Words of Wisdom from a High School Valedictorian

As I mentioned in my last post, this week I’m spending time in good ole San Antonio, Texas to celebrate my sister’s astonishingly successful graduation from high school. By that I’m referring, of course, to her reign as valedictorian. Well, it so happens that in addition to being intelligent in the conventional sense, my sister is a realist as well. I absolutely loved her graduation speech, and was proud that she had the bravery to deliver it. It was so good, in fact, that I asked her if I could post it here on my blog. She graciously agreed.

Empty seats

“Good afternoon students, parents, teachers, and members of the school board. Honestly, I don’t know what I should say to all of you. My friends have pulled for biting sarcasm, my parents stressed the importance of saying something profound, and school officials have warned me that I need to be inclusive (whatever that means), professional, and yet still maintain a “sense of self” while not boring you all to tears. So, basically a simple enough task. My plans for this speech have corresponded to moments of incredible happiness, when all I wanted to do was get up here and tearfully shout that I loved you all, to periods of biting disappointment when I questioned if it was worth it and if it really would have just been better for me to jump on a cruise ship and casually miss my own graduation. In the end, though, all that I really know is that I’m not qualified to be doling out advice because I don’t even know what my plans are. So instead, I thought I’d just make a promise to all of you – all 743 of you – that everything is going to be ok.

We’re sitting here celebrating an end. What most of you see is the end of four years of occasional classwork, forced socialization, great friends, and parents who still do our laundry. But I think we should be celebrating something else entirely, something that, if we can recognize it, will actually guarantee that we’ll all be ok. For me, that means to stop measuring my self-worth through the grades I receive. It was grades for me. It might be something else for you. Whatever the case, we have a chance to stop trying to be perfect, to be cool, to fit in, because those standards of self-worth will fall away—if we let them.

I am standing here and I am telling you that I do not believe I am the smartest person here. In fact, I almost believe that the fact that I get to talk to you is proof enough of that statement because no one should want to go through what I’ve been through these past four years. We have been taught that “if you don’t work hard enough, you won’t get into college.” Guess what? College isn’t that great. College means that we’ll graduate with an average of over $30, 000 in debt and no guarantee of a job because we won’t be qualified for anything. College means that unless you major in engineering or computer science, your next step is not the Peace Corps, or self-exploration, or a cross-country motorcycle journey but rather a graduate program with a hefty price tag or under- or flat-out unemployment. And I’m asking you what I asked myself last summer when I considered leaving it all behind and going to Europe for a year: is it worth it?

I’ll confess something to you. I’m not excited about college. The carrot that has been dangled in front of me my whole life isn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be once I finally got it. Some of you may disagree; you may feel like college will make all the difference. Some of you might just be excited about 4 years of frat parties. More power to you. To others of you, college might seem terrifying. Some of you might think that high school has been nothing but miserable, so why should college be any different? Or, maybe these past four years have been the best years of your life. All I can say to either group – and I myself fall somewhere in-between, depending on the day – is that we still have so much in front of us. I’m not saying it’ll all be good, and I’m not saying that adulthood will immediately imbue us with the necessary skills and opinions to face the rest of our lives with impunity and wisdom, I’m just saying that we don’t have to know everything to know that we’re all going to be able to make our own kind of happiness.

I hate that I’m standing up here addressing you when I know that right now half of you are probably bored to tears and the other half of you are just waiting for me to finish so you can finally get your diploma. What can I say; there’s too much pressure for me to pull off funny and get away with it. When I look back on high school, I see myself as a freshmen bent on nothing but academic success, studying for hours every night to get perfect grades and prove that I was worth something. Then I see myself this year, when sometimes I’d be too busy to study appropriately, or having too much fun with my friends to care about getting a low A on a test instead of a 100. I don’t know if you could properly label this an evolution, but it’s the start of something. If I could do it again, I’d do it differently. And recognizing that makes me prouder than these honor chords or this medal.

You aren’t given many opportunities in life to undergo a priority re-alignment, to start anew. But the end of high school is one of those pivotal moments—if you use it wisely, that is. If you have allowed others to define happiness for you, if you have allowed institutions to create meaning in your life, then this is a rare instance in which you can let those boundaries fall gracefully away. I know that I’m looking forward to the opportunity to change my priorities. I suspect that the same is true for all of you. Class of 2014, there is no secret to happiness. Just know that if you want it, you have the capacity to define and make it for yourself.”

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18 thoughts on “Words of Wisdom from a High School Valedictorian

  1. CLAP CLAP Brava! Brava! Standing ovation. It’s amazing, but long. Then, it all came together at the end. I felt a sudden uplifting spirit reading the last few lines.

    Hmmm… I want to comment more. 😀
    The first paragraph … advice … you can give any words of wisdom to a person, but in the end that person will decide whatever in his/her gut, heart, intuition anyway.
    Greatness … I am not the sharpest tool in the shed- both technical and knowledge. But I’m a worker who works, who abides, and does whatever my superiors told me to do – I can only try my darnest to give quality result.
    It continues on to happiness … I feel like life doesn’t boil down to (the cliche) love. It boils down to first contentment and ultimately happiness. When it comes to contentment, it’s human nature that we often can’t get enough, that once after success we look for something else or better, or that we just don’t want to get stuck doing something we do routinely. It boils down ultimately on happiness. Even with something so low, if a certain person is content and happy with whatever it is that makes him/her, well, happy and content, so be it! … and it doesn’t matter how society sees it.

    It’s a great speech. I do hope she use her potential to great use. Then again, what I just said is only an advice. She’s going to do what her gut and heart tells her to do. Yup, she doesn’t have to be perfect. And whatever makes her happy, I hope she finds it. 😉

    Thanks for the share, Alina.

    1. Thank you, again, Rommel, for the lovely comment!! My sister is wise beyond her years. Sometimes I forget that she’s a whole five years younger than I am.
      I think the big takeaway, from her speech and your comment, is that if all you ever try to do is live up to society’s standards of happiness, without questioning whether those standards are things that make YOU happy, then you are not likely to ever find it. As for me, a lot of people enjoy parties and find them fun, but usually I just feel uncomfortable. So I don’t go to parties anymore, unless they are low-key and filled with lots of people I already know. Some people would say that I’m using my shyness as an excuse, but I think it’s a matter of recognizing my shyness as a legitimate character trait that influences my state of contentment. I’d rather connect with people in other, more genuine, ways.
      Cheers!

    1. hehe maybe I can cajole her into doing a post every now and then, since she already has a fanbase!

      Ooo which parts of Texas specifically? I mean, I’m biased toward San Antonio, but Austin is also pretty sweet. Dallas is probably the most stereotypically “cowboy.”

  2. Very, very wise words from someone so young. Congrats to her and to you for having such an amazing sister. 😉

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years, it’s that we are indeed the architects of our own happiness. I spent 10 years working after university and was absolutely miserable. It was only when I decided enough was enough, stopped listening to society, my parents, friends etc… and allowed myself to go after what I really wanted (to be financially free and travel the world), that I was actually able to create it (and believe me, it wasn’t easy – I was $60k in debt when I decided). I stopped working at 35 and haven’t looked back since. Freedom 35 baby!!! 😀

    1. Yes, she is so wise 🙂 Sometimes I forget that I’m five years her senior. It often doesn’t feel like it!

      Your story is amazing, and I’m so glad you made that decision because you seem incredibly happy based on what I’ve read over at your blog. I would be curious to know more details about the transition, though! Mostly because I’m planning a big trip in September (details coming soon!) and while I am sure that it’s the right thing to do, figuring out the logistics & finances can be very tricky!

  3. Oh my gosh – firstly, big congrats to your sister on her success, and secondly, bigger congrats to her for dropping a massive truth bomb that has gone unspoken for too long! I wish I had this kind of wisdom and social insight when I graduated high school. She is so lucky to have this awareness at just the right time. I think it’s also quite amazing that she had the bravery to deliver this to a massive amount of people, probably one of the most unexpected of valedictory speeches. Thanks to you both for sharing! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Anna!! This is one of the most-read and most-shared posts on my blog, and Erin has been elated for the past few days because of the great feedback she’s gotten. I guess everyone was desperate to hear something truthful! I will share a secret: the principal of the school almost prevented her from delivering the speech, but a kind and sagacious English teacher intervened and saved the day. Now all that I can hope (as the big sister) is that she sticks to this mindset and decides to enjoy college instead of enduring it.

  4. Great job Erin! I saw a link to this through FB, but was unable to comment there. Good luck in finding your own brand of happiness and deciding what to do about the future. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. (And thanks for babysitting my kids a few years ago. Karyn is now playing the violin and we recognized you in a picture in the hallway when she went to contest (mind blank can’t remember what it is called)).

  5. Congratulations to your sister! And there’s so much wisdom in her speech. I think that so many of us continue through our 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. to ignore our priorities and to live by someone else’s definition of happiness and success. For many people it takes a tragedy or crisis to redefine our priorities. Good for your sister for knowing this so early in life, and for sharing her message with so many people.

    1. Yes, yes, yes – absolutely! I don’t think it’s something that is easy to realize or execute by any means. And so I’m incredibly proud that she has the foresight and self-awareness to have realized this so early! I was definitely not there by the time I graduated high school. I’m in a good place now, a year after college, but it takes a lot of work to keep your perspective on happiness healthy! Thank you for the sweet words, Cecilia. I am sharing them with Erin now.

      1. I agree – I am still working on it at my age! I think we all are, always trying to keep our perspective despite all of life’s minor and major setbacks.

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