I saw the mother of a young man cry last week.

Her tears weren’t tears of grief and loss.  

Rather, the tracks of her tears captured a story of love, bewilderment, perseverance, disappointment, faith, despair, relief, pride, and thankfulness. 

Why?

Her son had graduated. 

Such a pedestrian sound to this accomplishment: her son had graduated.  

But it’s only pedestrian because high school graduation has become an expected (minimal) norm in our world. 

However, it’s a mistake to assume high school graduation is automatic even in a community such as West Vancouver which boasts a 97% graduation rate.  

Madonna and Child

There’s the perception that all the children in this community will make it, that they all have an easy ride.

Wrong.  

It’s a mistake to assume that the glittering mantle of expensive housing, disposable income, and stable family is the reality for each child.  It’s wrong to assume they will thrive in our high schools.

 

That’s why we have ACCESS.

Located at West Vancouver Secondary School, ACCESS 

“… is an alternate school program designed to provide an opportunity for students who require this unique setting to complete the requirements for high school graduation.

In addition to the basic academic program, ACCESS also provides students with the following opportunities.

    • 10 day Bowron Lakes wilderness experience
    • Participate in various local outdoor activities
    • Access to community youth services
    • Work experience
    • Apprenticeship

Admission is through an interview process…”

The ACCESS grad luncheon this past week was an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of remarkable young people who had done what is expected of many, but which was not a guaranteed outcome for them.

And in a society which increasingly favours conformity and compliance, they did so while holding on to their unique forms of self-expression, their standout personalities, and saying “I’ll do what you ask, but I’m doing it my way”.  

That is strength of character, courage, and conviction.

At ACCESS collaboration is a lifeline.  There’s a dedicated team of teachers and youth workers who guide these students and who are joined by representatives from community partners such as the District of West Vancouver Community Services, the West Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Ambleside Youth Centre, and local businesses.  

In hindsight, maybe the tears of that young man’s mother did denote loss of a kind. They reflected the grief she’s carried with her knowing her son’s journey has been immeasurably tougher than many of his peers.

But there was more in her eyes.

There was joy.  Despite the obstacles, her son had reached this milestone and was publicly recognized for doing so.

There was hope.  Hope that it was, after all, going to be fine.

What more could I ask for than to be associated with a system which provides joy and hope to those who are at risk and vulnerable?  

A system that is not taken in by the appearance of the community’s “perfection”, but which understands that unless our “diamonds in the rough” have a place to call their own, then our claims of excellence will ring hollow.

My remarks to the Sentinel Secondary School graduating class of 2013.  Another version of this presentation was delivered to the Rockridge graduating class on May 17, 2013.  This is a full transcript of my words and as is typical with verbal presentations, adjustments and/or changes may have been made while speaking.

Thank you. Merci. 

I’m so pleased to be here tonight.  Je suis très heureuse d’être ici avec vous ce soir.

On behalf of the West Van Board of Education, my congratulations to all this year’s graduates.  Félicitations! 

I know many of you are wondering who is this talking head and why does she get to speak at my grad?

Well, in the November 2011 municipal elections I and four others were elected by West Van residents to serve as Trustees on the Board of Education.

That means my colleagues and I help to oversee the public education system in our community and that along with your teachers, the staff at the school and the district, parents and yourselves, we have a measure of responsibility and accountability for your education from kindergarten through to Grade 12.

I also happen to be a graduate of school district 45.  

Lions Gate Bridge

Even though I’ve been around the District on and off since I was twelve, and even though I’ve been to Sentinel a number of times, I wanted to get a better feel for the school and its students before I spoke tonight.

I phoned up Principal Mike Finch and asked if we could tour the school together.  And we did.  I got to see some of you at work and some of you at play.  I had a look into many of the classrooms and then I asked Mr. Finch to tell me about you, to tell me about students at Sentinel.

I’m just gonna give you a moment to think about what he told me.  

No, he didn’t say that.  Oh, he’d never say that, would he?  No way. Uhuh.  

What he did tell me is how impressed he has been by the students at Sentinel.  How dedicated you are and how motivated you are to succeed on your own terms whether you’re studying French, pursuing your athletic interests in the academies, or being super achievers.

Barb Sunday, one of your amazing art leaders told me during my visit to the school, that she’d sent off about 50 advanced placement art portfolios for consideration.  50!  And if you stop by the Ferry Building Gallery at the foot of 14th Street, you’ll see some of that art on display.  

What you’ll also see there is the commitment you’ve made to pursuing your passions and the care you’ve taken to excel in the work you do.

And tonight we’re here to celebrate your accomplishments.

For parents, it’s a bittersweet moment, likely tinged with a sense of relief!  Tonight is a chance to celebrate the wonderful individuals you’ve become and yet we also have to be prepared to let you go.

That’s what parents do.  

And like parents, the teachers, the administration, and all the staff of the West Van school district – even Trustees, we all have to do our best to make sure you grads have the skills and talents you need to continue to succeed.  And now you’re moving on.  

But it’s not easy as parents or teachers or administrators to let you go because we know that the journey can sometimes be a challenge.

I would like to share with you some words by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. In his poem on children, he writes:

 Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

As Gibran says, you, our graduates, you live in tomorrow and we are not here to stand in your way.

You’ve worked hard or maybe you haven’t.  You’ve had good days and bad.  You’ve made friends, you’ve lost friends.  You’ve studied, you’ve learned.  You’ve been on a journey and now you’re set for the next stage of life whatever that may be for you.

And what do you need to successfully navigate what’s ahead?

To borrow the words of Canadian musicians David Myles and Classified, you need to embrace your inner ninja.

Be fierce and determined and passionate.  Dream big and take action.

Stand up for yourself.  More importantly, stand up for others.

Stand up for what you believe.  More importantly, be tolerant and allow others to speak up for what they believe.

Stand up for what is right.  More importantly, be open to different views and adjust your ideas if warranted.

And finally, Sentinel grads, take all that we — the community, the school District, the administration, your teachers, and your parents — take all that we have given you, take all that you are, and make the world you are inheriting, make it better.  

Make the world better for you, for me, and for those who have so much less than either of us.

I know you can do it.  I know you can do it.  

Thank you and bonne chance!