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Op-Ed: Lost and Then Found on the Road to HS Graduation

One of New Jersey’s graduating seniors explains to classmates the real meaning of freedom

Aaron Caraballo-Ugaro
Aaron Caraballo-Ugaro

This op-ed is based on the author’s address delivered to 700 students in June.

Four years ago, in my freshman year of high school, I gave up.

I had been at North Star Academy Charter School, part of Uncommon Schools, since fifth grade. And I had had it.

The workload felt like too much. There was too much homework. Too many rules. I rebelled. Detention became my primary after-school activity.

So I quit.

I transferred to a school in a nearby city, and I told myself that it would be a better fit for me because it would be easier.

And it was.

I barely had any homework and my experience became entirely social. At first it was great … or at least I thought it was. It was easy, and it was fun. I was placed in classes with juniors and seniors, I had no responsibilities other than to simply chill after school.

Yet, despite this “fun,” I found myself changing. And my mother noticed. She sat me down and explained that she noticed that the people with whom I was spending my time didn’t seem to look to their futures the way my previous friends did. She noticed that I was more focused on what other’s thought about me and the present, and I had lost sight of who I wanted to be when I first came to North Star in fifth grade. I had lost sight of my future.

I took a hard look at myself. And I couldn’t recognize me. I was lost. And like many lost in the wilderness, escaping shackles, whips, enslavement, the North Star became my guide. I realized that I was in classes with juniors and seniors because North Star had prepared me academically in ways far exceeding that of my new peers. I realized that the people with whom I once spent my time weren’t any better or smarter than my new friends. But at North Star they were taught to be a community. They were taught to work hard. They were taught to change history and give back to others. And that made all the difference.

And for the first time, I realized that I was getting detention not as a punishment, but as validation of my teachers’ belief in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I realized that I left North Star not because I was overwhelmed, rather I left because I had given up on me.

So I came back to North Star. It was one of the best decisions I have made because this school is as constant as the actual North Star. It is always there guiding … guiding each and every one of us.

Following the North Star, despite what obstacles may be in front of you now, will lead you to freedom, as it brought countless people there already … freedom from the bondage of our own insecurity and freedom from the shackles of ignorance. Just as it brought me when I lost my way.

And whether or not you know it, it has led each and every one of us to a better version of ourselves. Just as this entire class of 2016 became living proof that social location will not and should not define a person. Each member of this class in their own right has persevered through challenge and worked incredibly hard to follow the North Star toward their own individual freedoms.

One hundred percent of this graduating class was accepted to a four-year college. That, my friends, is freedom.

This is how you change history. This is how you give back to others. This is how you shine brightly.

Aaron Caraballo-Ugaro is attending Rowan University in the fall.

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