‘Do you really want to return to the world that existed before the pandemic?’

CUHSD Teacher of the Year Mike Espinoza’s speech to the class of 2021


Jazzy Nguyen/Bear WItness

Mike Espinoza, CUHSD’s teacher of the year, delivers his speech to Branham’s class of 2021.

Mike Espinoza, Branham English teacher

Good evening class of 2021, your friends and family, as well as everyone else either here or watching from home. Before I start, let’s do something that might not seem normal to many of you, which is to acknowledge the land that we are currently occupying. This land, known to many of you as Santa Clara County, is in fact unceded territory that belongs to the Muwekma Ohlone Nation, the sovereign nation and original people of the skies, land, and waters where we work and learn. The Muwekma Ohlone people are the stewards of these lands, so everyday we must honor and ask for their permission to be here. Furthermore, may we use our time, money, and energy to support the evolving vision of the Muwekma Ohlone for their community and these lands. Thank you.

Speaking of things that may not seem normal, I am reminded of a line from an essay written by author and political activist Arundhati Roy back in April of 2020: “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” Roy was, of course, speaking about the pandemic. She said that historically, pandemics are portals, opportunities to bring about a new world. I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, of us have been yearning for a return to this thing we call “normal.” Yet I urge you, class of 2021, to think critically about this. Do you really want to return to the world that existed before the pandemic?

In the months that followed Roy’s essay, more innocent Black and Brown people were murdered in cold blood, including George Floyd. That summer we saw an explosion of protests, an outpouring of solidarity, and an immense amount of information regarding social issues being shared far and wide. There’s nothing necessarily new about these reactions to injustice, but it is undeniable that it felt different at the time. It felt different than the norm. Maybe, just maybe, that feeling is what Roy meant by not wanting to return to normality. 

Normality would mean we would have accepted the world as it had been presented to us: cold, heartless, unforgiving. We would see what happened to George Floyd and then shrug it off as par for the course. Sure, we’d feel bad, but we had bills to pay, shows to watch, places to be. No time for protests or acts of solidarity. Normality would mean we’d continue the ever-present cycle of apathy and cruelty for which this nation has been founded.

Class of 2021, I could stand up here and say the same old normal platitudes that have been said during every graduation speech year after year, generation after generation. But now is not the time for empty words. Instead, it is time for the era of normality to come to an end. It is time to finally, once and for all, truly embrace difference. But I must warn you, history is not on your side. 

You see, every generation thus far has had the potential to be the progressive change that we all supposedly want, but look where we are now. We still police women’s bodies, we still erase trans folks from our narratives, we still have poverty, we still lock up children in cages, we still see Asian elders being attacked in plain sight, we still see Black and Brown people being torn apart by the state. Who’s to say that your generation won’t continue the trend of conforming to the machine that is the United States?

This is why you must think critically about wanting to go back to normal. Huey Newton said that “the revolution has always been in the hands of the young,” so the next decade of your young lives, which by the way will go by very fast, will be monumental in defining your generation’s contributions to this country. I implore you all to henceforth act with empathy and an eye for doing things differently than what has been considered normal. 

I will end with this. I know many of you, some for your entire time here at Branham, some for just this year. Nonetheless, what I’ve witnessed is a generation of young people eager to change the world. I have enjoyed getting to know you all and learning from you. I want to believe that your generation will be the one to break the cycle of conformity in this nation. You certainly have the power to do so. But know that it will be hard, and many people will not support you. Don’t let this discourage you. Keep pushing, keep bucking the trend, keep resisting going back to normal. Deep down, in my heart, I know you will do what’s right and make me proud. That’s why I love you all so much. Thank you class of 2021, and congratulations on your graduation.