Opening Convocation, Fall 2017
By Leighlani Sanchez ’18
Good morning and welcome, new students, freshman, faculty, and returners. I am standing here, in front of over 600 of you, to talk to you about a spade. Not just any spade, but the ceremonial spade. It’s been a longstanding tradition here at NMH for a member of the graduating class to pass down the spade to the rising senior class. That senior class will then use the spade to plant their class tree and attach a colored ribbon with their graduation year to the handle. The spade represents dedication and hardwork, concepts that all of us should be very familiar with. But because they’re such familiar concepts, we seldom stop to think about them or question them. So, I’ll ask you: Why do you work hard? What have you worked your hardest for? What does hard work look like to you?
Hard work looks like my mother, stumbling in at four am, just out of work, rubbing off the remnants of her makeup and collapsing into bed — only to be up again at eight, clenching onto a cup of coffee like it was the only thing keeping her standing. She’d make breakfast for us, apply a fresh layer of makeup, and head back to work — like it was that simple. My mother is very good at making things look simple when there were always myriad problems just beneath the surface.
For a while, she managed to hide all of the ugly. When the electricity was cut, she quickly worked to adapt. How fast can you get something out of the fridge without releasing the cold air? Reading by candlelight is way more romantic, anyway. Monopoly beats watching TV any day. Even when the heat and water were cut, no one seemed to mind. While we were busy making a game out of everything, my siblings and I knew how hard our mother was working to keep everything from falling apart. It was her dedication to us that never gave us a reason to complain.
Eventually there was nothing more to cut and our little apartment was ours no more. Soon, home became whoever’s couch, trailer, or guest room floor was available for a few nights. Our favorite was the trailer, because there was a racoon that slept in an abandoned shed nearby. We named him Jerry and theoretically adopted him as our pet racoon. Any time it was about to feel like too much, like we’d reached the end of our optimism, my mother would bear that weight for us and things were all right again. In this time, shifting from floors to couches to trailers, the words “homeless” or “broke” never emerged. Despite our circumstances and the hurdles placed in our lives by unforeseen forces, my mother never put the word “victim” into our vocabulary.
As my mother continued to work hard in her own way, I struggled to contribute. I eventually found my escape route from the cycle of poverty, drop-outs, and teen pregnancies that persisted in my family through school. Neither of my parents graduated from college and only one finished high school. The other had to begin raising me her senior year of high school. From the start, no one really expected much of me. I was just another Puerto Rican teen baby from the demonized city of Springfield. If I didn’t do well in school, no one would have blamed me. But because I saw the greatness in my mother that other people would try to claim wasn’t there, I found my motivation for working hard — for getting out.
I work hard to break myself — and my family — out of the expectation that because of our zip code, ethnicity, and education, we won’t amount to anything. I’m the oldest of four, soon to be the first in my family to attend college, but that won’t be enough. The thing about hard work is that you only ever have to work as hard as you expect yourself to work. How much do you expect of yourself?
Here at NMH, you’re all expected to work hard; it seems pointless for me to tell you this. But through all of the finals weeks, exams, tests, late nights cramming, and counting down the seconds until 12:09 — and if you’re new, you’ll soon understand the devastation that is 12:09 — think of your answers to the questions I first asked you. Why do you work hard? What have you worked your hardest for? What does hard work look like to you? Take these answers and set new limits for yourself. And once you’ve reached that limit, set another. Find your own spade and plant your own legacy.