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Graduation Speech: Students, you are the fire of the world

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05 July 2024 133 hits

The following excerpted speech was given at graduation in a Black working-class school where a former student Claude* was killed in the streets of Brooklyn capitalism. For a year, students have been fighting to keep his memory alive in the face of multiple memorial tear-downs by the school administration (see CHALLENGE . This speech was originally adapted from a comrade’s 2020 speech. While it’s a different school with a  different scenario, the essence of the message is the same. 

…You started out as tiny boxes on a zoom…You grew from little pixels to full humans…You have endured so much to get here, to survive here, but the struggle is just getting started…And I want to leave you with some words to live by... 

Never forget—you are the light, the glimmer, the fire. Nothing exemplifies your character more than how the class of 2024 responded to Claude’s death… 

You proved what we’ve known to be true all along—that Claude’s life matters, that no kid is expendable, that when young people unite, their voices will be heard. That the very system that kills kids in the streets is the same system that kills kids overseas.

Looking at where our society is today—I’m sorry we haven’t done enough to make this a world that deserves you. 

The society you are inheriting is one of crisis and war. It's like a sunken place that tries to consume you in its darkness and lies. We live in a world where it’s “normal” to commit genocide, but it’s “unreasonable” to remember the dead. Too often, we are too quiet, too cold, too cool. This world tries to bury us. 

Bury us with passivity.

Bury us with deportations. 

Bury us with racism and sexism. 

But there’s one thing that can never be buried—your light. 

In all of us, there are always two competing forces, and you'll need to choose which side will win out for you. Class of 2024, choose life because you are the fire of the world.

So, when you get to college and they tell you that class is too difficult for you, or no one did that before, or you are going to fail, prove them wrong—take that class, get that A, show them you’re the glimmer! Blaze that trail! 

So, when you go to the military or your job and you witness injustice but they tell you to just shut up and take it, shut that idea down, show them you are the glimmer. 

When they tell the victim-blame the latest target of street or racist violence and tell you to go on like it’s business as usual-REJECT that. Disrupt the flow, go to the rally, START the march, show them you’re the glimmer! 

When they tell you to look out only for yourself, REJECT that. Take time to connect with someone who feels isolated in our society, show them you’re the light! 

When they tell you, “Oh you are too much or not enough,” hun, you are just right. Life is too short to play it safe, too precious to get swallowed up in anxiety or frozen up in shame. Take that leap...Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Live your life. Light the way!

When they tell you it’s natural to live in a segregated society—black here, white there—break the mold.  Live an integrated life, fight for an integrated college, an integrated workspace, and an integrated circle of family and friends, show them you’re the light!

When they try to tell you who it’s okay/not okay to love or be with, show them you’re the light!

When they try to tell you who belongs on this stolen land, shut that down.  Show them you’re the light! 

When they tell you to stay in a woman’s place or man up because men don’t cry, shut that down! Show them you’re the fire!

When they try to underestimate your power, your intelligence, your heart—show them you’re the light! You are braver than you believe, you are stronger than you know. Don’t let anyone steal your glow.

Now, if you do this by yourself—you will get burned out. Alone, you are one flickering flame. Together, we spread like wildfire. 

Class of 2024—never forget—you have a part to play because you are the light of the world. More than ever, this world needs you. Go on and be fire! 

Many family members, students, and staff approached me after the speech with the same sentiment: “you spoke the truth” and “thank you for saying that.” A handful of staff joined me in wearing “We will remember [Claude]” stickers on our chest. Remembering Claude has been an ongoing political campaign of sorts in this school building, and saying goodbye to the senior class on this antiracist note felt like the correct thing to do. It sets us up to continue building relationships on a political basis. In fact, a few graduates reached out the next day and asked to be invited to future political events. One took copies of CHALLENGE. 

**The pseudonym Claude is inspired by the Black communist fighter-writer, Claude Mckay.