Message from Caldwell High grad after a year like no other: ‘Focus on what really matters’

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Editor’s note: The following is the senior speech delivered by graduating senior Camden Maldonado at Caldwell High School’s graduation ceremony this year. She has shared her speech for publication in the Idaho Statesman.

I grew up here in Caldwell and have lived here my whole life. I don’t know anything else but the city of Caldwell. My family is from the wrong side of the tracks, as some would say.

I was raised by my single mother since I was 8 years old, and I know what it’s like to struggle, even if my mom thinks I don’t. My mom is the strongest and most independent woman I know. She has raised four kids on her own, while trying her best to be happy and hide her struggles from us. I’m her only daughter, so when she raised a daughter while being single and independent, I don’t think she realized the strong woman she was raising, as well.

When I was young, I spent most of my time with my paternal grandma, who spoke broken English and lived alone. She taught me the majority of my Latino culture. As soon as I could write I was writing letters for her, spelling words and translating bills.

Every morning we walked to the old Paul’s in downtown Caldwell to get donuts and coffee. In the summer she would hook up a small dollar store sprinkler so I could get wet, and if I was lucky she’d give me change to walk across the street to get a paleta from Azteca, which is now a Pantera Market.

In middle school, I was a lot different than I am now. I was embarrassed of my family and I tried my hardest to be cool and fit in. For several years my mom was in and out of jobs. She got pregnant at a young age and was barely able to graduate high school, so getting and keeping a job was hard. When I was in seventh grade she was a substitute for the Caldwell School District. I remember she subbed a couple times in the cafeteria and in my math class. I remember trying so hard to avoid her because I was embarrassed that my mom was serving lunch or subbing for a teacher. Little did I know she was just trying to make extra money to pay bills and be able to give us what we want.

Despite where we come from, my family’s history, and the struggles we’ve faced, my mom has done an amazing job setting an example for her kids. I have a huge family, and out of all my tíos, tías and cousins, my mom’s kids are the first kids to go to college. I will be the fourth kid in my entire family, on both sides to go to college.

Being a first-generation college student has been hard. But I was fortunate enough to have older brothers to make it slightly easier for me.

Many of you will be the first in your family to graduate high school and the first to go to college. That makes you first generation. I hope you all know that that is so important, and this is a big deal.

I wouldn’t understand the importance of being first-generation if it wasn’t for my TRIO educational specialist, Josh Engler. Josh is the reason I’m able to do the great things that I am today. He’s taught me that my voice has a purpose and that I belong. Josh has a special place in the hearts of my family because he was also the TRIO teacher for my two older brothers, and a connection that my oldest brother has, as well. Josh is the foundation for all of my educational opportunities, and I can’t thank him enough for changing my life. I also know that my mom appreciates Josh for always being there for her kids and inspiring us to chase our dreams.

For many of us who grew up here in Caldwell, come from a low-income family, lived on the wrong side of the tracks or are first generation, we do things for the sake of others and to make our family proud. Caldwell High School has the most passionate students I know. Every year I’ve been able to see a perfect example of passion from a group of kids who do things for all the right reasons. My freshman year I witnessed the boys varsity soccer team come second in the state championship. Many fell to their knees, cried and prayed. The heart that we have as a community felt for them because we knew how deserving they were. However, it showed the next two years when they brought home two back-to-back state soccer championships. They did it for their family and their culture. I don’t know a single person who can say that anyone deserved it more than them.

Being from a small community has been the biggest blessing. We’ve been able to build relationships with our peers, teachers and staff. I don’t know if any other school has a lunchroom and custodial staff that makes them feel as at home. Every day I went though that lunch line and I felt like I was their own. They hold a special place in my heart. The comfort that Caldwell High School has given me, and some of you, is incredible. For some of us, this has been our safe place for four years. The teachers, traditions, extracurriculars and life values will be incredibly missed. I know that many of us wish that our senior year was different. We’ve waited four years to be in the front row of our student sections, to run into the homecoming assembly chanting “senior power” and get the full senior experience.

If it wasn’t for COVID-19, we would have been able to do so. Fourteen months in, and I would say that we made it. There’s been countless times that some of us could have thrown the towel in and given up, but we chose to stay, we chose to keep fighting and take care of ourselves, and now look, we’re here. As a class we’ve chosen to make the best of every situation and obstacles thrown at us and keep moving forward.

For many of us this has been the hardest 14 months of our lives. In the beginning of the pandemic, I almost lost my mom for good. I went almost two months without seeing her, which was the longest I’ve gone without her. Being alone caused me to take steps backwards, and I almost lost myself a couple times, as well. In those moments I remembered to stay strong for my mom. She didn’t raise her youngest and only daughter all on her own to give up when she needed me most. But she also taught me that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to take a step back from reality. Moving forward, I want us all to know that your mental health is beyond important. If you continue to take care of yourself, then it will be easier not to lose yourself in the process of becoming a better you.

In spite of all things COVID, I’ll remember how we made the best of it by remembering to be there for one another and continuing to look at the bright side and toward this moment. I can passionately say that our senior class is filled with some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. The students in our class are incredibly capable of great things. This group is the most politically active, community-oriented and academically driven students I have ever met. All these things matter now more than ever, and our seniors are making it happen. We have students who are using their voices for the better, students who are attending prestigious colleges across the country and students who are staying local and continuing to contribute to the betterment of our community.

What I do after college is for the sole purpose of giving back to what gave me the most. And hopefully one day, years and years from now, I’ll be in our amazing principal, Anita Wilson’s position, or even Dr. Shalene French’s position.

And now here’s some advice I wish someone had given me four years ago. To all the freshmen, I encourage you to live in the moment. Enjoy where you are now so you don’t regret it later. Take time for yourself and discover who you really are. Spend your time focusing on what really matters. Four years from now, it won’t matter what you wore to school that day, whether or not you failed that test, or if you tripped over that hurdle at practice. Everything will come together and you’ll soon realize that everything happens for a reason. And of course, study hard and do your best in your classes now because it’s going to be 100% worth it in the long run.

Our school has a strong community and I value the time we’ve spent together. During this time, I also think about how far we’ve come, the struggles we’ve faced, those we’ve lost along the way, and the accomplishments throughout the journey. I encourage you all to never forget where you came from, where you are now, and where you hope to end up.

Until then, live in the moment, cherish those around you and be kind to yourself. Thank you so much class of 2021!

Camden Maldonado, a 2021 graduate of Caldwell High School, gave the senior address at Caldwell High’s graduation ceremony.

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