Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Things Carried

In the early part of summer, I always look forward to going to Carver HS’s graduation. Technically called The New Schools at Carver, this Title 1 high school in our neighborhood actually consists of four different schools: early college, arts, technology, and health and science research. All four schools combine for one graduation ceremony, with an atmosphere bordering on raucous. We file into a large room at the World Congress Center, filled with chairs and echoing loud with cheering. Jayci asks me if she can stand on her chair to try and see the boys walking in, and I hesitate for only a second before nodding my assent, noticing that basically every folding chair boasts someone standing on top and yelling loudly, snapping pictures and waving signs. I grin, and decline to lumber on top on my own chair, feeling unsteady enough these days without perching on a precarious folding chair. I stand on tip-toes instead, trying to catch a glimpse as the graduates file in, smiling and waving to the crowd.

My favorite part of the ceremony is always the speeches from the valedictorians and salutatorians: eight of them, two from each school. A friend from church sits next to me, and I whisper that last year, at least five of the eight mentioned they had lost a parent. He looks at me disbelievingly, and I nod with eyebrows raised. Their speeches begin, although the chatter around me does not end. I just barely resist the urge to shush loudly. Jayci lays in my lap and I rub her back, hoping she’s not actually sick again though she claims an upset stomach.

The remarkable students who graduated at the top of their respective classes tell stories that make me cringe and occasionally my eyes brim with tears. Two students have immigrated, and they thank their mothers in spanish through tears, translating to the rest of us how hard their mothers worked, how much they sacrificed, how deeply her belief in each carried them through the difficult journey of high school, even after losing a father. One boy jokes about his athletic build after comparing the four years of high school to the four quarters of a basketball game. He ends by declaring himself MVP, and sharing he will be the first in his immediate family to graduate high school, and the first in his extended family to attend college. Two girls are from Africa, and knew little English when they arrived, though their careful diction and perfect heartfelt words reveal barely an accent now. They speak of the American dream their families sought, and how it disappointed, elusive and impossible to attain with odds stacked against them. One by one, the student describe the things they’ve overcome, the lives they watched slip away, the mistakes they made, and the people who believed in them. They talk about making a decision to work harder, and to build their own better future, despite their circumstances.
I, of course, cant help but wonder where they found this elusive resilience. Why some kids choose hard work and academic success as their escape route, over gang-banging or pregnancy. If only we could bottle this mysterious elixir somehow, and administer it to all. The audience applauds their bravery, and murmurs over their achievements. This is the stuff of movies, of Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds. Proof positive that with enough grit and determination, kids at underfunded inner-city schools can make something of themselves. And perhaps even justification, evidence gathered against the rest of the graduates: perhaps they should have just tried harder.

Quintessential American Dream stories. Overcoming the odds by yanking up bootstraps, or Nike shoelaces as-it-goes. The problem, of course, lies in all the ways this dream fails to satisfy finally. That of course we celebrate these remarkable kids, the ones who have shown great courage and wisdom in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. But not at the expense of all the others; because I look at the stage and recognize bleachers chock-full of kids who are, in fact, all quite remarkable. My own graduation seems so paltry in comparison, a smooth ride to the finish line that seemed inevitable rather than hard-won. So cheer louder, I think, celebrate big, and raise banners to the things overcome. Stay raucous and of course you can stand on your chairs, because we are determined to “always try to seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what everybody in poor communities have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it” (Father Greg Boyle).

This Saturday, Adam somehow thought it would be a good idea for to hold our Five8Football championship game and cookout, and then also leave with 50 kids for camp in Missouri immediately afterwards. Needless to say, Saturday was a bit crazy. Beautiful and fun, yes, but also crazy (basically, story of our lives). I watched the boys play against each other in football, while neighbors grilled hotdogs and chickens and smaller kids insisted they could help man the grills. I heard them encouraging each other, teasing each other, and losing with surprising grace. I mingled with parents, and endured lots of folks rubbing my belly and loud cheering when I tell them it’s another boy (what would they have done if I said it was a girl, I wonder). Then I rush to help with check-in for camp, trying to contain children nearly bursting with the excitement over a cross-country bus ride and a week at camp. Containing them is no easy task, and certainly not for the faint of heart. Before long, sweat drips down my legs and I wonder if it was the smartest idea to leave all the teenage boys alone at our house to shower and probably eat all the food they can find.

Finally, the kids all load onto the bus. I watch with a smile, despite my underlying sadness over not getting to be a part of the trip this year. And in each child that climbs aboard, I see potential. Future valedictorians, or future high-school dropouts; but valuable and brimming with promise regardless of the outcome. Because these are the ones who will shape the future, the ones who will fight for reconciliation and learn to climb over all the biggest obstacles. The ones who get to be kids for another week, who will cheer and sing, and eat to their hearts content. I pray for hearts that soften to the bigger dream, not the American dream so much as the God-sized one. The one that promises hope and a future far deeper and wider than a white picket fence and a college education. Adventure and life abundant with grace and joy for every day. Emptying themselves to be filled fuller and loved deeper than they ever imagined.


  1. Man oh man, this one made me weep with Joy! Mostly because I've walked along side three boys who graduated high school this year, in a city where the high school drop out rate for AA boys is near 43% this is something to scream, yell and celebrate and while the rest of the world night not see their potential I do! I see the beauty in being one of the only ones to graduate high school EVER in your family, and while the rest of the world doubts them I believe in them with EVERYTHING in me! That a sneak peek of my soon to be posted blog :)!

    I love you friend!

  2. Potential. Isn't that the most amazing word? I am so thankful for it.

    I love the stories you heard at graduation. I love that you are a part of their lives.

    You show love in so many big and little ways to these children. I am leaving my work desk in about 20 minutes to head to a title 1 school here in Philly. It is big and crowded and dirty. It is filled with chaos.

    There I will meet with a teacher who believes in one of my babies. One of my babies who misses day after day after day of school. One of my babies who doesn't have a mommy at home to cheer him on. One of my babies that thought all was lost.

    But then there was this teacher. This teacher that is changing the world one student at a time.

    I am so grateful.

  3. Yes- hearts to soften enough to hold a God-sized dream.
    I love you so, Becca Stanley.

  4. I love this so much, friend. This is how I feel about our friends in Cambodia and our refugee friends back in Ohio. We want to cheer them on and boost them up, but we want them to know that the regular ol' American Dream is an empty promise. It's all about Jesus. Thanks for living that so beautifully. Love you so, so much!


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