A note from me to you, this year's graduating class
If you were to ask me, “what is your favorite book?” the answer would depend on the day of the week, what has just happened in the minutes before you asked and who’s asking. If you were to ask my 19 year old self, my answer would not be a book but rather a short story, “Eleven”, written by Sandra Cisneros in her collection Woman Hollering Creek. And if you haven’t already read it, do so. It will change your life. Promise. Here’s why. Cisneros’s 11 year old narrator says,
"What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don't. You open your eyes and everything's just like yesterday, only it's today. And you don't feel eleven at all. You feel like you're still ten. And you are...underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that's the part of you that's still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama's lap because you're scared, and that's the part of you that's five. And maybe one day when you're all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you're three, and that's okay. That's what I tell Mama when she's sad and needs to cry. Maybe she's feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That's how being eleven years old is."
And that is just how it begins. There is a whole story after that. Before thinking about what she has just said, take a second and realize that someone wrote that. For you to read. She sat down at some table, somewhere and used letters and punctuation to make that thought solid. She felt everyone in the world loving and hating the fact that getting older does not allow you to lose the past and then encoded it so we could all feel it too. That magic was waiting for me in a seminar class on Chicana Writers. In that moment, that thought was my favorite thing because it was the right thing for me to hear right then. I read it aloud to whoever was nearby, wrote it in my cousin’s high school graduation card (even though he must have thought I was crazy), and photocopied it to mail to my other friends far away.
And before you get distracted by thinking about what an incredible nerd I always have been, realize that some type of magic is waiting for you, where you least expect it, as long as you are ready for it to appear. That is why it is great that we hold on to the years we have outgrown, because it is those younger years that let us see magic.
It is only when you get a lot older than eleven that you are very thankful that the fantastical age of six is still in there, getting way too excited about seeing her favorite color on a t-shirt in a store window or telling jokes with broken punch lines to his friends. And that the ever awkward thirteen reminds you to be forgiving of the person who developed a gargantuan zit on his face right before a major presentation or to tell the woman that she’s tucked her skirt in her underwear because at thirteen you desperately wished that people would be kind and were so often not, because they were just so worried about everything.
I know that many of you are feeling eleven right now. And 17. And 3. Heading to college does that to you. And maybe, you think you are secretly 25. But don’t get ahead of yourself. You have what you have right now, with as many years as you have stored away. Make the most of them. College is your time to let everyone of those wonderful years out into the world.
The magic you find in college will last you a lifetime if you cultivate it, share it with people around you. Don’t forget to tell someone when something interests you, let another person’s enthusiasm for an idea inspire you to find your own answers and live in the world. Embracing your nine year old curiosity does not mean holding onto your childhood, refusing adulthood; it means allowing the most excellent parts of each year of your life be more fully realized as you mature, that your 10 year old fearlessness gets to hold hands with your 22 year old optimism as you tackle your first job. May each of you find an “Eleven” in as many days of your life as your curiosity can tolerate. I am excited to hear about as many as you care to share.
Many hugs and much love,