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Valedictorian -- poetry by Anna Kiesewetter

Class of 2021, good afternoon.

I was tasked today with

writing an uplifting speech.

(Which is to say:

I was told to pour twelve years

into a simmering cauldron.)

(Which is to say:

I must cook down the ugly into a

palatable mush, the food of infant contentment:

symbolic progress without condemnation.)


In doing so I hope to be the bird

at the front of the V: to lift us up

by the wings and shepherd us forward

into whatever dawn approaches.

(Sometimes I wonder about this

word choice: why uplifting and

not reflective? Not empowering?

Why focus on transplanting us

toward some higher power, uprooting us

from our tainted soil? Why not

mirror back what we've experienced? Or give strength where we are? Why not

examine what poisoned ground we stand on

and find out who pissed in the dirt?)


Perched atop this pitcher’s mound

(which is to say: toxic dirt)

I peer into the crowd today and see not just your faces

but all the faces you wore before.

The round foreheads and

bulbous cheeks of first grade.

(That pressed necklace pendants

into ivory foreheads, pressed words

tremorous and feral into caricature.)

The narrowed faces and

newly pierced ears of middle school.

(Whose harsh gazes slid over me in the halls,

whose hands shoved small boys into lockers

and ridiculed their acne-scarred cheeks.)

The stubbled faces sunny with

twelve years of schoolhouse laughter.

(Whose laughter, and not words,

surfaced at the ugliest times:

who heard their friends play devil’s advocate

and laughed.

Who saw their friend assault a girl

and laughed.)


As I leaf through these memories

I’m amazed by the feats we’ve accomplished.

The incredible dances put on by ASB.

(Which is to say:

Blurred nights of spilled drink

and brazen hands

and ripe coercion.)

Countless victories from our athletic teams.

(Which is to say:

Boys who dripped sweat and racial epithets

onto the courts; who left soiled clothes

and ranked bodies in the lockers.)

Beautiful artwork and writing from our students.

(Which is to say:

Art wrung from jagged scars

and inky tears

and anxiolytics.)

Undeniable learning within our classroom walls.

(Which is to say:

Learning to survive. To find the nearest

emergency exit. To experience locked doors

and hissed rumors that someone has a gun.)


Class of 2021, I’m so proud of all we’ve done.

(That we’ve endured for this long.)

Look how far we’ve come.

(Which is to say:

Look what pain we’ve caused.)

Look how beautiful we are.

(Which is to say:

Look what masks we wear.)

Today, as I look to the future, I’m filled with hope.

(Curled inward with apprehension.)

In this crowd, we might have the next president.

(The next colonizer. The next racist apologist.)

The next big comedian or actor.

(The next rapist. The next abuser.)

The next workers and mothers and fathers.

(The next victims of a mass shooting.)


I can’t wait to see all we do.

(Which is to say:

I’m afraid to see

what havoc we wreak.

What worlds fall

down at our feet.)


Congratulations, class of 2021.

(Which is to say:

please don’t fail us.)




Anna Kiesewetter is an incoming freshman at Stanford University from Issaquah, Washington. She was a 2020 American Voices Medal nominee for the Scholastic Writing Awards, and her work is published or forthcoming in Polyphony Lit, Prometheus Dreaming, Rising Phoenix Review, Blue Marble Review, and elsewhere. A firm believer in the psychological nature of literature, she writes to explore human experience and perception.

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