This is an important speech about staying in school that every parent should read.
We help write a lot of speeches. But few are as important as this one. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Best Man speeches or Maid-of-honor speeches. But this one can turn people’s lives around.
You’ve heard the “stay in school” message for teenagers countless times. This is not a message for teenagers. This is the speech about staying in school that parents should read while their children are still in elementary school. In fact, the earlier the better.
Here’s what Caroline Baez of Youth Enrichment Services had to say on April 27, 2017:
Support your kids to keep them in school
I would like to thank the South Huntington School District, and the Parent University Committee in particular, for having invited me here this evening.
I have been asked to say a few words about staying in school.
About the importance of education.
About the future of your children.
“Stay in school” has become a mantra. It’s motherhood and apple pie. You might think you have heard it all before.
But you haven’t heard my story. You see, there are reasons that people drop out of school.
I work with youth enough to know that they don’t drop out because they are bad or because they are worthless.
They drop out for good reasons.
But there are better reasons to stay in school.
I grew up speaking Spanish. Nada mas. No English. I arrived at school at the tender age of six, hardly able to speak the language.
I was born here. I’m an American. My parents are from Repúplica Dominicana, so I grew up speaking Spanish, in a Spanish household, in a Spanish neighborhood.
I’m sure I’m not the only one.
The school system wanted to put me in special ed classes. They wanted to put me in ESL classes. They wanted to hold me back.
They wanted to delay my education because I didn’t know the English language.
My parents said, “¡De ninguna manera!”
They fought for my right to the same education as other children. And they prevailed.
But I struggled academically.
Not because I was Spanish.
Not because I was dumb.
Because I was classified as dumb.
Teachers can be too busy to bother with the girl who doesn’t speak English. They can easily make assumptions. They can quickly start treating you like you’re stupid.
Guess what happens when teachers treat you like you’re stupid?
You start to believe it.
I was “dumb”. It was instilled in me early in school.
But my parents stood up for me, year after year, and I made it through.
A student’s career rushes through so many phases so quickly. Problems can arise at every phase. In middle school, it was bullying.
At age 12, I enrolled in modeling classes. There are two things they teach you in modeling school.
They teach you confidence, and they teach you style.
They don’t teach you about bullying. They don’t tell you that if you are a girl with confidence, you will be bullied.
They don’t tell you that if you enjoy style too much, you will be bullied.
They don’t tell you that if you stand out in any way, you could be bullied.
It began in middle school and it continued all the way through high school. Once there’s a target on your back, it’s hard to shake.
Has anybody here ever been bullied? Don’t put up your hands. We don’t need to know. It’s tough enough to be bullied; it’s tougher still to talk about it.
I was aching. Yes, I was in physical pain. If you’ve never been bullied, you don’t know just how much words and taunts can hurt. Even physically.
And when the words don’t hurt enough, I was also beat up. Pretty bad, in fact – right in front of my home.
I was so depressed.
I didn’t want to live anymore.
You are looking at a suicide statistic that somehow didn’t happen. Not this time.
I stopped going to school. I was afraid…you would be, too.
How does one get up in the morning to face a day of bullying?
As I said earlier, there are good reasons kids drop out.
My parents fought for me. They rallied in front of the school. They planted signs in the school lawn. They tried in vain to get me transferred to another school.
It was as if the system wanted to beat me down.
Every time I tried to express my anger – yes, I had a lot of it – I was shut down. My parents would walk into the administrator’s office, and right away it was:
“Oh, Carolyn is making excuses not to go to school. The bullying is not so bad.”
But my dear parents never – never! – gave up.
Finally, they managed to convince the school district to bring in a prevention program. They brought in SPARK.
A guidance counsellor ran the program. It brought the bullies and the victims together. It helped us all understand bullying better.
And the bullying actually stopped.
I returned to school. I was no longer afraid.
But guess what?
I had a lot of catching up to do.
I went to school.
I went to night school.
I went to summer school.
After wall-to-wall-to-wall school, you would think that I would have hated school, by then.
I didn’t. You see, I graduated on time.
Was I proud? You bet.
Was I happy? You bet.
Was I relieved? You bet…probably most of all.
Why didn’t I quit?
But then I had to face college.
Well, not really. I could have called it quits. I could have said, “That’s enough Hell for now, thank you very much.”
Many kids would call it quits. Can you blame them?
But after somehow managing to avoid becoming a suicide statistic and a drop-out statistic, I was not about to give up at this point.
So I decided to tough it out for four more years of Hell.
I was terrified walking into the academic advisor’s office at SUNY in Old Westbury.
But a funny thing happened when I stepped into Hell.
It wasn’t red.
It wasn’t hot.
It wasn’t Hell.
The first thing the academic advisor did was listen to me. She really listened.
She immediately could tell that I was animated and well spoken, that I might have a gift for public speaking. She recommended that I take that class.
She listened to my story. She listened to my dreams and my goals. She didn’t shut me down.
What was it? What was it? It was respect!
I think this was the first time I had ever felt respect from the educational system.
My academic advisor mentored me, and most of all, she believed in me.
Yes, she believed in me.
Every child, every adult, everybody needs somebody to believe in them.
Thank God I had my parents, because my teachers didn’t believe in me.
But at SUNY, there were people who believed in me.
I found something magical there. Classmates and professors listened to each other. They valued each other’s opinion.
This was new to me, and you know what? I kind of liked it.
But I should not have had to wait for college to get respect. I should not have had to wait for college to find people who believed in me.
Every teacher, at every level, should believe in every single child. No exceptions.
Your children are so much more than what their teachers see. So much more than what their teachers could ever see.
They need to be believed in.
In America, education is a right, not a privilege. I could have been driven away from my right. I wasn’t.
But many are.
Maybe some of your children will be driven away. Maybe some of them will quit for a good reason. Maybe some will give up on school because their teachers gave up on them.
My parents didn’t give up on me. That’s why I am able to stand before you today.
Don’t give up on your children and don’t give up on their right to a good education. It’s important.
It’s important. Do you know why?
Because your children are important. And because education is important to them.
I can’t tell you about your children. But I can tell you a thing or two about education.
I would like to introduce you to a couple of my role models. Your children will have to find their own. But I’ve dug into my own culture for these.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
He was born over 200 years ago. He was an Argentinian author and intellectual.
Did I mention that my degree is in Hispanic literature, language and culture, as well as in secondary education? Yes, I have a passion for culture, and Sarmiento is a cultural hero.
Back then, Latin America was very much an outpost of Spain.
But he had a greater vision. He saw a future where Latin America could stand on its own feet. Still with ties to Spain, but standing on its own feet.
He fought for education.
He knew education would mean strong institutions.
He knew education would mean a strong society.
He knew education would mean strong people. Free people. Happy people.
He was influenced by life in the Pampas.
I don’t know how many people here know about Argentina, but the Pampas was a bit like the American West.
It was wild, and it was somewhat barbaric.
Sarmiento worried that without better education, violence would continue and it would be easy for dictators to take control.
Look up his Facundo o Civilizacion y Barbarie for a little light bedtime reading.
Sarmiento lobbied for a strong education system. This would make Latin American democracies into advanced civilizations.
This would make us free thinkers.
This would make us ready to play a role in the world.
There is no reason why your children can’t take their place in the world, too.
It’s not about money.
It’s not about heritage.
It’s about education. It’s about somebody believing in them. It’s about giving them a chance to excel.
Pedro Henríquez Ureña.
The other role model I want to mention briefly is Pedro Henríquez Ureña.
He was from the Dominican Republic, like my parents.
He felt so strongly about the importance of literacy – of reading and writing – that he wanted to create a new world of Latin American culture:
- new language
- new literature
- new art
- new poetry
His light bedtime reading is Seis ensayos en busca de nuestra expression.
Did you know that the university in the Dominican Republic is named after him? Universidad Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña.
Maybe someday a university or school or something else will be named after one of your children. You never know.
Alexander Hamilton was born to squalor in the Caribbean. Some of you might have heard of him.
The biggest box office hit ever on Broadway is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: an American Musical
He was an immigrant.
He was poor.
He was an orphan.
But look what he did. Here’s a short list:
He founded the first bank in New York.
He founded the American Treasury.
He founded the Coast Guard.
He founded the New York Post.
Most people don’t know this, but he founded the first industrial town in North America: Patterson, New Jersey.
He led the charge that won the Revolutionary War.
He was George Washington’s ghostwriter.
He set judicial precedents as a lawyer.
He wrote the essays that helped pass the US Constitution. To this day, judges still go back to his essays to decide what the Constitution actually means.
And his name in on the Constitution.
His face is on the ten dollar bill. Take one out now. Take a look.
Does anybody have a ten dollar bill, so we can all see?
You are looking at a man who fought against slavery and for a strong country. Miranda, in his musical, asks:
How does a bastard, orphan…grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Then he answers his own question:
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
The man was non-stop. He kept reading. He kept writing. Education was his life.
I am not saying that everybody who reads and writes a lot will get their face on your ten dollar bills.
But that’s an immigrant orphan’s face you are staring at. A man that some of the hoity toity upper class refused to let in their houses, even after becoming one of the most important men in society.
And he did all that.
What’s a parent to do?
Our children can be just as amazing in their own way if we give them the chance.
Will you give them the chance?
You can’t count on teachers.
You can’t count on principals.
I pray that each of you may be lucky enough to have teachers who care about your children – teachers who draw forth their joy, their spark, their potential.
But you can’t count on them.
There is somebody you can count on, though.
You can count on you.
Can your kids count on you, too?
Life goes by fast. Life is busy. Kids grow up quickly.
Whatever else is going on in your life, the good, the bad and the busy, your kids need you to believe in them.
They need you to fight for them.
They need you to do what my parents did for me. They never gave up on me.
I’m no Einstein. I’m no Sarmiento or Ureña or Miranda or Hamilton. But I’ll do some great things in my life. I know I will. I feel like I already have, working with disadvantaged and disabled children.
And I plan to do more. Because I had parents who believed and fought for me and my education.
I’d like you to do three things for your children – three things that will seal their future.
You can write down this list, if you like.
First, I want you to believe in them. Believe with all your heart. Believe with all your soul.
Your kids are amazing. They have greatness in them. Help them find it.
Second, I want you to respect them.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ground them when they misbehave.
But listen to what they have to say. Listen to their dreams. Listen to who they are and who they want to be.
Don’t shut down their dreams, even if they seem ridiculous. There are enough people out there who will shut them down, believe me.
What they need from you is respect and support.
That’s the third thing. Support.
If somebody is trampling on their rights. If they are being bullied. If the system is passing them over.
Do whatever it takes to support them. Even if you lose, they will at least know that they have somebody on their side.
I have my story. And I am pleased to have been able to share it with you today.
Each of your children has his or her story, too. That story is still being written. You are helping to write it.
I hope that 10 or 20 years from now, I can hear some of those stories. I hope that I can hear stories of success, stories of overcoming the walls people throw up.
Most of all, I hope to hear stories of parents who made a difference.