Let's Change Education

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Brilliance: Project 180, Day 160

So many great moments yesterday. I want to share two.

For the speeches, the kids had to select an injustice to address. We loosely defined injustice as a wrong to be righted. It could be personal or universal, past or present. The kids then had to prepare and present a speech. And while the text of their speech certainly carries some significance, in truth the primary purpose of the task is to get kids to step up to the podium, face their fears of public speaking, and say something–to be a voice, to be heard. Yesterday, two kids’ voices in particular still reverberate and echo in my mind. They spoke. We listened. I can still hear them. They became voices in our little speck of the vast universe. Bright lights in endless space.

Dylan. All spring long in practice, he has struggled to face his fear of speaking. And yesterday–the day–he stood atop a precipice, and for one brief frozen moment, I thought he wasn’t going to be able to muster the courage, but as time resumed, he leaned into his first step and made his way to the podium. But even then, deep breaths and head shakes beset him, and I grimaced, willing him strength with nods of reassurance. And then the chorus began. “You got this, Dylan. You got this.” His peers, his community, hoisted him up, smiling and nodding. And then, he took one final breath, opened his mouth, and a masterpiece tumbled out. He not only did it; he did it beautifully. Truly. He spoke of the injustice of poor parenting in our society, calling on his peers to take the charge seriously when their time came. Such a wise young man, a young man I have gotten to know through his masterful essays this year, a young man who found his voice yesterday. Moment indeed.

Haley. Haley’s entire speech is below. She gave me permission to publish it this morning. To begin, Haley is perhaps the most obnoxiously optimistic, genuinely gregarious person I know. Her infectious smile and attitude extend as infinitely as her long blonde curls. She is such a force. She does not make an impression. She is an impression. As such, she has made a huge impact on me this year, and I have gotten to know her quite well. But, as I learned yesterday, I didn’t know her as well as I thought. None of us did. Out of trust, as she intimated in the preface to her speech, she shared a deep, personal part of herself, calling attention to the injustice of the quick labels that we place on the people around us without ever really getting to know them. She also invited mom to class. Who does that? Haley. Only Haley.

And so, with mom, a few friends, and another teacher as part of her entourage in the audience, she stepped to the podium, smiled her impossible smile and spoke to the world. And for four minutes, we all sat in wonder as we witnessed a masterful, beautiful performance from the young lady we all thought we knew. Truly a momentous moment. My heart soared for Haley. It soared for kids. It soared for humanity. Kids are truly amazing. Truly.

Happy Friday, all. More speeches today. More brilliant lights. Lucky man.

Who am I? (pause) The goofy, tall, blonde haired girl who can not stop smiling. (pause)

Smiling every day. Rain or sun. Monday or Friday. (pause) Even on the days where I forgot to

brush my teeth, you will still see that smile stretching from ear to ear. (pause)

But a smile is merely just a sticker placed on the face. (pause) A bit of cover up to hide the pain. (pause)

Many of you may or may not have already created this assumption of what my life may look like.

While I don’t know what that picture you have painted in your mind for me is, I do know that it is probably all wrong.

So, instead of letting you think that I am a teenage girl with a great life and all rainbows and unicorn frapuccinos, let me give you just a small glimpse into my past.

As a child I went through many things children are not suppose to go through. (pause)

While some children were out playing with their daddies, I didn’t see my “daddy”. (pause)  

Some may have been picking around their dinner wishing it was something else, while my mother would go without dinner in order to make sure I got something to eat.

For some, the smell of their grandma’s perfume filled their noses, for me, the smell of cigarette smoke crawled into my nostrils.

For some, birthdays were the best day of the year. For me, it was a reminder that I was the result of a teenage romance gone wrong. (pause)

For most children the the most painful thing they experienced was falling and scraping their knee.

My biggest pain was not my loneliness, or even my broken heart.(pause)

My biggest pain was listening to my mother cry and cry at night when no one was around. (pause)

The sound of her cry still lingers in my head. I will never get it out. It is stuck in there like glue.(pause)

The day we left was the greatest decision my mom ever made. My “daddy” didn’t agree.

As he grabbed my mother’s arm so hard it broke, the idea of never getting out of there seemed so real.

Grabbing her purse, choking her, ripping me out of her arms. There was nothing she could do to make it stop.

I screamed and reached for her. I wanted my mommy. (pause)

I do not know why….but…. I do know that it is by God’s grace that my mother and I are together today.

The sound of my screaming must have been the only thing that stopped this man from going any further.

Somehow in that moment of anger, the man whom I called daddy all my life became a man to fear.  (pause)

My childhood is merely stories, not memories. (pause)They have begun to disappear.

Unfortunately all I feel and remember is pain. Maybe it is because I don’t want to remember, or maybe I really cannot remember.

The small amount of memories I do remember are not ones that I like to think about; however, they are what make me who I am today.

I am not up here today to seek sympathy from all of you. Everyone goes through crap, and the crap I went through is not even close to the amount of crap some kiddos have been through. (pause)

I share these things with you in order for you all to see that behind the curls and pale skin lays a strong, confident girl who won’t let her past define her. (pause)

So when I ask “who am I”, the answer is Haley Rae Pemberton. (pause)

The goofy, tall, blonde haired girl who cannot stop smiling. (pause)

But now you know that smile represents something more. (pause)

I am not just a goofy, tall, blonde haired girl, but I am a broken, and damaged little girl.

I have been through a lot, and I have more to me than just that girl who is always happy.

That smile represents life. (pause) It represents my triumph.(pause) It represents how lucky I am to be here in front of you, living a healthy and lovely life. (pause)

We all have a story. (pause)

Tate is so much more than just the rodeo girl.

Luke is more than just the tall athletic guy.

Walter has more to him than just his humor.

Believe it or not, but even my bio dad had a long story of pain and suffering behind that drug-addicted, abusive face I grew up knowing.(pause)

We all have something behind the image that we work so hard to create for our peers.

For all you know the girl sitting right next to you could have been abused and beaten as a child and ripped out of her own home to go live with strangers. (pause)

Or the boy you pass by in the hall who is always wearing a black sweater with his head down, is shamed at home for his “lack” of manliness.

Our peers could be starving, harming themselves, abused, in pain.(pause) But we would never know because we don’t bother to get to know the real human beings that they are.(pause)

Unfortunately so many people these days go through this kind of thing.

They get a label from someone who doesn’t even know them that sticks with them whether they like it or not.

I stand here today in front of you with no smile. No cover up. No hiding.  Here I am. (pause)

This is the part where I say we should stop labeling and figure our lives out and yada yada. But this time I leave you with this one idea. (pause)

Before we fill out the name tag for another person, let’s take a step back and have a little sympathy for our peers.

I am not going to say we need to go out and get to know the personal side of every single person in this school.

But can we come together to be less quick to hand out a label to a person and instead give out smiles and high fives and compliments. (pause)

Because for all we know the Regina George of the school could be painting on a smile everyday to hide the pain no one knows about.  Thank you.

2 Comments

  1. Touching story. Thanks Monte and Haley.

  2. The social justice in this speech is overwhelming. Very powerful.

    As always, thanks for sharing.

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