Lorna Dee's Keynote Address to El Sausal Middle School Promotion Ceremony, 6/10, Salinas, CA
Salinas, California, held at Hartnell College, June 10, 2009
8th grade was the worst year of my life. I'm fifty-four now. Perhaps when I'm 86 I'll have a worse year than 1968. That year nothing happened and everything happened.
(sings): "Willow, weep for me./ Willow, weep for me./ Bend your branches down,/ down to the ground and cover me."
Yeah, I liked that goofy song. I wanted the willow to bend down and cover me. I saw myself in the willow trees that grew along the creeks and empty lots. Skinny, but strong. I liked to think I had a changing beauty, too, just like that willow tree growing green to yellow to brown and back to lime-colored swishing in the wind.
To bend, but never break. That's what the willow represents to me. El Sausal, a sacred tree to my native California ancestors who wove baskets and fishing gear from its leaves and limbs. Adaptable, able to change with the conditions and forces. To bend, but never break.
I come here today to wish you the Spirit of the willow; The Spirit of change; The Spirit of strength; The willow's protection; To tell you, as a poet once told me, when he was 86: "It gets better."
It gets better. 8th grade was the worse year of my life. Bad things happened. But people change. I changed. And you CAN change for the better. I learned that you may not be able to change what happens to you, but you can change how you're going to react. You can change what you become.
I became a poet. Maybe because I liked that song (sings): "When the shadows fall/ hear me, Willow,/ and weep for me." Maybe because the poets I read always seemed to be writing songs that wept for me.
You can weep. You can bend. You can change for your friends. You can change for your family. You can change for yourself. You can change for the better. You can't change somebody else. But you can set an example, just like the willow sets: el sausal, fuerte y suave; To be strong and never break; To do right; To hold.
You will hold. This is just one of many promotions. You are kids of el sausal, the willow. You may bend, but never break. You have seen nothing and you have seen everything. And, just like the willow tree, the kids of El Sausal will grow strong and give back.
Thank you for inviting me.
(shares closing poem written in 8th grade):
I think I grew up last year
or maybe today is just a phase
like autumn's bright red foliage
just before winter's death.
Sometimes I think that life is nothing
but one big phase waiting for the next
and death is what you have
when you run out of phases.
I think that maybe I did grow up
Lorna Dee Cervantes
June 10, 2009