A Poem for the Class of 2022
And a reminder that beauty is discovered, not achieved.
SEVEN YEARS AGO this summer, I ventured on my first solo trip out of Orlando, Florida, as a scholarship kid. I sat in an Amtrak for 24 hours as it went up to Washington, D.C., for a “Scholars Weekend” that my scholarship foundation had organized to welcome the incoming class of first-years to the program. At the time, I hadn’t gotten over my fear of flying—or, my fear of being detained at an airport.
One of the events was a dinner. You know the affair: the tables are circular to foster conversation (unfortunate, because I have terrible hearing), the servers circle you and present the dishes like synchronized swimmers, and the food is always, always some variation of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and green bean amandine.
The keynote speaker was former Secretary of State Colin Powell. I couldn’t tell you what he said. But I do remember the person who came next: Elizabeth Acevedo. I had never heard of her. Earlier that day we had all received her then-recently published book, The Poet X (which won the National Book Award) with our welcome tote bags. She stood at the lectern, her curls parted down the middle, cascading perfectly, and the entire ballroom was filled with her presence.
Mind you, up until this point, the only poetry I had cared for came from AP English Literature. I could tell you about Dickinson, Shakespeare, Hughes, Blake, Walcott, Yeats, and the rest, but I had never seen a poem written by an Acevedo—much less performed. The poets I had read were all dead.
Nor did I really have much of an appreciation for the world around me. For many years, the only other living things we had at home in Venezuela were the cockroaches that would scamper as soon as you flicked the light on. When I was outside, I only recognized trees by the fruit they bore; the rest of my attention was taken up with making sure we didn’t get jumped.
So when Acevedo took the stage and started talking about rats, I knew the creature well. I also knew she was about to blow everyone away.
She told the room about how, when she was doing her MFA, a poetry professor gave her class an assignment: to write an ode. Odes are songs written in admiration of beautiful things, often describing in detail what makes the subject worthy of praise. They tend to center on nature, but some, like John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” address the material as well. Acevedo, Afro-Dominican and Harlem-born, knowing that the best option is to write what you already know, chose to write an ode to New York City’s official mascot: the rat. During the critique session, her professor told her a rat was not deserving enough of an ode. (And if you’re wondering, yes, he was.)
Later today, I’ll be graduating from law school. My family is coming into town, suits will be worn, stages will be crossed, photos will be taken. And I can’t help but think of the rat.
How many times have we students of color been compared to nuisances? How many times have we been accused of taking someone else’s spot, of occupying a room without invitation, to the chagrin and surprise of the ones who have always been in those rooms? How many times have we been told we are not “deserving enough” of praise, of poetry?
I certainly have been. When I was thinking about whether or not to go to law school, my most sincere justification was that I wanted to learn about the law. Sometimes, the person’s eyes would stare into the distance and quickly dart back to meet mine, because an alarm had gone off in their head and they had to tell me something but they didn’t want to cut me off but go on finish your sentence so I can furrow my brow and ask you:
“Are you sure this is the right place for you?”
The question stung because it made me doubt myself. At that point, I had been undocumented for about 7 years, jumping through all kinds of hoops so I could get to where I was, in silence. I wasn’t trying to become a lawyer because I wanted to save every other undocumented person in the United States. I was trying to confront the ugly doctrines that made us undocumented in the first place. I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to expose their naked incoherence.
Which brings me back to the rat.
The stories that we tell about ourselves are the foundation of what eventually becomes law. What Acevedo did for me that night was show me that I didn’t need to embellish who I was to assimilate into a culture, but rather that my mission—the mission of any student of color or from a marginalized community—is to use our ingenuity, persistence, and lived experiences to tell a story that has never been thought beautiful. Our ability to find that splendor even in the most broken of souls is what keeps us afloat. And yes, we shouldn’t have to be “resilient” all the time to be worthy of celebration. My point is we already are. I celebrate you.
Yesterday afternoon, a two-spotted ladybug found its way into my living room. I think I would have once grabbed a dish towel and killed it. I took it outside instead. I like to imagine it jumped onto the peony that just bloomed in front of my apartment.
And I think it means good luck.
Congratulations, Class of 2022.
Here’s Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Rat Ode.” You can (and should) watch her perform it here.
Because you are not the admired nightingale. Because you are not the noble doe. Because you are not the picturesque ermine, armadillo, or bat. They’ve been written, and I don’t know their song the way I know your scuttling between walls. The scent of your collapsed corpse rotting beneath floorboards. Your frantic squeals as you wrestle at your own fur from glue traps, ripping flesh from skin in an attempt to survive.Because in July of ’97, you birthed a legion on 109th, swarmed from behind dumpsters, made our street infamous for something other than crack. Shoot, We nicknamed you “Cat-killer,” raced with you through open hydrants, screeched like you when Siete blasted aluminum bat into your brethren's skull— the sound like slapped down dominoes. You reigned that summer, Rat And even when they sent exterminators, set flame to garbage, half dead, and on fire, you pushed on.Because even though you’re an inelegant, simple, a mammal bottom-feeder, always fucking famished little ugly thing that feasts on what crumbs fall from the corner of our mouths, but you live uncuddled, uncoddled, can’t be bought at Petco and fed to fat snakes because you are not the maze-rat of labs: pale, pretty-eyed, trained. You raise yourself sharp-fanged, clawed, scarred, patched dark—because of this alone he should love you. But look at the beast, the poet tells me. The table is already full, and Rat, you are not a right, worthy thing. Every time they say that take your gutter, your dirt coat, fill this page, Rat Scrape your underbelly against street, concrete, you better squeak and raise the whole world, Rat; let loose a plague of words, Rat, and remind them that you, that I— we are worthy of every poem. Here.