Courageous, award winning student speeches

This column originally was published by ECM Publications during April and May, 2016.

Courageous, award-winning student speeches

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

The student’s essay begins: “‘You’re not going to amount to anything. You’re nothing but a half-breed bitch.’ These are the things that are said in a place I’m supposed to call home. Home is a place where I’m supposed to feel accepted, safe. But to me, home is appropriately called hell, for many reasons.”

The award-winning essay from the student who was assaulted concludes with her rejecting advice that “forgiveness is the key to moving on from something like this.”

Instead, she’s concluded: “Moving on from something like this is to succeed. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to graduate in June and go to college to be a neurosurgeon. I’m going to move out and never look back on this life. And I promise myself that I will never let myself fall into this type of relationship, because a true man will never put his hands on a woman.”

This northwest suburban student’s essay won first place and a standing ovation from the more than 200 students who participated in a recent statewide conference and competition sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs, aka MAAP.

Another finalist, a youngster who immigrated to the U.S., wrote that her mother “spent her entire life savings to send me here.” But high school has been a struggle: “I was constantly bullied because of my English and clothing. My accent was an … amusement for classmates. … However, I couldn’t let myself sink. … I am finishing high school this summer and am proud to call my mom now and say ‘I did it.’”

Those were judged two of the best presentations at the 16th annual MAAP STARS spring conference April 14-15, where 237 students from 30 Minnesota alternative schools and programs made public presentations, conducted mock interviews, shared their community service projects and videos, and displayed their art.

Sammi Ryding (Submitted photo)

Sammi Ryding (Submitted photo)

Along with courage, several presentations displayed insight and compassion.

Public presentations finalist Sammi Ryding from Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids wrote: “I’m passionate about teen homelessness because I have seen many faces of homelessness. Even in one of my closest friend(s). She has personally experienced being homeless as a teen. She wasn’t accepted by her family and friends … and she soon believed then felt she had no other option other than to run away … so that’s what she did. … I wonder when people will realize we take things for granted when there are those that are praying for even a glimmer of what we have.”

Belicia Rodriguez (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Belicia Rodriguez (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Belicia Rodriguez of the Osseo Area Learning Center placed second for her fact-filled, passionate plea for people to stop eating animals. She wrote: “That may sound very difficult, or nearly impossible, but it’s not as hard as it may seem. Pretty much everything out there has an alternative version that does not contain any animal products. … In one day alone, eating vegan can save 1,100 gallons of water, 45 lbs of grain, 30 sq. ft. of forest, 10 lbs of greenhouse gases, and an animal’s life. “

First- and second-place winners in various divisions came from, among others, Apple Valley ALC, Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Ivan Sand Community High School in Elk River, Hopkins Alternative Program, the Osseo Area Learning Center, Highview Alternative School in Robbinsdale and the Community Learning Project in St. Paul. The statistics and summary of winners come from a recently completed report by Patti Haasch, a retired alternative school educator who volunteers to coordinate the program.

Sammi’s speech concludes: “I’m asking you to open your eyes and pay attention to homeless teens. My hope is just that you and I together can make a difference.”

You and I can, with a modest commitment, help make a difference. MAAP is seeking judges for its conference next year. It’s a limited, one- or two-day commitment. If you are interested, please let me know. You’ll help recognize courageous youngsters. But you’ll also hear “soul-stirring” presentations that will enrich your life.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at

4 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Courageous, award-winning student speeches

  1. Tom King says:

    What matters most to me, Joe, is this powerful phalanx of able and articulate kids who can stand up and show the world what they can do in a school that helps them learn and grow….district, charter, private.

    It all starts with kids who want to learn and teachers who help make it happen….Tom

  2. Great article, glad to see the thought provoking concepts delivered by such strong individuals.

  3. Wayne Jennings says:

    Joe Nathan in a heart warming column has added more proof that students, even those facing adversity, can do outstanding work. Our Minnesota system provides opportunities for learners who need additional help and for those who don’t fit the conventional school. It shows again the importance of having a variety of schools and programs to meet unique student needs and choices. Every school district should have a range of programs as provided for in Minnesota statutes 124D.085.

  4. Finding your voice is the start of finding your way.