Alisal High School: 2015 Baccalaureate Speech

Alisal High School Baccalaureate Speech                                                                                       26 May 2015

As you know, God did not make us all the same. Some people are short, some people are tall, some are quick, and others slow, some are smart and so on. God also did not put us in the same situations, under the same circumstances. Some people are poor, others rich. Some people sleep on sidewalks, while others sleep on beds. Some people have enough to eat; others don’t. Now, these things may seem obvious to you. After all, we come across these images every day. But what may not be obvious to you is this: God made us all the same in one aspect. God has given everybody, including each of you in this church, the opportunity to make the most of our situations and our circumstances, and if you look closely and without judgement, you will see this all around you. In fact, many of you, by being here right now, are in the midst of making the most out of your own situations. You’ve earned the right to be here. Others in this room may be only just realizing their potential, and some of you might be a little lost, but whatever the case may be, you have a major challenge ahead of you,  and it will continue to be your biggest challenge as you blaze through life. Your challenge is to find success by making the most out of your situations and circumstances!

Your parents are living proof of this model of success! You know where your parents have come from; you know what they’ve gone through and home much they’ve suffered. And now their sons and daughters are about to graduate from high school! This accomplishment, to your parents, is one example of their success, and so I congratulate all your parents! Felicidades a todos los padres! As for me, I don’t need anyone to tell me that I’m successful. I know I am, and I will continue to be the only person to whom I have to prove this. Only we, ourselves, can be the judges of our success, because only we know if we have truly done our best to be successful.

I remember going to the market with my mom when I was a kid, and I remember my mom paying for our groceries with the colored food stamps we received from the government. I will never forget this. I also remember, at the age of seven, dragging home a metal trashcan filled with tortillas that our neighbor left behind when he moved. He was a tortillero, and the packets were leftovers. It was exciting to find those tortillas because I knew my mom would be happy, and she was. But even at seven-years-old, I had an idea that my life could be better. I intended to make the most of my circumstances. And now I find myself here with you, in this church, speaking to Alisal High School’s newest graduates, and I wouldn’t’ want to be anywhere else right now. To me, this is success. I don’t care if it isn’t to anyone else.

Now, if what I say about success is true, then the opposite must be true, too, and it is this: you will not find success if you do not make the most of your situations. In my ten years at Alisal, I’ve seen many students squander what they have. Many of these students were born in the United States, they speak English, they can get jobs, and they don’t have to worry about being separated from their families. In short, they possess the very things that many other students at Alisal wish they had. And yet these students with these great opportunities waste them. They don’t graduate or they get horrible grades and they don’t care for learning. And then I see Jaime and Maria and Martha, hard working students, and I know that they would die to have what these kids are wasting away. Sometimes life isn’t fair, though. So do yourselves a favor and go out and find your personal success by making the most of what you have been given. In doing so, you will suffer a great deal, as your parents have, and you will make many mistakes, as your parents have. There is no doubt about it. But you must make mistakes, many mistakes, and you must suffer, sometimes immensely, because only then will you be able to enjoy the fruit and beautiful memories that your suffering will produce for you. Congratulations, Class of 2015, and thank you for this honor. I love you, guys! Be safe! Go, Trojans!

A Decade at Alisal High School

On May 29, 2015, I will have completed my tenth-year as a teacher at Alisal High School, and I have to say that it’s been a fruitful time, a decade filled with unparalleled opportunity, growth, and comedy. Throughout my ongoing, seventeen-year teaching career, I’ve taught at a handful of high schools and colleges in the Los Angeles area, but I found my niche at Alisal High School, and it’s at Alisal where I have realized the greatest and most significant accomplishments of my teaching career.

I was hired as an eleventh grade English teacher at Alisal in 2004, and I remained an English teacher for the following eight-years. Then in 2013-2014, my teaching assignment changed, and I made the switch from the English Department to the Opportunity Program, an educational program specifically designed for at-risk students at Alisal High School. It was a voluntary move, a decision I do not regret, and one which has re-introduced my career to new levels of growth, experience, and humor.

Teaching at Alisal has made me a stronger and wiser person, and I owe this combination of growth to the nearly 2000 students of whom I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, or not teaching, depending on who you ask. I still remain in contact with many former students. Social media has kept us connected, but I also come across many ex-students at the movie theaters, farmers’ markets, restaurants, parks, and soccer fields throughout Monterey County, and it’s always a pleasure to see how much they’ve grown and transformed. Some of them are now married with children, barreling head-on through life, experiencing the wisdom and pain of adulthood. I can’t help but laugh when I see that they are now part of the very life cycle that they rebelled against when they were students, and that many, now, have become exact replicas of their parents, something they swore would never happen.

Alisal High School has also helped me forge an everlasting relationship with East Salinas, the “Mexican” side of the larger city of Salinas. It’s a tarnished part of town, off and on one of the most violent cities in the United States, per capita. Nevertheless, the town’s collective spirit is strong. Coming from Los Angeles, a city of 18 million people, to a small agricultural town of 150,000 people, took some getting used to, but I knew I had to acquaint myself with the city and its people if I was to have any hopes of being successful as a teacher at Alisal High.  I did, and my efforts have helped me achieve good things.

Those familiar with East Salinas know that it prides itself on its rough exterior and gritty work ethic. It could be an intimidating place on the surface, but those with patience and discernment, those who dare to look past the city’s deceptive shell, will find that the lifelong residents of East Salinas stand firmly behind their tiny corner of the world, and that these residents are brimming with the same love and kindness and understanding found in any other corner of the world. The people of East Salinas are a mostly open group, too, willing to share their stories and their origins, something they do so with intense passion. This openness made life easy for an outsider like me, because all that was necessary of me was to listen. Ultimately, listening to my students’ stories, listening to the many stories and voices of everyone I came in contact with, listening intently and inwardly, without judgement, has been one my most powerful teaching skills. The art of listening has proven more valuable to me than any teacher’s manual or college course could ever be.

The other tool in my teaching arsenal is something a little easier to come by: the art of smiling. In East Salinas, a smile and handshake can take you a long way. It’s a magical combination, but there is no magic to it. It is part of the simple formula for success—listening and smiling—but a lot of people are afraid to smile, afraid of what they don’t understand, and many, it turns out, don’t understand East Salinas. They’re intimidated by the stories they’ve heard and what the media portrays. They don’t take the time to experience the city for themselves. Many find it difficult to look past East Salinas’ exterior, and so the city remains shrouded in an unwarranted, unideal reputation, and these reputations, as we know, are difficult to shake.

You’re Gonna Die