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A speech we all needed to hear

Saranac Lake High School Valedictorian Francine Newman was brave to use her graduation speech to tell the school community about anti-Asian bullying she endured throughout her school career here. She did it well, too — not angry, not with any expectation of payback, but not fearful, either. People needed to hear it, and she told it straight.

Newman is not normally the defiant type; she typically seems positive and upbeat. But she had bottled up this pain for a long time, and it wasn’t fair, and it needed to come out. Maybe she was too young and afraid to talk about if before, but we are glad she did before she left for college.

Some have told us maybe a valedictory speech wasn’t the most appropriate forum for this kind of criticism, because it was more about her than the class — but we think it worked out just fine. If you’re going to use the valedictory stage to deliver that kind of speech, you had better do it really well. Newman nailed it.

After all, it was about the class, and the school, and the community — about bad things they did, yes, but delivered with the trust that once everyone knows what happened and the hurt it inflicted, they will reform and do better in the future.

It was reassuring to see that local school leaders took it in that spirit, and also that they allowed her to give the speech at all. Since it had to be video-recorded weeks before, they had every opportunity to censor it — some schools have been known to do that with graduation speeches — but they didn’t. Instead, they learned from it.

A few years ago, we would have said that even though the local population is 95% white, racism is not much of a problem here. We had heard about a handful of incidents, but in general, we probably would have defended our hometowns against accusations of racism. We still see local people as being kind and accepting to everyone, but now we see some other things, too.

On the same weekend Newman’s speech was delivered, someone was spray-painting disgusting racist graffiti under the railroad bridge on Forest Hill Avenue near Pine Street in Saranac Lake. It has been dealt with, by a good neighbor and village police, but taken in concert with other things, we can’t really afford to think of this as an isolated incident. Not after what people of color at Black Lives Matter protests in each of the Tri-Lakes villages told us, about abuse they’ve received. Not after what Newman taught us.

What we have is a gnarled old racist root that is underground but still very much alive, and poking up shoots here and there.

The only way to get rid of it is to dig it up. It will be hard, dirty work, and we have to be careful not to kill the roots of the people growing around it. But now that we know it’s there, can we, in good conscience, leave it there for later generations to deal with? It is unlikely they will ever get as opportune a moment in time like our nation is going through now.

“We can’t shy away from this,” high school Principal Josh Dann told us. “We have to go at it. And we can always get better.”

Let’s learn from what Newman told us.

“I am thankful for the person I was forced to become,” she said. “and I am thankful that one day I will have the opportunity to teach my own kids about their culture and about acceptance.”

The goal is not vengeance, not an eye for an eye. Rather it is knowledge, understanding, contrition, maybe restitution, and forgiveness — the stages by which we reconcile and heal our community.

Let us let this speech truly be the commencement of a new era in the Adirondacks.

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