A Valedictorian Masters Her English Speech02:34

This article is more than 10 years old.

"We had relatively few choices, few opportunities, but we did not complain. We focused on the opportunities we had."

Salma Hussain, on her birthday last year (Courtesy)
Salma Hussain, on her birthday last year (Courtesy)

A few days away from graduation night, 17-year-old Salma Hussain, of English High School, is working on her valedictory. Her speech coach wants her to improve the delivery and slow down a little.

"I wrote it a couple weeks ago," Salma says. "But now I'm practicing how I'm going to read it in the graduation because there are going to be 15,000 — I mean hundred — people."

Fifteen-hundred might feel like 15,000 when Gov. Deval Patrick is going to be on the stage and your family's going to be in the audience.

"Now I'm reading and practicing how I'm going to pronounce it," she says. "I remember one of the words is 'tutors.' I know how to do it now. Like 'tu-tors.' "

Salma reads another excerpt — with new emphasis.

"My mother worked very hard and saved every cent she could. My siblings and I had a tutor who came every afternoon and helped us with our homework."

The pages of her valedictory have big type, bold underlines, continuing rewrites and notes from the speech coach in the vein of "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." But Salma needs no help with her story itself — transcendent, transcontinental and thoroughly American.

Salma came here — she remembers the exact date: May 11, 2006 — from Bangladesh with her parents and three siblings. None of them spoke English. Dressed in Indian clothes, she arrived at Boston English, now called The English High School, unable to find the stairs or to ask where they were.

Boston Public Schools valedictorians pose for pictures at a luncheon last week at Boston Harbor Hotel. (Courtesy) (Click to enlarge)
Boston Public Schools valedictorians pose for pictures at a luncheon last week at Boston Harbor Hotel. (Courtesy) (Click to enlarge)

She says she had no friends here at first.

"No, no one," Salma says. "In order to be friend you have to talk to them, you have to say something, but I don't even know how to say it, so how am I going to have friend? No, I didn't have friend, at all."

What she had was aching ambition. Ambition that reached all the way back to the village where she started school with no chair, no desk, no shoes, no electricity.

"I've been No. 1 from first grade," Salma says. "I just can't think of anything else better than No. 1. I have to be the best one. I have to get the best grade."

So how do you figure that the formula to success would be putting someone like Salma in a chronically under-performing high school with metal detectors, poor test scores and a third of its students unable to do schoolwork in English?

Sito Narcisse, the energetic headmaster leading English High toward a turnaround, says it makes sense.

"That's the resiliency piece," Narcisse says. "It's a tough school, but in some capacity it does its best with tough students in trying to get them to get there. She has that mental toughness."

A hardship was only a hardship. Like so many of the African and Asian students that make English High a hothouse of hip-hop, hijabs and high-reaching hopes under 76 flags but one ambition, Salma quickly made her way from English as a Second Language Level 1, to ESL 2, to ESL 3. Soon enough she'd graduated to English Literature, advanced placement college level.

Salma's English High senior portrait
Salma's English High senior portrait

Her story gives her speech a clear theme.

"(The theme is) that you can be successful, no matter where you are," she says. "People complain, 'We don't have this, we don't have that, I can't do it.' But I'm showing that here you have it. You just need to look for it. When you look for it, you see it's right there and you just get it."

At a recent luncheon for all the valedictorians of Boston Public Schools, Salma's mother proudly sat beside her. In Bangladesh, where there was no free education, her small income had gone to paying for Salma's books, pencils and tutors. This September, Salma enters Smith College on a full, four-year scholarship.

Again, she's got a clear focus.

"I'll do the med program (and) I'll go to medical school for four years," she says.

And Salma plans to go to Harvard. Don't bet against her.

But nailing her valedictory on Tuesday may require one skill she hasn't yet mastered: Slowing down.

"We had relatively few choices, few opportunities. But we did not complain. We focused on the opportunities we had."

Very good. Very good.

This program aired on June 11, 2010.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.