It’s Official: I’m my college’s student commencement speaker.
Friday morning, walking to the theatre, I told myself, “Don’t prove to them how badly you want this. They already know. Prove to them how bad it would be if they gave it to someone else.” I was on my way to meet 6 or so judges who would decide which student would be deliver the student commencement speech at my college graduation. I dressed up as though I was graduating. To complete my outfit; I was wearing a white and black flared polka dot dress; I asked a staff member at my school to borrow a graduation cap. I wanted the judges to envision me standing at the podium at commencement in my cap and gown. I wanted them to forget about the other five or so students who had come before me to present their speech. I was the last candidate, and so I knew I had to memorable.
As I stood in the lobby of the theatre, clutching my speech and cap, I rehearsed a few lines. The night before a good friend of mine, who I also call my manager, opened the theatre for me to practice. She stood on the stage with me after pulling out the podium and paced down center. She gave me time to dance. Whenever I’m nervous, I move a part of my body to imaginary music until I feel as though the nerves have fallen to my feet. After a read-through, she helped me add a joke or two and clear up confusing alliterations.
While I rehearsed my speech, my mentor walked out into the lobby. I told him I was nervous and he told me that I should be, but not too much. “Your friends are in there,” he said before walking to the restroom. On his way back, he stood there in his regular collegiate attire, and watched me behind the glass doors where I had moved to practice in solitude. Behind the glass, he said, “You look beautiful,” and smiled. “We’re ready when you are.”
I tried the cap on a few times to see if my hair could fit underneath it. Once I was sure it would, I hid the cap in my folder on top of my speech. My new class dean walked out of the theatre to call me in. I was the last student on the list, a strategic move on my part. It’s either first or last when you want to make a lasting impression. I didn’t know who had gone before me. My friends knew, and offered to share their insider information. Although tempted, I declined. I decided I didn’t need to know who I was up against. I was my competition, and the goal wasn’t to be the best; it was to be the only.
In the theatre, I walked down the aisle. All of the judges turned around. “Your friends are in there,” my mentor had said. He was right. My former class dean was there. Staff and faculty members who I for the most part knew by name smiled back at me. They complimented my wardrobe and I joked about how early it was for me to be up on a Friday morning. As I walked to the podium, I told them I need one thing before delivering my speech. I pulled out the cap and placed it firmly on my head. They all laughed and smiled. I started: “I have dreamt about this moment since I was 13 years old…”
At the end of the speech, I thanked the judges. They all smiled to themselves. They didn’t respond beyond that, so I couldn’t tell if I had moved them or not. I made another joke about not wearing the entire gown for the speech and having to return the cap by 11am. I left the theatre. It was all of matter of time by then, as I would be contacted by email “later in the afternoon.”
When I got the news, I couldn’t move. I wanted to cry but I was in a small dorm room with a friend I barely talked to anymore, a guy I just met, two beloved underclassmen, and a mentor of an alum. So badly, I wanted my girlfriend to be there. I wanted to cry in her arms. Everyone in the room got the idea, as I sat on the bed not moving and just smiling at the computer screen. I went to call my girlfriend, my soul sisters, my sister and her best friend—I texted everyone. I knew there were people screaming for joy in several dorm rooms, in the campus center or in offices at work. I felt the love coming from Boston, New York and Hartford. It was incredible. I had done it. I had done it for her…
In that moment I wondered if my 13-year old self would recognize me now. I doubt it. But I know she would be proud. First, she would wonder how I ended up at a business school, and whether or not I published my first book. She would wonder how late I would come to understand my queerness, and to truly embrace my blackness. She would wonder if I was happy. I wanted to tell her that I was doing this for her. For the girl quietly sobbing into her pillow at night in random New York City homeless shelters. For the girl who felt like she lived in and out a box that moved whenever she had to. For the girl who had big dreams but felt like her gender and her skin color would hurt her chances of making them come true. In a desperate attempt to make her happy I would lay the awards and certificates down by her feet, tell her stories about finding a soul mate and chosen family, take the ideas of skin lightening or nose jobs out of her head, and make her look in the mirror without flinching, crying or averting her gaze. I would admit to her that she was going to make big mistakes that would have her feeling as though there is only one way out; but that there will be so many people there to help pick her up and remind her that life was worth living and fighting for. I would prove to her that she was going to break out of her box; she was going to find a home; and she was going to love herself more and more each day even if she had to become a fighter to do so.
When people tell me, “Well, duh, of course you got it,” in response to everything, every award and acknowledgement, I have been honored with this year alone, I think about her and her dreams and her doubts. I’m always afraid of letting her down or giving her reason to lose hope. I work twice as hard for both of us, and so it’s never an easy and simple feat whenever I put myself out there to be judged. I’m trying to protect her while pushing her to be more than what people have told her she’d be and what she thinks she is. In doing so, I push myself. And now I will be giving us the one thing we’ve always wanted, a chance to be seen and to be heard. A chance to speak.