Over the past few weeks of being quarantined in my apartment, I have noticed that I keep being disturbed by memories of grade school. Most of these memories are things I thought were long since buried and forgotten, but now they seem to want to surface and remind me of how much I hated middle and high school because of my classmates. I remembered the time I tried to throw an end of the year cookout and invited the whole class, only to have no one show up. (I later found out there was a different party that I wasn’t invited to). I remembered the time I sat in my AP Government class as a junior and the other nine people in the class moved to the other side of the room, forcing me to be on a jeopardy team by myself.
But then I think about my little brother, whose senior year has been cut off due to this virus, and I can’t help but wonder which senior year I would rather live out. I spent majority of my graduation ceremony waiting for it to be over and feeling angry that I didn’t get to give a speech, but is that better than not having one at all? It’s a question that I just don’t have the answer to. One of my biggest disappointments in high school was being salutatorian. I was predicted to be valedictorian from the time I was in elementary school. I worked hard for this honor only to see it come crashing down my junior year, when I received an A- in AP Literature. When I finally made my peace with the fact that I would be ranked number two in the class rather than number one, my principal enlightened me that I would not get to give a speech during the graduation ceremony. Traditionally, the valedictorian and the salutatorian give speeches during the ceremony, but because my class had two valedictorians, I wouldn’t get a chance to speak. This was devastating for me. I had spent four years working my ass off, just to have it amount to nothing in the end. I never told anyone how much it hurt to not get to speak. How I had been looking forward to doing so all year. That I had already written a speech.
I have never told anyone about the speech I had written for my graduation ceremony. I don’t know why I kept it a secret; maybe it was because I was so ashamed that I would never get to read it to my class because I was second best. I had spent my entire life up to that point feeling like I didn’t belong, and not getting to give my speech just seemed to solidify that feeling. So I never told anybody about it. I emailed it to myself, moved into a private folder, and that’s where it has sat ever since. Until now.
I’m not sure what inspired me to finally share this speech. Maybe it’s realizing that even though I didn’t like high school, at least I got to finish out my senior year with some happy memories. Maybe it’s seeing the class of 2020 having the moment they’ve spent their entire lives working towards- that walk across the stage to receive their diploma- being ripped away. Or maybe some deep, hidden part of me feels that it’s time. Whatever the reason may be, I want to share with you all the salutatorian speech I never got to give.
As much as I wish I could stand up here and reminisce with all of you about how great the last four years have been, lying is just not in my nature. This may come as a shock to some of you, but high school is not something I feel I will look back on fondly. I have spent majority of the past four years waiting for high school to be over. I have contemplated my own suicide more times than I can count. I have told myself over and over again that things will get better; I just have to get through this. Many times, it felt as though we were sorted into the “in group” and the “out group” back in first grade, and have been forced to carry those labels ever since. I, like many of you, was sorted into the out group. Because of that, my speech is not for those who will look back on our time together and cherish all the great memories they made. Instead, my speech is for those, who like me, have spent the last four years counting down the days when they could finally bust out of out here. My speech is for the students who never got to find out what they were capable of, because they spent their entire academic career being overlooked and ignored. My speech is for the people who worked hard and pushed themselves to their limits, but never received any real credit. My speech is for the outcasts.
I want you all know that this doesn’t have to be your entire story. What you were labeled in the past does not have to be your label for the future. Outside of these walls, no one is going to care whether you were “in” or “out.” We spend so much of our lives thinking and being told that what we do in high school paves our way for the rest of our lives, but the secret they don’t tell you is that it does not need to. You have the opportunity to change your story; to make it into whatever you want. From now on, no one is going to force you into the shadows unless you let them, because the truth is, no one cares who you were in high school. And there will be more ways to prove your worth than popularity status. If you become a doctor, a hospital isn’t going to care how many friends you had, they’re too concerned with whether or not you know how to properly stitch a wound. Construction companies (which are just as vital as hospitals) aren’t going to be impressed by where you sat at lunch, but they will be impressed by the Class A license in your wallet. If you apply for a teaching job, that school isn’t going to be concerned with whether or not you were on the homecoming court; they’re going to be concerned by your qualifications and your abilities. If you didn’t like who you were in high school, this is your chance to change.
I’m not saying that the experiences we had in the last four years don’t matter, because they do. They can and they will influence decisions we make from here on out. But that doesn’t mean they have to define us. Just because you slacked off in high school doesn’t mean you have to slack off for the rest of your life. Just because you didn’t have many friends doesn’t mean you won’t make tons of connections a year from now. Just because you felt like you didn’t fit in here doesn’t mean you won’t fit anywhere. High school made guide us, but it does not define us. If the people here didn’t recognize your worth or your value, then that’s on them. Because they missed out on what may have been a life changing friendship or an astounding student, and that’s their loss, so move on.
My advice for each and every one of you here, especially the ones who were cast out of the spotlight, is to be better. Be better than who you were. If in five, ten, or twenty years, you can look back on yourself in this moment and confidently say that you are a better person today than you were yesterday, then you’ve been successful. You can decide if these four years define your life or if they were just stepping stones on your path to greatness. You can choose if this is who you want to be for the remainder of your time here, or you can choose to be better. Take risks, force yourself into the spotlight, show kindness to strangers, travel the world- do whatever you need to do to be a better person. And when you do look back on those four years, instead of being angry and bitter, remind yourself that you got through it, even though you were in the “out” group. That despite every setback, you made it to the end of high school. Remember that you walked into this gym with your head held high, even if it was just to keep your cap from slipping off. Remember that right here, in this moment, it’s impossible to tell the “in group” from the “out group.” This proves that we all have the power to be more than what other people say we are. We have the ability to change the narrative that has been written about us. We are all capable of being better. A teacher we all know once asked “Why are we here?” And maybe the answer is as simple as “To be better.” To be better than who we are and better than who others thought we were. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know that I have to be better than an unruly outcast who is filled with anxiety and bitterness. So, Mr. Hentges, that’s my answer. I’m here to be better. I know I can be kinder. I know I can be more understanding. I know I can be better than who I am now. What about the rest of you?