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Emilia Heaton, BPCS Valedictorian

The following speech was given at Emilia Heaton’s Brooklyn Prospect Charter School commencement on June 29, 2017. To learn more about Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, see this article from Slate Magazine: What Happens When You Design a School to Be Diverse?

Emilia Heaton ValedictorianThough today we are celebrating graduating, there is so much left to do.

Some of these issues are so large they seem insurmountable. Take, for example, global warming. Sea levels are rising, natural disasters are becoming more deadly. This week alone, California is experiencing drought, there were deadly floods in West Virginia and wildfires in Russia. We have yet to solve a thousand issues both large and small. Our parents and grandparents had their challenges to face, but they have left many to us.

We have inherited an economic world designed only for growth. More people, more consumption, more production, more, more, more. However, we live in a finite system. We face a limit of resources and space. More cannot go on forever. Our parents and grandparents have built and reinforced a worldwide system that is based on an assumption of perpetual growth. To change such a system will be a monumental challenge, so great a challenge, that this very idea is usually met with denial. The climate, our food system, our trashing of the planet’s natural resources, our “normal” … is not normal. The world will not expand with our ever-growing needs.

The climate, our food system, our trashing of the planet’s natural resources, our “normal” … is not normal.

It is our generation that must find a way to reconcile our behavior with the actual world we live in. The argument that we cannot change because the scale is too grand, as well as the passing of such problems onto the next generation, must stop. We must be the ones who find a way to fix this. We did not ask for it, but rather, it is forced upon us.

To sit back and do nothing is no longer acceptable.

This is not to say that I am not impressed with my grandfather’s victories in WWII and their generation’s work to advance civil rights in America. I appreciate my parents having cleared a path for me to go to college, but there are so many things that they have failed to do, and while the blame may not be easy to place, the consequences are real.

We, as a generation, are described as obsessed with our electronic devices, victims of narcissism; ours is a “selfie culture.” I do not exclude myself from this. But in that selfie, I think there are some of us who see things behind our shoulders—the burden of our own future.

In that selfie, I think there are some of us who see things behind our shoulders—the burden of our own future.

I believe we can use our devices and networks for progress and change.

I am standing before you today because of little things, like learning in the 9th grade how to better manage my time, and learning that I can go out and have fun, but then must wake up the next day and be productive. I gained perspective by going to clean up trash at the beach, and going with a friend to make hygiene kits for refugees, and studying about the world as part of my classwork. Each experience has made me more aware of the issues the world faces and has shown me that fixing them is not necessarily a chore. It was fun! I had a great time with my friends and the tasks themselves were rewarding.

Every chance I got to customize what I was learning allowed me to focus on what is important to me. It is surprising how much you can do with your time if you manage it well. What matters is what you set out to do with the time you are given.

Personally, I focus on anthropocentrism—our tendency to think we humans are the center of everything. Maybe we’ve made ourselves the center, but I have learned that other species are just as important, perhaps even more important than we are. Reducing the divide between humans and other living things is my own mission.

I have learned that you can directly compare humans and animals in confinement. They exhibit the same behaviors, often develop the same disorders—and those disorders can be treated in almost the same way. I believe that we must take this step and that doing so will lead to a better treatment of our planet, which is something I deeply care about.

In middle school (before I came to Brooklyn Prospect), I was a student who always came late and didn’t do my assignments. I plagiarized to get things done more easily. I ignored the hard path and did what seemed easiest so I could quickly finish my work and go hang out with friends. I did not know what I wanted to do in the future. I put everything else before my education … when so many kids around the world go through hell just to get what I took for granted. I read about a child in Morocco who walks 13 miles through the Atlas Mountains and siblings in India who push their brother in a wheelchair over an hour just to get to school. They must do the same trip to get back home.

I realized that it was not about being smart—anyone can do what I did, and more. It was simply about taking responsibility and working hard.

Then I stumbled into Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and with its help, turned myself around. My English teacher and advisor, Mr. Cetrulo, taught me (with tough love) how to write, a skill I will continue to grow and use for the rest of my life and something which helped me get into my first choice college. I then took it upon myself to never be late and to complete every assignment, because I came to realize the importance of education. But more than that I realized that it was not about being smart—anyone can do what I did, and more. It was simply about taking responsibility and working hard. Mine is also a story about how people can change. Habits die hard, but they can be replaced with different and better ones.

In college, I will have much more freedom to really make my own decisions. I will have the choice between being a student who parties or the one who studies abroad and joins clubs. I will do both because it’s not about giving up one, it’s about priorities.

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School is not perfect, but it has changed the way I think. It has put me on a course to taking my own future seriously. It has shown me that there is much to do. I believe that Brooklyn Prospect Charter School will only get better as it grows and continues to learn from its students.

Although the IB program was tough and I complained a lot—and I mean a lot—while in the middle of it, I am encouraging my own little brother to follow in my footsteps and do it because I think he will get what I got: he will discover how he is going to address our world’s bigger challenges in his own way.

Improving the world will not be accomplished just by kids going to college or graduating at the top of their class. Different approaches and the collaboration of many, many different people will be required.

As Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I’ll see you in the future.

Thank you.

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