Two weeks before my high school seniors graduated, I asked my AP English Literature students to write their own Valedictorian Speech. Much like past years, the actual Valedictorian and Salutatorian were in the class, but for their benefit, as well as a way for all the rest to express their ideas, they all wrote and then recited speeches. I was so moved listening that I am compelled to share snippets from a few of them with you. Their words are about hope, and after all, that’s what we need: day and night, simply hope.
“Graduating isn’t just about getting out of high school, although it might seem like the number one thing to celebrate. It’s about moving on; it’s about sinking your nails deep into the world’s various opportunities and seeing what you can pull up. Some of us will move on to enhance our education. Some of us will take charge in the work force. Some of us might even focus on starting a family or traveling across the globe. Whatever it may be, don’t do it for your parents. Don’t do it for your friends or societal expectations. Do it for you.”
“Although this may seem like the end, it is not nearly the end. It may feel like the end of your friendship, or the end of a great athletic career, or even your last act, but it isn’t. You all will never stop growing and learning, nor will you lose the people you have here. It is not time to imagine an ending but to embrace the beginning of a grand future before you. Focus on you, and focus on your future and what it may entail.”
“We were born dreamers. We aren’t meant to live in fear. We are meant to stay those children with expectations bigger than the oceans. If anything, we should expand our dreams as we grow older. We should hold ourselves even more accountable now that we have tools to make our dreams happen. We strive to meet the expectations that we set for ourselves. If we tell ourselves we can then we will. So tell yourself you can.”
“So here’s a word of advice. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to say hello to the person sitting next to you in your college chemistry class. Don’t be afraid to sit with the group of kids you don’t know in the cafeteria. Don’t be afraid to go out alone. We’ve all done this before. We all met each other once. Sure we were five and fearless but none the less we did it. Our school has been our home. It has kept us safe and warm, but now we must fly on to build new nests. As we do this, I challenge you to keep an open mind, experience new things, meet new people and love the life you live, because if you don’t, what was it all for anyway? So be five years old and fearless, and go out there and kill it.”
Although I have never been a Graduation Speaker myself, I though I would attempt crafting that speech. Given the chance what advice would you give the Class of 2016? Here is a slice of what I thought to say.
“I am honored and delighted to be able to address you all. Although one is expected to impart wisdom when asked to speak at such an occasion, I am aware that my words, fleeting and floaty like confetti, may only barely reach your ears. Looking back at all the advice I was given during my early years, I must say, I didn’t I listened to much of it. Not that I didn’t want to, but I have a stubborn streak, a bit of independent that precluded learning from others. I imagine there are those of you sitting in the audience this morning that might relate to this. At times I wish I had listened to those who told me to take the smoother, well-worn path in life, instead of the less marked route, but I didn’t see myself discovering much going their way.
Time and time again I made off on what now feels like a crazy exploration. Now before you start thinking how wonderful and magical explorations can be, don’t forget they are filled with dangers and pitfalls, all which come along unexpectedly and often painfully. There are times when there is no movement whatsoever, and you feel life spinning away while you sit solid and uncertain.
Perhaps only in reflection are these moments so very precious. For at the time you can’t quite see your way out of yourself. When you do, however, it will be exactly what you hoped life would be. And it will be all your own. Mistakes and all.
Today you step out and away from your cozy home and your dearest friends and your own small past, into a vast world that needs your talents. Our world is desperate for people willing to do what it takes to solve the complex problems dominating our headlines. Focus on finding the one task that you really love to do, and learn to be the very best at doing it. Don’t stagnate. Let one step lead you to the next. Let your heart and mind be your compass. Say yes to every dawn you are gifted. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Stretch a bit for excellence. Pay attention to the evening stars. Beyond. Like floating confetti, blow about for a bit, but do come back. Let me know what you discover.”
My rewarding journey with these students, and those who filled the seats before them, is always what keeps me returning to the classroom. Their undying belief that life is worth living, that dreams do come true, and that we will get To the Lighthouse together, (inside joke connected to them getting through my very favorite but difficult Woolf novel and me taking them to a real, although on-ground museum lighthouse) are all worth believing. Hope. Essential.
*** Graduation Photo by Jay Kennedy