Valedictorian shows there is hope
At the Saranac Lake High School commencement ceremony last week, Francine Newman, valedictorian, surprised her parents and just about everyone else by speaking about her own experiences with racism while growing up and going to school in the community.
Francine’s maternal grandmother was originally from Hong Kong, her grandfather from China. That was enough to make Francine stand out in Saranac Lake, and she spoke about comments of peers and adults she heard throughout her childhood that made her feel isolated and different and made her, at times, resent the way she looked because her mother was Asian.
She delivered the speech with such clarity and composure, without bitterness but with gratitude for all the good things she has gotten from the community, it was impossible to take her words as anything but constructive criticism.
When you really care, you will confront the bad parts of a relationship, to improve it. That is what Francine did, and her courage is a reflection of the courage of many thousands of people who have stood up across the country in the last few weeks to speak and march and push for change.
My family moved to Saranac Lake in 1971, and I still carry around an impression of the village as I knew it in the early 1970s — openly racist and homophobic, a place where even a new white kid (me) was publicly targeted by a gang of local bullies (including the son of the police chief) and attacked and beaten more than once.
So I’ve had my own bias about Saranac Lake, seared in the crucible of pre-teen angst, and my first reaction to Francine’s speech was … “of course. Not surprised.”
But her composure — her evident maturity and balance, her level gaze and the little smile on her face — convinced me I was wrong to trap Saranac Lake in the era of half a century ago.
Things have changed for the better in Saranac Lake. Francine told me in a phone conversation that several students at the high school were gay and out, which never could have happened in 1971.
Things have changed in this country for the better. Gay marriage was not discussed much, if at all, in 1971. Tearing down Confederate statues was not discussed much. Honest confrontations of racism were taboo. Look at the shock and anger when U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the podium in Mexico City. That was 1968.
Now, as I’m writing, it occurs to me that Colin Kaepernick was shut out from his profession for kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games, so, yes, we still have work to do and a long way to go.
You push forward, and you get shoved back. You feel excluded, but if you’re like Francine, you keep working. You become the valedictorian. You get into Middlebury College, where you plan to study environmental science and languages like Mandarin. You intend to spend a year abroad in Asia.
After the speech, Francine received an outpouring of supportive comments from the community, she said. She was nervous about the reaction from her parents, especially her mom, who didn’t know about the personal nature of the speech. But it brought her closer with her mom, who recognized her own experience in Francine’s words.
She wrote the speech before George Floyd’s death, before all the marches in communities across the country, but she captured the moment. It seems, after watching that horrifying video from Minneapolis, white people’s eyes were opened a little wider, and they are finally listening a little closer.
We need to welcome revelations of ugly truths like those from Francine. She is so accomplished and appealing, it’s easy to overlook the tragic aspect of what she had to say — a child made to feel flawed because of racial difference.
The prejudice that creates that feeling bears awful fruit every day in this country. But there is hope. I saw it in Francine’s speech, and she saw it in the reactions of her community.
Will Doolittle is the projects editor of The Post-Star newspaper, based in Glens Falls.