Celeste Prince Speaks at Commencement

Students in the Class of 2023 selected Upper School English Teacher Celeste Prince to deliver remarks at their May14, 2023 Commencement. Here’s her message for them.

It starts early. Once we realized that our tiny bodies could move and touch and grab and reach, we heard it: “No!” Before we could even say the word ourselves, we learned quickly what No meant, and all of its cousins: Don’t, Stop, Leave It, Drop It, Absolutely Not, Uh-Uh, AHT AHT!

My father’s personal favorite follow-up was, “Am I speaking Dutch?” That was a rhetorical question.

We heard some version of No each time we, as little ones, decided to crawl up somewhere or grab something or do anything that bigger adults deemed not okay. Sometimes it was for our safety: don’t touch the stove, stay off the stairs, don’t pull the strange dog’s tail. These are all good reasons! Children see something new and shiny and think, “Adventure!” Adults see the same thing and think, “Emergency Room!”

After a while, though, as we got older, the reasoning behind No became less obvious and felt more ambiguous. We weren’t pulling dogs’ tails or smacking our hands on the hot stove anymore, obviously, so why were the adults still so afraid of the things we wanted to do? For example: Why does my mom say no to my awesome idea of dying my hair green? Is it because she’s afraid of what the chemicals will do to it, as she claims, or because she doesn’t want to explain to her friends why her daughter has a neon afro? In essence, are these Nos really about us, or about something that has nothing to do with us?

Class of 2023, as of today, by my calculations—and remember, I’m an English teacher, so you can trust me on this—you have been told No approximately eighty-one thousand, two-hundred and forty-six and a half times. Some of you may have been told No last night when you wanted to stay out longer with your friends, or this morning when you wanted to sleep in, or on the car ride over when you asked to get the AUX.

I know that here at MICDS, your teachers, your advisor, your dean, Mr. Small, Mr. Rainey, and many other adults have been the bearer of that awful word. I know that for the most part, we have told you no in our attempt to keep you safe between the hours of 8:00 am and 3:15 pm as your families have trusted us to do, and Dean Gioia has often said, “Please ask before assuming the answer is no.” But I admit: we do say no a lot.

  • No, you can’t park there. No, you can’t have your phone.
  • No, you can’t go to the bookstore. No, you may not go off-campus.
  • No, that’s only for upperclassmen. No, that’s only for adults.
  • No, that’s against school policy. No, that’s against the dress code.
  • No, you can’t take off your mask.
  • No, we don’t have enough time. No, we’re too busy right now. No, we gotta get through the next unit.
  • No, you can’t have an extension. No, you can’t have a retake. No, you won’t be graded on a curve.
  • No, you can’t bring a live animal into the STEM building.

Hearing No can feel like a rejection. It feels like we are not trusted to make the right decisions, like what we thought was possible or a good idea was actually ridiculous. Proctor told me the other day how psychological studies noted that people reported feeling cold when they hear no. The cold shoulder is not just a cute saying; it can be a real feeling.

And when we hear No so often, it makes us act differently. We might decide to ask for forgiveness later instead of permission now. We might hide what we do to avoid hearing the No. We sneak out of the house or turn off our location; we fake sick to get an unofficial extension; we pretend we didn’t see an email and go about our business. Maybe we get what we originally wanted for a moment, but at what cost?

The No doesn’t just come from others; we tell ourselves No just as often.

  • No, I’m not smart enough. No, I’m not strong enough.
  • No, I’m not a right fit. No, they’re looking for someone else.
  • No, I don’t have what it takes. No, I don’t have the right grades.
  • No, I’m asking for too much. No, I’m too much. No, I’m not enough.

I overheard many of you say things like this when selecting your classes or applying to colleges. You were so afraid of being told No – of failing or being waitlisted or rejected – that you did it to yourself first. After all, no one can hurt us if we beat them to the punch.

Class of 2023, on behalf of all the adults in your lives, I’m sorry. Because of our fear and our overwhelming desire to keep you out of harm’s way during these unprecedented times, we have often inflicted more harm by making No such a huge part of your inner vocabulary.

There is good news. Once you’ve crossed this stage and received your diploma, you are in charge. From now on, you don’t need to seek approval or permission from others. Now, YOU get to seek it from yourself. Do I want to do this? Do I want to try that? Do I want to go here? Or maybe there?

Graduates, when it is time for you to answer those questions, I urge you to replace No with Yes. Most of you already understand that No is a complete sentence. If anything, or anybody, crosses your boundaries, I hope you lean heavily on that response.

That said: think of how many things could open to you if you say Yes.

  • Yes, I will be your roommate. Yes, I would like to have dinner together.
  • Yes, I do want to study abroad, work on your experiment, attend your cultural ceremony.
  • Yes, I would love to meet your family. Yes, I want to intern here. Yes, I want to apply for graduate school.
  • Yes, I will come home for winter break. Yes, I will come back for reunion weekend.
  • Yes, I will come visit my MICDS teachers and advisor who loved me even when I didn’t turn on my camera on Zoom.

Moreover, I encourage you to say Yes to yourself. Yes, I am strong. Yes, I am capable. Yes, I deserve to take up space. Yes, I belong here. Yes, I am not perfect, but no one needs me to be. Yes, I am worthy of respect, care, and compassion. Yes, I am enough. Yes, I am here, and I am so glad you’re here too.

Most importantly, Class of 2023, I want you to say Yes to love. Say Yes to hugging your people close as if it’s the last time you’ll see them. Say Yes to being open to love in all its forms. Say Yes to saying, “I love you” and mean it without hesitation or blushing. What is there to be embarrassed about? It’s the easiest gift you can give someone, including yourself.

In her poem “Good Bones,” Maggie Smith writes about how many terrible things there are in this world which she “hides from her children” because, as she says, “I am trying to sell them the world.” She ends comparing our world to a fixer-upper house with “good bones,” telling her children, “You could make this place beautiful.”

Class of 2023, imagine me as the realtor of the world you are about to enter. All of us here are looking at you with breathless anticipation of how you will change our community. The choices and questions posed to you from now on will not always have Yes or No answers – because most important things are not binary – but we know you are prepared enough to meet those moments with confidence, not fear.

As your teacher, I can’t tell you to do something if I’m not willing to do it myself. So, I’ll close by asking and answering three questions.

  1. Are you excited to be chosen as the faculty speaker? Yes.
  2. Are you glad that the seniors are done? Yes.
  3. (This one, forgive me, is three questions in one, but the answer is the same.) Are you proud of the Class of 2023? Will you miss the Class of 2023? Do you love the Class of 2023? A thousand times yes.

Bravo, darlings. This world still has some good bones. Go make this place beautiful.