This is our first post in our Summer Fellow's Final Reflections series in which Fellows look back on their year and share what they learned. Our first post focuses on Jesse's story, who will be continuing his education at Arcadia University with hopes of becoming a high school principal. 

It was around Thanksgiving when a student with autism, with whom I had become quite close, told me that he wanted to give a speech to the school. He felt as though he and his classmates were mistreated and wanted to change this. So for two or three days we talked at length about what he wanted to say. Over a few hours together, the first draft of the speech was finished and we began practicing that day. His emotion showed through phenomenally. Actually, it came through almost too clearly. After years of ridicule and exclusion, he had every right to feel angry about the way that he was treated by his peers. However it was important for him to not allow all of this negative emotion to come out at once, for when it did his message got muddled in the anger. So we spent time on calmly reading the speech. After about two weeks of practice, his speech became quite good. We began practicing in front of an audience larger than myself and his aide. At first it was just a few other teachers, and then he practiced in front of his class. A few of his classmates were so moved that they wanted to give speeches too. Three more students came up to me over the next few days to ask if they could also write speeches. By mid-December we were a small team practicing. There was a total of one speech and three poems that were being read everyday.

One of the students was naturally a very talented orator; the other three had difficulty speaking at first. It was a process in helping these students to find their authentic voice. At first one of the students struggled to converse with me one-on-one, let alone speak at a podium. She did not trust herself enough to speak loudly enough to hear. Another student was often so nervous that she would break out laughing when reciting her poem, often unable to finish. But with time they grew more comfortable. Their aide and I would set up in the auditorium with the students on the stage, and the students would just practice the speeches over and over again. By the time that Winter Break was over, there was a noticeable improvement from the students. The students were prepared to give their speeches at an assembly in mid-January, but the assembly kept on getting pushed back. The students grew discouraged by this and worried that they would never have the opportunity to deliver their speeches. The aide and I continued practicing with the students, telling them that this was the exact reason why the speeches had to be given and we promised them they would have the opportunity to present.

After a few weeks of practicing without knowing what exactly for, we were informed that the students would have the opportunity to present at the Black History Month assembly. This reinvigorated the team and even inspired another student with autism from another class to join in. With the platform of Black History Month, we decided that this would be a perfect opportunity for the students to advocate for their own civil rights. It came back full circle to what the first student initially asked me: to help him speak to his population’s mistreatment within the school. The newest member of our group was going to open, and he and I wrote a speech that touched on the great leaders and the message of the Civil Rights Movement. With this addition, the team became complete and the group grew stronger. It took just over ten minutes for them to take the platform of Black History Month and then advocate for their own inclusion in the school’s community. We had an opening speech introducing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and comparing it to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then a poem called “Exclusion,” followed by a poem called “Everyone is Equal,” followed by a poem called “Love Yourself,” capped off by the initial speech that advocated for Hill-Freedman World Academy to become a “No Judgment Zone.”

As the day grew closer, the biggest problem that we had to deal with was nerves. It was an incredible opportunity to remind these students how many times they had perfectly recited their speeches, and that whether it was just four of us listening or four hundred nothing changed. The more that we practiced, the better the students got. At first there were times that I doubted whether or not this would actually be able to happen, but as I witnessed the students’ preparation and growth it was clear that my doubts were unwarranted and due to my own ignorance. By the time that they began to doubt themselves, I was able to tell them with absolute belief that they could do this. The day before the speeches, we practiced one more time and I told them that I wanted to take a picture with them. “No matter how it goes tomorrow, I just want for you guys to know how proud I am of you.”

During the assembly I stood in the back of the full auditorium so that if they got nervous they could just look at me. I was probably more nervous than they were, watching the assembly go by as their time to shine grew closer. It felt like forever before I saw the five students take the stage, but when they walked up there all I could feel was incredible pride. It was a feeling that I do not remember really feeling before, being so tremendously proud of a group that I was not a part of. As they walked up to the microphone it did not even matter that they were in the wrong order. I thought back to the first time I saw them up there, and despite my greatest efforts not to, I started to cry. It wasn’t like a sobbing; it was like someone had turned on a faucet and forgot to turn it off.

Each student stepped up and perfectly delivered their speeches, in the exact opposite order that we had practiced them in. The group started with a bang, getting a standing ovation as “NO JUDGEMENT ZONE!” was chanted by all throughout the auditorium. Then the poems were read beautifully, and then we tied all of the previous sentiments back to the assembly that we were sitting in. The students didn’t look at me once, and by the time they were done I was still crying. I wasn’t sad, in fact I was quite the opposite, yet I could not do anything but cry. I was just feeling so much. I went to the bathroom to wash up when the speeches were done, and then I went and gave them a hug.

12+ is not about solving our students’ problems as I thought when I first joined the organization. There are such tremendous obstacles that our students face that we could not possibly alleviate them all. But I know that for the rest of their lives, these five students will never forget when they moved an entire audience with their words. They will forever remember how they overcame their own doubts and fears, and that with hard work and passion the realm of possibility becomes nearly infinite. I know that I will never forget their work ethic, dedication, and their words. The best parts about our organization cannot be quantified, just like our students cannot be defined by their GPA or SAT score. It is the relationships we build, the time we put in, and the tears we shed so that our students may be able to experience just a moment that will last an entire lifetime.

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