Our guest blogger is Elliott Witney, who has been School Leader of KIPP Academy in Houston for the past decade, and who is about to take his leadership skills to our partner district, Spring Branch ISD, to help them double their college completion rate in the next five years.
Elliott spoke at our KIPP Houston HS Class of 2012’s graduation, and his speech confirmed for me why we have speakers who are KIPPsters themselves. What an amazing speech –congrats and thank you, Elliott!!!
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Thank you, Jessica. You’re incredible. Thanks also to the KIPP Houston Board, Mike (you can call him Mike now), Paul Castro, Aaron Brenner, Lara Wheatley, Ms. Mohr and Mr. Estrella. Your strong leadership and trailblazing courage continue to hack through dense jungles of worldwide skepticism about what’s possible for ALL our children. To our teachers…there’s nothing harder than teaching. If we could coax Nhan Thai to figure out how to harness the brain power and passion in the first few rows here…we could, well, at least afford a gallon of gas.
To our KIPP alumni, much love and huge respect. And to our parents and families: gracias por el amor y el apoyo a los graduados – a través de largos días, tareas, oportunidades de verano, tráfico en el estacionamiento. KIPP puede pasar factura a una familia. El amor que siente por estos graduados y los sueños que mantiene profundamente en sus corazones acerca de lo que cada uno de estos jóvenes va a hacer en sus vidas… sabemos lo real que es. Sabemos que estás ahí recorriendo mentalmente su álbum de fotos - primeras palabras, el primer paso, primer día de clases, cumpleaños, quinceañeras… Es una locura lo que recordamos de nuestros hijos. El primer recuerdo de mi hija Olivia se encuentra en la sala de partos con su lengua hacia fuera como una lagartija. Esta noche sus familias podrían estar pensando “Ay, mi pequeña lagartija!” Families, thank you for doing everything you have to help your children be here tonight. Getting to college ain’t easy, heck…navigating the parking lot at dismissal isn’t easy.
To our graduates, I’ll be brief; I realize I stand between you and a party. Over the years I’ve gotten to know just about every one of you in some capacity. Leadin’ the school. Teaching. Coaching. Walking the high school halls. I’ve got so many lasting memories of 2012. The MS-150 team. Interviewing Alexis and Gerardo. Ms. Cumbley and Pat King’s stories. Battle of the Bands. Bobby and Tracy at the Poetry Slam. VASE. The trash talk during the World Cup when France lost on a headbutt. 3D basketball beating us in a close game while Mr. Caesar ran up and down the court taunting me with Tiger cheers. And of course David Lara’s black glove and death-defying school bus acrobatics.
Those memories pale in comparison to one. You don’t even know this happened. You were in 6th. It was a tough year for me for a bunch of reasons. Professionally and personally. Obsessed with the movie Gladiator…watching one scene every morning. Which is admittedly kind of strange for a pacifist! In the scene, a grizzled, filthy, and totally serious main character named Maximus – a Roman General ready to lead his troops into a vicious battle against a barbarian horde – stops for a second…and stares at a beautiful bird and smiles. In full battle gear, he finds a moment of happiness. Wiped out from a sweltering soccer practice and physically spent from long days trying to be a better Principal, I had my own bird moment. In the Breezeway, laughing hysterically I saw a few of you – Monica, Steffy, Mendoza, Q. Hearing such hard-working kids laugh changed me. I started thinking about this whole thing – to and through college, climbing the mountain, raising the bar, taking no shortcuts, impossible is nothing, closing the achievement gap. And I remember thinking, “Yeah, all that does matter…and so does happiness. Where’s the happiness in this battle?” We need to see the bird.
So I walked into my office, closed the door and made a list of those moments when I felt my own genuine happiness. I wrote it, read it, and reflected. Of course there were moments with my family and friends. The Cubs actually won a few games that year so a victory ended up on the list. (And I think the White Sox won a few, too.) The rest of it, though, was filled with teaching moments. Teaching someone his first letter sound right under where this stage sits now. Tutoring. Sitting back it was then, thanks to you, that I realized I had to find a way to get back into the classroom somehow the following year. The next morning I asked Ms. Williams if she’d let me teach some of you. She said yes. And I did. Then History with Charles King. And soccer ever since.
2012, you changed my life.
We’ve heard a lot in the media and Hollywood about 2012. Bilquis just referenced it, too. The apocalypse! Rosie joked about it on the soccer team half the season. We teach a song about the end of the world in Songfest – REM’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).” When I think of 2012, I definitely don’t think apocalypse. I do think that tonight marks the end of the world…as we know it.
For at least a few years, this world – KHHS – has been your world. The long days. The bus. The homework. Ricki and Jasmin saying KIPP It Up, Morris’s Popeye’s fried chicken sign. Tonight that world…ends. But it’s not the type of end that turns into defriending people from Facebook.
Tonight and starting in the Fall, your KIPP world ends and you get to join the rest of us as we wage war on injustices in every nook and cranny of the world. Education. Ego. Poverty. Disease. Immorality. Infidelity. AND…people who break up with each other by texting. “OMG we’re done.” Tonight – after your party – you get to start building a better tomorrow.
It would have been really easy for the teachers in these front rows to stop at academics. Goldsbury’s math. Written’s grammar…To leave a lasting imprint on the world during your lifetimes, though, academic skills aren’t enough. This is why we’ve pushed you to wrestle with moral dilemmas that helped each of you figure out for yourself who you are. Are you someone who lies or not? Steals or not? Picks up trash? Holds doors? Expresses thanks to your family and those who have helped you or not? And we’ve tried to open your eyes to some of history’s most hideous horrors, too. Slavery, bigotry, genocide, torture. The types of social injustices that scar families, communities, nations, and continents.
You’ve learned who you are and what needs to be done to build a better tomorrow…And it doesn’t have to be what we’ve done. Soccer players have stopped civil wars. The Innocence Project is ending wrongful imprisonment. Doctors stopped smallpox. Start an art studio, write inspiring folk music, build a soup kitchen. Or as I’ve told Marisol and Suzy, make a billion dollars and give it away. Just do something that makes you happy.
KIPP started in 1994. Lots of you were born in 1994.
1994 was a different time. There wasn’t even email in 1994, and now people check their email in the bathroom. For me, 1994 meant my first year of college. Mine was hard. I wanted to quit. A couple months into it I was failing every single class wondering why the university made such a huge mistake accepting me. Sitting in a dorm, tear-stained eyes, nothing to show for everything I’d done but college debt and immeasurable self-doubt. I picked up a phone to call home. (Holding a fake huge phone with two hands – “This was 1994…we didn’t have cell phones”) “Dad, they made a mistake.” I expected compassion. A Jewish father’s version of pobrecito, or at least an oy vey. Instead, silence. “Hello!? Dad, did you hear me? I’m done.” Silence again. “Remember that time we took you ice skating when you were 5?” “No.” (Ice skating?!) “Well your mother and I watched you on that ice for 45 minutes. You’d stand up, fall down, stand up, fall down. Until you started to skate. You’ve got this.” I don’t know if he said “You’ve got this” but I’ve heard the Lady Kerberos say it so much. Thanks a lot, Jenny Valle!
Last year on Father’s Day – my first as Olivia’s father – I experienced a real end. My own father lay unconscious on a hospital bed – fallen victim to a massive and irreparable heart attack. With Olivia in my arms and my wife by my side I knelt at his bedside, gave him a gentle kiss, said a quiet prayer, and joined my family as we agreed to make that day his last. I miss my father. Not when it’s easy. But in times like 1994. For some of you, your families are where you turn when times get tough. They’ll give you a pobrecita and then they’ll help you back up. A mother or father, a grandmother, an uncle. Maybe a teacher or priest. For all of you, though, you have each other. Although social media has made some around us meaner – bullying all the way into the bedroom – it’s also connected Baylor to Ohio Northern, Southwestern College to the University of St. Thomas.
When you hit the wall, want to quit, or get sucker-punched by the last person you’d ever think would, you’ve got each other to remind you about who you are and what got you here. You’ve got this. We know you’ve got this because like my father watching me get back up when I fell on an ice skating rink, we’ve watched you simply being you.
You’ve run more miles on a court, field, or course than many run in their lives – in the sweltering sun; in the freezing rain. You’ve juggled art, dance, band, SGA, athletics, tough coursework, and scads of other responsibilities…and still found time for your family and faith. You’ve climbed out of holes so deep you could hardly see the light. With shredded knee cartilage, one of you joined a team that rode a bike to Austin to raise money and hope for Multiple Sclerosis. You’ve hopped on planes and trains to travel with a courageous, adventurous spirit – to DC, Utah, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Lancaster County, and the Dominican Republic. You’ve shown honesty, integrity, and a true commitment to do what’s right. In a world rife with deceit and phoniness – even by some of our most celebrated leaders – you’ve spoken the truth to others, to each other, to us. And many of you have dealt with the worst things a kid could face. And you’re here.
You being you is exactly what you’ll continue to do. Tonight marks the end of the world as you know it here, and I feel fine because you being you will build a better tomorrow. Have fun. See the bird in the battle. And laugh the way you always have.
Now I’d like to introduce by far the best Witney on this stage, Ms. Figgy.