Thursday, July 17, 2014

Primi Akhtar’s Valedictory Address, Queens Metropolitan High School, June 2014

I dare anyone to meet 18-year old Primi and not have enormous hope for the future. Primi is a founding member of NYC Student Union (and my adopted granddaughter) and she just graduated and will be going to Columbia. Does this age her out of the high school based Student Union? She will still be involved, though I imagine she will be raising some hell in college.

Jeff Kaufman sent this in. His wife was one of Primi's proud teachers and advisers.

Primi Akhtar’s Valedictory Address, Queens Metropolitan High School, June 2014

Welcome Class of 2014, teachers, staff, beloved supporters.

There are not enough “thank yous” to give out right now. I am really grateful to have known such amazing, talented, bright people. To each and every one of you- thank you for being the weird you that you are.

But there’s someone special who I always wanted to thank: and that’s my mother- the one who would yank blankets off me, set alarms at 6AM, and walk me to school since I was 5 years old. She was my first teacher, really. And of course, she would nourish me, with the best Bengali food ever. I would also like thank all those who have also sustained us and driven us to be who we are today-- our ancestors with their stories of struggle, our parents who work every day, our mentors and educators who guide us through compassion, farmers who cultivate our food and all the people that have labored to allow us the privilege to be here today.

So let’s give it up for them! It’s important to acknowledge how hard our people are working in hopes of a brighter tomorrow, and how we must work harder for that future that is more sustainable, humane, and of course... loving.

Those of you who know me, know that I don’t follow rules (well, for the most part). I know you are expecting a speech, but I will not give a speech today. Instead, I would like to send out my welcome, my gratitude, and my love through poetry.

But I need your help. When I say, “I’ll let them know” you respond with “I am”. “I am” is not me alone...but it’s us. We’ll do this together- a call and response. The synching may be tough, but we’ve been together for 4 years, so I think y’all will get it.

Let’s begin, and hopefully you’ll remember this one… 

I am.

Last year,
I chopped off my hair
In a Queens barber shop, under the 7 train. I remember wet clumps of my hair hitting the porcelain floors, my heart beating as though it wanted to run somewhere safe from the predictable fury of my mother.
Did you ever feel so scared, but so free? I felt like that, every time I cut it again, and again.
The following day,
Alisher noted I looked like Gandhi,
Others were shocked that I had the guts to go that far,
In a world that constantly wants to define us,
mold us to their shapes so we fit to what makes others comfortable.
I want you to look in the mirror and say to yourself.

I’ll let the world know!
I am.

Not defined by these norms and numbers, branded clothes, dollar bills and diplomas, that tell me I’m not great enough
That when I am seated in a classroom that bears a silence, as pencils circle in bubbles, forced to pick between five choices- I think for myself.  
I will always be more than what you’ve calculated of my worth. I won’t let you define me by society's standards of worthy...because
I’ll let the world know!
I am ---beautiful, different, boundless.

I’ll let the world know!
I am
not going to sit quietly. And place my hand in my lap in fear that what I have to say is not correct. Because if I do speak up, these words will uplift the fragile hearts of others to stand up, to move forward, to no longer carry the burden of the world on their own.

I’ll let the world know!
I am
not going to die never knowing who I am, and settle with this overall ability to sit quietly and never question, and let my fear stop me from creating something new and beautiful.
And keep falling under unreasonable expectations, causing my true self to wither away in efforts to blossom in society’s standard of “success”.

I’ll let the world know!
I am  
not what you think I am. These labels that say men are not suppose to cry, women are too hormonal to make reasonable decisions, that only a handful are smart because they pass these exams that everyone else  “fails”. That I must conform to straightness, because any other way is disgusting and wrong. I am told that this generation is “Worse than the last”-- even though I was born into a world where mistakes deem imprisonment, while steel bars and scantrons, stand in the way of my actual growth. Despite being boxed into prepackaged ideas and values, I will not be who you want me to be.

I’ll let world know
I am
going to discover my true self and discover our power as individuals, as youth, as a unified collective, not competing, not dividing ourselves by these digits, dollar bills, and diplomas.

And I am
going to define myself,
push against these walls
that box us, make us smaller, to fit into society’s ideals

And as I stand here as the epitome of that ideal student,
who represents high averages and test scores,
I am going to
speak up, and name what I am:
powerful, different, resilient.
And I dare you-- to put behind your insecurities, and name what you are!

And if there’s one message I can give to humanity,
it’s that we, must live where we fear to live.
Abandoning our insecurities in search of something more
and only then, will we be infinite in our worth, in our power, in our love.
and maybe beyond.

                                                                                    -Primi Akhtar
                                                                                    from her Valedictory Address
                                                                                    Queens Metropolitan High School
                                                                                    June 2014

Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2014!

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