You no doubt have heard and read your share of graduation speeches, but you probably haven’t read or heard one like this.
This extraordinary speech was delivered a few weeks ago by Coral Ortiz, an 18-year-old who just received her diploma from James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn. Hillhouse is the oldest public high school in New Haven. Nearly all of its approximately 1,000 students are minority, and more than half come from low-income families. Its preliminary 2017 graduation rate was reported as 91 percent, up from 80.4 percent in 2016, which was 25 percent higher than in 2012.
Ortiz was a student representative on the New Haven Board of Education and the State Board of Education and is headed to Yale University, where she plans to major in political science and follow her interest in the social sciences. (She was also accepted at Harvard and Brown universities as well as the University of Pennsylvania.)
Ortiz said in an email that her parents, who moved from Puerto Rico to the United States when they were young “to have a better life,” always supported her when she was “down.” Asked about her high school education, she wrote:
In the past four years our education was not often taken seriously and experimented on. Despite these challenges, this year we won three state championships and were able to have one of the biggest graduation rates in the state. The students at my school go through a lot and it is incredible to see them continue working hard to achieve their dreams.
Though graduation season is over, I was just alerted to this speech by Jo Lieb, the author of the Poetic Justice blog. Lieb is an English teacher, writer, poet and education activist.
Here is Coral Ortiz’s speech. Read it and/or watch the video; audience participation was frequent and loud:
Good evening. I would like to start by first and foremost thanking God and every person who helped us to get to where we are today. In particular, thank you to our friends and families who supported us as we worked towards this moment, and who are here supporting us as we graduate. I would like to personally thank my teachers, mentors, counselors, all of my peers and friends. And lastly and most importantly, my family: I could not thank my parents enough for the support they gave me.
I’ve thought a lot about this day; about what I want to say, and what message I want to send. I thought about preparing something different, but as I thought, I decided it was best to share the truth. The truth about what this day actually means. The truth about what we as a class represent.
When we were young, we were taught that we were “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Our country taught us that no matter our income or race, that we would all have the same chance to achieve our dreams. We were taught that there would never be a bias against a certain group of people, and that society believes in each and every one of us.
These lessons of equality were taught as self-evident. These lessons of equality continue to be a lie.
The reality is that our country is not equal [even] when we recite “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” and it has been 50 years since the civil rights movement and our country still continues to not be equal. We — a class mostly made up of minority, low-income and first-generation students — have had the odds stacked against us. But here we are standing at this graduation with three state championships, several college acceptances, and one of the largest increases in graduation rates in the state. Because we didn’t let the inherent inequality stop us from achieving our dreams.
I would be lying if I said today is like any other day, because today is not like any other day. Most importantly, today is not your typical high school graduation. It is more than that.
Today is the day when we walk across a stage and take our diplomas as an act of defiance to those who said we could not. We have had many students, administrators and teachers come and go. We have had heartbreak; we have had our nation turn its backs on us, through supporting those who support hate.
So to those that believed my classmates and I were incapable, I have decided to leave a message for you:
To the teacher who said my classmates and I would fail and that the taxpayers wasted resources on our education — today, we teach you that you were wrong.
To the counselor from outside the school who told me students at this school never get into prestigious colleges — we didn’t let your perception of us define who we are.
To the people who assume we are robbing their stores because of the color of our skin — don’t judge a book by its cover.
To the people who told us that only boys were good at math — girls are more than just pretty faces.
To the people who violated our bodies — no means no.
To the people who questioned our dedication to the things we were involved in — you didn’t see our sleepless nights and three championship trophies.
To the person who believed that our socioeconomic status would define us — you don’t have to be a millionaire to succeed.
To the lady on the bus who told me my peers and I would go to jail because of the high school we attended — we are still free.
To the politicians and corporations who refuse to address gun violence because it might cost them money — life has no price.
To the people who assume that our names are too ghetto to be qualified — our names have taken us to farther places than you could have imagined.
To the leaders who thought it was okay to make decisions that forced us to go to classes without textbooks — it isn’t okay.
To the person who told us we only got into college because we were minorities — the color of our skin does not determine intelligence.
To the people that talked poorly about us in the newspaper — you taught us how to be fearless.
To the people who thought it was okay to experiment with our education — the math of five principals in four years just doesn’t add up.
To the people who want to privatize education — public education is the reason we succeeded.
To the politicians who choose unqualified people to affect our lives because you feel loyal to your party — you did not take a vow to serve a party. You took a vow to serve the people.
To the person who believes my classmates and I are dangerous — we are human.
To the people who told me that my friends and I are not beautiful — black is beautiful.
To those that believed that my peers and I would drop out — today you were proven that you were wrong.
To everyone who voted for hate — love wins.
I could go on for hours talking about the people who defined us as something other than successful. But today is not solely about the obstacles that were placed in front of us.
Today is about the truth. The fact that there were several times people underestimated us and we were able to prove them wrong.
We stand here and grab our diplomas not only as an act of defiance, but also as an act of gratitude. Thankful for the adults that cared, thankful for the teacher that spent hours educating us, thankful for the parents, family members, counselors, friends, politicians, and mentors that believed we could make it to this moment.
We could not have done this without you because it takes a village to raise a child. Despite the fact that our education was treated like an experiment, lacked in resources, and was marked by the presence of people who stopped believing we were capable, we did it.
In six years we went from a 51 percent graduation rate to a 91 percent graduation rate.
Today we acknowledge the fact that our country is not equal and that we have it harder than many other people. We acknowledge that, despite this inequality, we beat the odds. We did it, and now we have the chance to not only reach our own dreams, but also to help others reach theirs.
If we were able to overcome all of these obstacles, then there is nothing that can stop us. No one that can stop us, no dream that we can’t reach, and no adversity that we cannot overcome.
Because in the end, they said we couldn’t, so we did, and when they say we won’t, we will. Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2017.