Seeking Light in the Shadow of Gun Violence

06/15/2016 03:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Each school year, as my eighth grade middle school English students wind up the year, I write a graduation speech as a sample for students who are working on their own drafts. This year, I kept getting stuck writing, until the night after our eighth grade field trip lined up with an active shooter incident at UCLA. Rather than sending our students off with images of this crisis, I wanted them to walk away ready to tell their stories.

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To our students in the class of 2016,

I have been trying to write this letter to you for the last couple of months. I've started drafts, finished some, and even shared one with you, but here I am, once again, thinking about how to put our year into words.

What is the story of our year together?

At first I thought about writing about feminism, because this year more than any other, we have fierce young women who speak truth to power and I have some young men who have learned about misogyny, privilege, and prejudice, and hopefully have thought about how to be advocates for justice.

I thought about our study of refugees from World War II and the Vietnam War and the current refugee crisis.

I thought about Black History Month and what you taught me about what it means to be an ally.

And I thought about Harper Lee's death and how with her passing we lost a mockingbird who used her voice to give us the story of Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson. I thought about all of the poetry you penned where so many of you found your voice leaving me in awe.

I am writing about all of this, but I'm also writing a new story because now we had field day together.

This year's field day is a day I will always remember. It was a day when all the work we've done together diminished in the face of a crisis.

As we sat together in silence, I called each of your names, or I skimmed over your name
if you weren't on the trip with us, and in the quiet of that room, where the tension was still thick with not knowing, I wanted to say your names over and over again.

I wanted to see each and every one of you. I wanted to hold each of you close and tell you that you were safe, and that I loved you, and your family loved you. And even though I couldn't say it with 100% certainty, I wanted to tell you everything would be okay.

Instead, I simply called your names and hoped.

But that night, after field day, from the safety of my home, I realized we have shared something: we have shared the space of fear. It reminded me of Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien
who wrote about truth and storytelling in The Things They Carried. He said, "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others."

And I think that is why it has been so hard to tell the story of this year because there is so much we have carried together. It is many stories and many truths. We have mourned Johnny and Dally in The Outsiders, and Ha's Papaya Tree in Inside Out and Back Again. In To Kill A Mockingbird, we grieved for Tom Robinson and for Scout's innocence as she stood on the Radley porch on Halloween night.

But more than just reading stories, we shared our own, in essays about poverty and taking a stand and in novels about friendship, family, immigration, and struggle. You have been funny, sentimental, ironic, and profound, and all of these stories have been ours.

Now we have a new story to tell. A shared story. And as each of you leaves for high school, college, and life, so many more stories will unfold for you: stories of perseverance and triumph, love and growth, and sometimes fear and death.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie says, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story, the only story. Stories matter. Many stories matter."

So, as I send you off, as we read your names again, this time in a space of celebration, I hope you will tell your story. I hope you will share your truth. I hope you will use your voice to share your many stories because your story matters. All of your stories matter.

I hope you will use the voice you found this year and that you will sing because the world needs to hear from you. You are our mockingbirds and the world needs your stories.

Tim O'Brien also says, "The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, and hope that others might then dream it along with you." Keep dreaming and your story will follow.