The other day I received an unexpected gift, an honor, really. At lunch a former student whom I respect profoundly and root for unabashedly, said to me, “I have a ticket for you to come to my graduation. Will you come?”
Brian Vazquez will graduate from La Salle University on May 21.
The day after my birthday — the gift.
He is one terrific kid — the honor.
He will graduate maxima cum laude, one of he highest academic honor La Salle bestows upon a graduate.
I am not surprised.
We have kept in touch over his four years at La Salle, with e-mails, and meeting for lunches, talks along Kelly Drive, events where he was honored, dinner at my home.
I first met Brian in the fall of 2012. He sauntered into my writing class at International Christian High School and sat in the first seat, middle row. “I don’t want to miss a word you say,” I remember him saying.
At first he wasn’t really a good writer. But as the months passed he worked hard, long, and tenaciously, and sometimes he suffered while applying the writing principles discussed in class. By June’s graduation he had become a darn good writer, maybe the best in the class, and eventually contributed a spate of articles to a magazine targeted toward high school and college students. Along the way, he also became a superb critical thinker — never robotically accepting ideas or information but readily questioning whatever didn’t square or settle just right with him.
But it wasn’t just my class. He was hard-working and persistent in every class, He was ranked number one academically with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Brian simply was always prepared for anything any teacher threw at him — “The separation is in the preparation,” I would preach to the students.
You see, Brian was not into sports, or partying, or hanging out. He was singularly focused on learning and improving his critical and creative thinking powers. It was his way of giving himself the best chance to maximize his intellect to get into college and achieve the lofty goals he had set for himself.
He didn’t have it easy. He had to surmount many challenges and sufferings in his search for fulfillment.
Growing up in a poor and crime- and drug-riddled section of Kensington, he rarely had any money for anything, including his high school tuition. In fact, nearing graduation day, the question was raised about whether he should be the valedictorian since he owed the school back tuition. I vociferously supported him. “He will make good,” I said to the school’s administrator, convinced, that Brian’s integrity, character, and deep sense of accountability would compel him to fulfill his obligation.
He delivered a memorable valedictory, with the most memorable line being, “We will need to summon courage to stand above others who try to take us from our beliefs.”
When he went off to La Salle he got two part-time jobs to keep himself solvent. One day he showed up at International and paid off his debt.
Majoring in psychology at La Salle, he hopes to teach and reach people of different religions, races, and ethnic groups to better understand each other. This past spring he elected to go to India for a La Salle-sponsored travel-study course in Tibetan Buddhism and liberation politics. At that lunch, he also mentioned that he might like to get a Ph.D. and teach in a university. If I were a student at that university I would register real quick for his classes.
So, yes, I feel honored to attend Brian Vazquez’s graduation. I feel honored to have taught him.
He is a special kid.
He will do special things.
Root, pray for him.
As I do.
B.G. Kelley is a Philadelphia writer. firstname.lastname@example.org