U.S Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was inducted into the Meriden Hall of Fame on Sunday. His acceptance speech was a love letter to his family and the city of Meriden.
Prior to joining President Biden’s cabinet last year, Dr. Cardona served as a teacher, principal, and district leader in Meriden and as state commissioner of education for Connecticut.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, congratulating Dr. Cardona at the ceremony, said, “There is nobody in the president’s cabinet right now who is doing more to advance the agenda of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have today to rebuild America.”
Secretary Cardona began his eloquent, emotional, and passionate speech by recalling the fear and trepidation he experienced on his first day of kindergarten.
A Daunting Start to His Educational Career
“My first day of school is memorable,” he said. “I wore a cocoa brown, three-piece suit to school. I remember that day as one of my first life memories. I remember seeing all those big kids, and an overwhelming fear came over me. I thought to myself, ‘I cannot do this.’
“I remember crying so much on my first day that the nurse had to call my mom to come and pick me up. As I sat in the nurse’s office, I was nauseous. My stomach was in knots. I was dejected and confused. I submitted to the fact that I wasn’t cut out for this school thing. At that moment, I made the decision that I was never going back. As I went home with my mami, I was thankful for two things: one that I had a cocoa brown suit on and two, that my mom quickly gave me a bath. You do the math. Put a pin in this story; I’ll come back to it later.”
He thanked the Meriden Historical Society and the Meriden Hall of Fame and said he was honored to share the recognition with the other honorees, Bruce Burchsted, Rose Cignatta, Larry Pelletier, and the late Philip Handel.
Sharing the Honor with Family
“This award is special,” he said, “because it acknowledges my lived experiences. It’s a culmination of who I am, and I cannot accept this without sharing it with the people who shaped those experiences.”
Of his wife, Marissa, and children, Miguel Jr. and Celine, he said, “You give me purpose. Just thinking of the three of you pushes me to do my best.” He went on to thank his extended family and friends, saying, “You shaped my life so significantly that without you I wouldn’t be here.”
Following are excerpts from the rest of the speech:
“Sarah and Hector (Miguel’s mother and father), you taught me to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect, regardless of whether it’s the person cleaning my office or the president of the United States. Mami, since day one, you taught me service, humility, and sacrifice. You never complained. You persevered. Papi, I have the honor of being the second most well-known Cardona in Meriden. One of my greatest titles to this day is to be referred to as Hector’s kid. To my family, this honor is as much yours as it is mine.
Community: A Profound Influence
“When thinking about who I should thank, I couldn’t help but go back to a person who has been with me since day one. Someone who has had my back when I did well, but who was also there for me when I failed. This is someone who I relied on and always felt comfortable around no matter what I was experiencing. This person accepted me for me and made me feel like I was not less than anyone else.
“The only issue here is that this person isn’t actually a person. It’s a place. It’s Meriden. In preparing my remarks, I felt that I had to personify the city because of its impact on me. Like the influence of my family, my entrance into the Hall of Fame is because I learned life lessons from Meriden. In fact, I embody qualities as a person that Meriden has as a city. The city of Meriden and what it represents permeated into my DNA and shaped me to be the person who is being honored.
“You see, from Meriden I learned grittiness. I learned you can go from Washington Middle School to Washington, D.C. You can translate your passion for equity by celebrating Puerto Rican festivals with Papi or talking safe school reopening with POTUS. It’s the same grittiness and the same passion that I got from these streets here in Meriden. And from Meriden I got resilience and never giving up. I wouldn’t trade this blue-collar community for any other life.
Never Give Up
“I would say I was born rich. No silver spoon growing up, but I lacked nothing. Meriden taught me that when things get tough you get tougher. And you never give up. We don’t give up on ourselves. We don’t give up on our families. And we don’t give up on our community.
“From Meriden I learned to lead with a chip on my shoulder. To be fueled by the doubters and those who have lowered their expectations for me. Meriden taught me that. Throughout my life, like Meriden, when surrounded by others that may have a sense of superiority or question my potential, I rise and I exceed expectations, like Meriden.
“Part of the reason why I have a remote office here. . . is to make sure that when I’m having bi-lateral conversations with people in other countries or forgiving billions of dollars in student loans or standing up for transgender students, I’m doing it from downtown Meriden and nowhere else.
‘I’m Nothing Without Community’
“Don’t bet against me, and don’t bet against Meriden. From Meriden I learned to lead with a greater purpose. My experience as a teacher, a principal, assistant superintendent, and life-long resident taught me that I’m nothing without community. That this community has given me more than I have ever given it. That its people who are different colors, come from different backgrounds, and have different abilities and beliefs make up this beautiful tapestry that allowed me to expand my understanding.
“You see, whether I’m talking to a parent or someone who wants to share a story with me at the farmers’ market, or discussing diplomacy with the King of Spain, Meriden taught me to see the person and not the title. That’s why I say I’m the same from the barrio to the briefing room. Meriden taught me that.
“I accept this honor on behalf of all of us who recognize how important this community is. Meriden, you’re as much a part of my success as my family and my education. You are a piece of me, and I am a piece of you. Your virtues became my virtues. Your attribute of grittiness, that chip on your shoulder, that resilience — they became my attributes because of Meriden.
A Journey Propelled by Grit
“And that is why that scared five-year-old kid who didn’t make it through his first day of school got back up and went back. He went back to school on day two. And then he went back on day three. And then he kept going. Then he went to Washington Middle School. He went to Wilcox Tech. And because of that grittiness, that resilience, that chip on his shoulder, he wanted to go to college, get his master’s, get his doctorate, be a teacher, a principal, a district leader, lead the state. And like Meriden, people questioned and wondered if he would make it, but he just kept going. And because of Meriden, that scared five-year-old is now humbled to serve as the top educator in the best country in the world.
“There’s nothing special about me, and there’s nothing special about my story. I’m just a goofy little kid born at Yale Acres, lived on Lewis Ave, Newton Street, came from a great family and a wonderful community. So when my picture hangs in the hallway of our City Hall or you see me on a plaque or you see me on TV, think of Meriden and how there are thousands of quiet and maybe even scared little kids like I was who are being shaped by our beautiful city and remember in those kids there lies potential to change the world.”