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.
“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.”