PECI’s Valedictorian recounts both positives and negatives of academic experience

CHOSEN ONE- PECI Graduate and social justice advocate Talia Epstein was voted as the 2021 Valedictorian. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Among the seemingly cemented parameters surrounding Prince Edward Collegiate Institute’s annual graduation ceremonies are high humidity, an awards, bursary and recognition program so vast it requires its own intermission and a valedictorian address that’s glowing about the previous four years of secondary school. But in a time and place where usual and traditional is being eclipsed by a desire for truth and the authentic, 2021 PECI Valedictorian Talia Epstein is anything but typical and within the usual parameters of a person who speaks on behalf of the graduating class. Despite -or more likely because of- Talia’s outspoken nature, advocacy and her bravery in openly discussing the anti-semitic experiences within her elementary and secondary studies at public schools in Prince Edward County, Epstein was voted by her peers to offer a message to the public from the class of 2021. Below is her address that is raw, real and quite unlike any PECI Valedictorian speech previously delivered.

 

Hello, everybody. First of all, thank you so much to my fellow graduates for trusting me to represent our class.

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that I am delivering this address on the traditional land of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Wendat-Huron peoples. A land acknowledgment is about encouraging us to move forward and take concrete action to support reconciliation; and learning together about how our history will impact our future is a vital part of making progress.

To all the parents, guardians, and family members who pushed this class to achieve this milestone, you should be very proud. We truly could not have gotten this far without your constant love and support. And to all the teachers, staff members, and community members who helped us to reach this point, thank you so much. I know this year was not what any of us were expecting or hoping it to be, but the hard work and support of all of you have made it so much more manageable.

When I learned I had been elected valedictorian I was a bit surprised; considering I have in the past publicly written about how frustrating my experience at PECI was. I know that many of you had difficult experiences here as well. High school isn’t easy. School should be a place where people feel safe and able to learn, and I cannot truthfully say PECI was that place for everyone. I have been disappointed in this school many times. I know it has failed many of you on more than one occasion and I want you to know I recognize that and you deserve better. This school and community have so much potential and it is our generation that is in the position to create that shift towards a better society; a future where people can be appreciated for themselves and everything they bring to the table. Creating real change isn’t easy, but it is possible. Even in just the four years I’ve been at PECI, this community has grown so much. None of us are perfect, and we are not graduating from a perfect school. That being said, for many people this building has acted as another home; a safe place when they needed it. We must not undermine the importance of such a space for youth. It can be difficult to come to terms with the discrepancies that exist between the experiences of different people, often for reasons outside of their control. The priority needs to be on making sure our community becomes a positive place for every child, no matter what they look like or where they come from.

Talia Epstein at a student protest in April 2019. (Desirée Decoste/ Gazette Staff)

Whether your experience here was amazing, terrible, or more likely a combination of ups and downs, you should understand how major it is that you made it through. It has been so wonderful to see our school community grow from a place where students were scared to speak up about the issues we were facing, to one where we became able to support ourselves and each other in new ways.

I would never have imagined in Grade 9 that there would one day be a Pride flag flying outside the school, or that I would see my holidays acknowledged in the front foyer as Hanukkah was this past year. So much progress has been made over our time here, and there is still so much room to grow. I know many of us have younger siblings, family members, or friends who are still at PECI or will be in the coming years. I want to thank each and every one of you, graduates, staff members, and community members, for striving to make PECI a place where they can be safe and happy.

I am confident Prince Edward County will continue to progress, and I am so excited to see how this graduating class helps inspire and encourage that moving forward.

To my fellow graduates, I know our world feels so upside down right now. For most people, it has been a very challenging year. We experienced Grade 12 in a way no other class has, and quite possibly never will. This year has been full of uncertainty and surprises. Figuring out how to navigate online classes has been a learning curve for students and staff alike. I’m sure teachers never thought we would see the insides of their houses, just as I never thought I would learn that Ms. Rideout lives with a lifesize cardboard cutout of Jason Momoa.

Living through a pandemic is something most people never thought they would experience, and as we start to emerge back into a somewhat normal routine, the challenges of the past year have been thrown into sharp relief. The fact that this class managed to navigate this situation and still succeed is hugely impressive.

For many of us, myself included, graduating high school is just about the most important and exciting thing we have ever accomplished. We can and should celebrate that. At the same time, I want to take this opportunity to talk about moving forward. Graduation, or commencement, marks an opportunity to progress into new territory. To commence means to begin, and I truly want to encourage my fellow graduates to take this chance to begin the next chapter of our lives as the best people we can be. The world we are entering is a tense and complicated place. We are being asked to reckon with a society who’s injustices are being revealed. The way we respond to the challenges our communities are facing will determine the kind of world in which future generations are going to grow. Each and every one of the people graduating this year has the ability to make a difference. Our voices are powerful. I know it may not seem like it, but if you speak up about something you are passionate about, people will listen. Finding our voices and learning how to use them is a key part of becoming active participants in our society.Our country and community are places where standing by and staying silent send a message. None of us should be complicit in the systems and norms that have for so long disadvantaged some people while protecting others.

Opportunities to get involved in the world around us are readily available, all we have to do is seek them out. Many of the members of this graduating class have already had some experience with such involvement. I know many students attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Picton last year. Some people were involved in the anti homophobia protests at the Catholic Church in June of 2019. Others may have attended recent gatherings for the 215 Indigenous children found at the Kamloops Residential School in BC. Attending and engaging in events like these is an important part of becoming aware of the realities of our society. For me, it was so encouraging to see the community come together to facilitate these things.

In the county, we exist within a comparatively monocultural community. It often requires a conscious effort to expose ourselves to diversity. I implore you all to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to expand your world views. After graduation, members of this class are going in so many different directions. Some of us are leaving the county, while others are going to remain here. For those of us who are leaving, some will be back, and others will take this chance to get as far away as they can. There is no wrong decision when it comes to doing the best you can for your own life. Wherever you find yourself in the fall and in the years to come, the things this class learned and experienced in the county will always influence how we see the world.

The best thing we can do is continue to gather experiences and form our unique perspectives. Commencement is an opportunity to continue to learn, whether that be in a formal institution of higher education or through the everyday experiences that we will all encounter. Whatever happens in each of our lives over the coming months and years, the people we become will be far more important than the jobs or titles we hold.

Every graduate in this class is capable of achieving anything they set out to do, but it is so important that we do not sacrifice our morals for our goals. If at the end of the day you are proud of the person you are, that will be far more rewarding than having achieved any kind of conventional success. This class is full of incredibly intelligent and ambitious people. We should all be focused on our goals and intent on achieving them; and along the way we must remember to keep sight of our priorities.

As long as we value our relationships and remain focused on bettering the world around us, there should be no stopping this class. Even in very difficult times, there are always people who do the right thing. Every person in this graduating class is fully capable of being one of those people. We all have a voice, and as long as we live in such an imperfect world, we must be ready to use it.

In the words of Elie Wiesel, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I trust every student, teacher, and community member hearing these words will take them to heart, and remember our responsibility to fight for a world we can be proud of. On behalf of Prince Edward Collegiate Institute’s graduating class of 2021, thank you.

-Talia Epstein