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Let them be

 What CNMI politicians can learn from wise students

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — Besides the holidays, graduation season is my favorite time of the year. That’s when we hear or read about the promotion and graduation speeches of the islands’ top students. They are always hopeful, impeccably gracious and wise beyond their years.

This year, a middle school valedictorian reminded his classmates that “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself. You may be given multiple opportunities, but it is up to you to use those opportunities.” (A piece of advice that should be heeded by everyone — adults included.) 

A high school valedictorian told her peers, “I am in no position to tell any of you what to do with your lives, but maybe that’s exactly what I want you to hear. I hope the people you become are the ones that you’ve dreamed for yourselves, even against conflicting voices, and I hope you enjoy the journey.”

Another high school valedictorian acknowledged that English is not her first language. She was raised by a single mom and was not financially stable for most of her childhood. And then her home was destroyed by Typhoon Yutu. She said she had to live independently in the most crucial years of high school. “I could’ve just sulked with all my problems,” she added, “but I pushed myself to become better than that because I’m worth more than the struggles I faced.” She is now headed to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship.

These are tales of redemption. And they are true stories.

One of them made the front page of Marianas Variety many years ago: “MHS Students Choose ‘Honor’ Over Glory.”

‘Two members of Marianas High School’s…graduating class stood before their parents and…their peers…and told them that they were refusing the highest honors that school had to offer. They [said] personal honor meant more than ‘a trophy that will soon rust and fade away.’”

In her address, the valedictorian, a local girl, said she would not accept the honor because it didn’t belong to her. She said it belonged to one of her classmates, a Korean, who had received the highest grades. She said “every student should get what they deserve, regardless of where they come from…. My father once described me as knowing ‘black’ from ‘white.’ The injustice done to [my classmate] is ‘black’ and I want nothing to do with it. Of course, I want to be valedictorian, but more than that, I want to be fair.”

The salutatorian also declined the honor, which she said belonged to her twin sister. “If she is denied what she deserves it serves me no purpose to accept something that does not make me happy.”

Such integrity — such purity of heart.

Even the then-editor of Marianas Variety was moved: “How many times has it been said, ‘What’s wrong with our kids today?’ Well, from where we sit, the Commonwealth can be proud of its graduating seniors…. We congratulate these young people for not yielding to the pressure of society and ‘going along’ with something they felt was morally wrong. Their actions should give the people of the CNMI hope that this generation, tomorrow’s leaders, have instilled within an uncompromising sense of what’s right or wrong.”

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is a small U.S. territory that is big in education. Then and now, regardless of the local economic condition, government officials are consistent champions of education.

Several years ago, when the then-governor was perceived to be bullying education officials over funding issues, a group of lawmakers and an overwhelming majority of voters responded by approving a legislative initiative to increase public education’s share of annual government revenue to 25 percent from 15 percent.

For their part, candidates for public office and nominees to departments, commissions and boards are expected to be highly educated or college graduates at least.

However, whenever they speak at graduation ceremonies, many of these same officials end up blabbering banalities. Each year, some of them will urge the graduates to get their college degrees and come back to the islands to “help solve our problems.”

Why the heck should we saddle the youth with our frustrations and delusions over problems of our own making?  The CNMI’s primary problem — since ever since, as the kids would put it — is a government that spends more than it can collect. It is an overreaching government that is part Santa Claus and part Sugar Daddy, but entirely broke because the local economy is small and extremely vulnerable to outside forces and events over which we have little or no control.

To “solve” this problem we don’t need to wait for this year’s high school graduates to obtain their college diplomas in the U.S. and return to the CNMI. All we need is to reduce the size of government, impose fiscal discipline on all its three branches, ease the regulatory burden on the private sector, and create and maintain a more business-friendly jurisdiction.

But there are not enough voters who support those critically needed measures. A politician who publicly vows to reduce government spending by cutting government jobs and/or government pay is, as they say, DOA before Election Day.

And all politicians want to make the CNMI “more business-friendly” — until they get into office. That’s when they introduce tax and fee hikes and other “popular” but economically illiterate pieces of legislation.

Perhaps the best advice one can give to high school graduates is to remind them why they shouldn’t go into politics.

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,”is available on

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