To the distinguished California Public High School Class of 2013.
I’m sorry James Franco canceled at the last minute. I’m even sorrier that you wound up getting me as your substitute commencement speaker, but I was offered gas money plus a free lunch.
I believe Franco planned to talk about your potential—to say that you are the future, that your prospects are limited only by your imagination, that you should follow your passions and be true to yourself. Society has invested its hopes and resources in you because children, schools, and a better tomorrow are today’s top priority.
But I don’t have to tell you that all these statements are total bull.
Because you already know.
You know, because you were a public high school student in California during the past four years. Roughly one in every nine of your teachers was laid off since the recession hit. The number of days of school in many of your districts was cut. California’s per-pupil spending on you has fallen during your time in high school—from 46th out of the 50 states to 48th. Your state dedicated $3,000 less per year to your education than the national average.
You may not even know what a school counselor is, since California has so few. The average high school in American has 77 percent more teachers per student than the ones you attended. You had a curriculum considered so out-of-step it’s in the process of being replaced, and we have little idea how good the teachers who taught you are because so few of them are evaluated on their performance.
Most people, if they were treated this shabbily, would stew or leave the state or give up. But not you, the 400,000-plus members of the California Class of 2013. You stayed and succeeded. You did more with less.
By test scores, admittedly an imperfect measure, more than 80 percent of your schools score above 700 on the state’s Academic Performance Index. That compares to just 31 percent of all schools a decade ago. More of you took harder classes, particularly in science and math, and you did better in them than your predecessors. The dropout rate has declined thanks in part to your determination to stay in school. And majorities of those of you in so-called “high-risk” demographics—English-language learners, migrants, special education students, kids from low-income families—are graduating despite your handicaps.
In short, you guys are tough. And you’ll need to be, particularly if you stay in California. Jobs in most places and professions will be hard to find. The military is cutting back. Tuition fees at our public universities are literally double what they were when you were in middle school. On top of that, the state has made it harder for you get into one of the California universities your family’s taxes have been supporting—because it needs to admit more out-of-state students, who will pay much more than you.
But, because of how poorly you’ve been treated, you’re very well prepared for this new California. For your parents and grandparents, this state was about dreams and rising. That’s an outdated story. As your high school years demonstrated, life here is about struggle, about fighting for what you need, about working harder in hard times, about identifying ways to win unfair games. Finding happiness in life won’t be about achieving the easy life but about making your struggles as beautiful as possible.
There won’t be much you can count on in this California—too many things are changing. But there is one group you should count on: your classmates.
We hear so much about younger Californians being a super-diverse lot. And that’s true, if we judge you by the diverse origins of your parents and grandparents. But you and your classmates also have more in common than any previous generation of Californians. A majority of your generation of Californians was born and raised here. That’s new; throughout the state’s modern history, a majority of Californians had been born and raised someplace else. You went to the same schools and have shared the same struggles.
That makes your classmates your best natural allies. Yes, you’ll want to go in different directions, move to different places, and leave your high school days behind. And yes, you can and should remake yourself. In this world, you can change your major, your career, your family, and even your gender.
But you can never change where you went to high school.
As a reporter, I’ve often found that, thanks to too many overlapping jurisdictions, Californians don’t know what municipality they grew up in or live in now. The question you have to ask Californians—if you want to understand where they’re from—is where they went to high school.
So embrace your high school and your classmates even as you leave them. Keep in touch, via technology and as much as possible in person. You’ll find the people you went to school with will be able to help you make contacts, find jobs, and offer you perspective you can’t get anywhere else, not even from James Franco.
The secret to surviving this California is to keep fighting, like hell, together.
Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.