OAKLAND, Calif – Eighteen-year-old Ahmed Muhammad has inspired, led and motivated his fellow classmates at Oakland Technical High School on countless occasions over their four years together.
And on Saturday, he brought it all home with an uplifting, empowering commencement speech as he addressed the class of 2021 as his school’s first-ever Black male valedictorian.
During a ceremony that brought classmates together in-person for the first time since the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, the Stanford University-bound teen reflected on the challenges endured by the class which saw the last two years of their time in high school dismantled by a once in a century pandemic.
With the world around them shutting down, Muhammad said that he and his classmates faced “a completely altered way of life and no template, no blueprint” to follow. He went on to describe it as a feeling of “being trapped in a glass jar, our wings banging against the glass ceilings, as we were unable to fly.”
But while the pandemic challenged them in ways they could have never imagined, he reminded the class of 2021 that time and time again, it has proven its strength and fight in the face of adversity.
“It’s not like we hadn’t been tested before,” Muhammad told his classmates, as he listed moments in history that marked their high school years.
“In 9th grade, 17 people were murdered in the Parkland, Florida school shooting,” he reminded them. “Upset and horrified and fed up, we took a stand. Thousands of us led, organized and participated in the walkouts to protest gun violence. Remember being out there in front of the school?” he asked.
Muhammad also brought up the Oakland Unified School District’s teachers’ strike the following year when they were in 10th grade. “We went on strike alongside our teachers and protested for fair wages and equitable resources,” he said. “We rallied, we organized, we marched.” And he described how in 11th grade, the students joined thousands in San Francisco to take part in a global youth climate demonstration, as they marched “for the sustainability and longevity of our planet.”
Then the summer before their senior year as the pandemic intensified, they marched for Black lives and racial justice– for Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and others. “Piling on top of the trauma, Black people were being gunned down by police. We marched in the streets in the middle of the pandemic because we’d had enough,” the teen said, noting that they were continuing the work of those who came before them.
“That summer of 2020, even until now we made our ancestors from the civil rights movement proud. We honor the legacy of the Black Panthers who hailed from our great city, some even from this great school,” the valedictorian reminded his fellow classmates, adding, “A pandemic didn’t stop us.”
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