they involve young African-Americans with all the potential in the world ahead of them. Watching the commencement ceremony of D.C.’s Anacostia Senior High School today at Constitution Hall–packed with excited, cheering family members and featuring First Lady Michelle Obama as the guest speaker–was no exception. Once considered one of the worst schools in the city, with a reputation for violence and poor academic performance, Anacostia began to turn around after its management was taken over by Friendship Public Charter School last September. School attendance is up 20 percent from last year. The graduation rate shot up from 50 percent in 2009 to 79 percent today. Last year only 30 percent of the graduating seniors had plans to attend college–this year 90 percent are college bound. After a student choir performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a speech by valedictorian Jordan Smiley, who will attend Hampton University, and an introduction by graduate Charity Martin, who will attend Bennett College for Women, Mrs. Obama took to the podium amid wild applause. At times during her 30-minute address, her voice wavered and she appeared to fight back tears, as she passionately conveyed to Anacostia’s Class of 2010 how proud she was, and how endless their possibilities are if they ignore doubters and stay focused. Here are a few excerpts: “Maybe you feel like no one has your back, like you’ve been let down by people so many times that you’ve stopped believing in yourself. Maybe you feel like your destiny was written the day you were born and you ought to just rein in your hopes and scale back your dreams. But if any of you are thinking that way, I’m here to tell you, stop it. Don’t do that. Don’t ever scale back your dreams. And don’t ever set limits on what you can achieve.” “Part of being a mature and functioning adult in this society is realizing that life is a series of tradeoffs. If you want a career that pays a good salary, then you have to work hard. You’ve got to be on time; you’ve got to finish what you start; you have to always keep your word. If you want a life free from drama, then you can’t hang out with people who thrive on drama. You have to pick your friends wisely–surround yourself with people who share your values and your goals.” “Growing up, there were plenty of times that I doubted my capabilities, and those doubts were fueled by a lot of people around me. Kids teasing me when I studied hard. Teachers telling me not to reach too high because my test scores weren’t good enough. Folks making it clear with what they said–or didn’t say–that success wasn’t meant for a little girl like me from the South Side of Chicago. But let me tell you something, something else I can remember. I remember my mom pushing me and my brother to do things she’d never done herself; things she’d been afraid to do herself. What I can remember is my father getting up every day and going to work at the water filtration plant, even after he was diagnosed with MS, even after it got hard for him to button his shirt, and to get up and walk.I remember my parents sacrificing for us, pouring everything they had into us, being there for us, encouraging us to reach for a life they never knew. And it’s because of them and because of the support I got from teachers and mentors that I am standing here today.” “I believe in you. The President of the United States of America believes in you. When times are hard for us, you inspire us. You keep us going. And we are expecting big things from you in the years to come. …We are expecting you not only to claim your own destiny, but to help others across Anacostia, across D.C., across America claim theirs. And we are confident that what you’ll do is exactly that. We know that you’ll make us proud–because you already have.”
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