Explanatory notes: At my school, the senior class elects the valedictorian. Anyone in the top 20% of the class is a candidate. I go -- sorry, WENT -- to a small high school (127 graduating seniors this year), where most everyone knew and was incredibly positive about my mom's book. If you don't want to read/hear the whole speech, you can listen to 2 very short clips here (youtube) and here (my last post) instead.
I want to thank my wonderful teachers, family and friends who are here today, and my fellow seniors for giving me the honor of speaking. When I first started planning this speech a few weeks back, I realized that every possible speech has been done before. The reach-for-the-stars speech, the don’t-reach-for-the-stars speech, the speech about writing a speech – so I thought that instead of giving a speech of my own, for the next half hour or so I’d just read aloud from my favorite book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Just kidding. I actually did write a speech. My friends, the unrivaled, indomitable class of 2011, today I want to talk about us. Along the way, I have just 3 things to say – and then let’s graduate.
So, seniors, who were we at Hopkins? We were the dream class. I don’t think any class in Hopkins history has spent so much time in the library, broken so many records, or possessed so much raw talent. We threw ourselves into our passions – as DJ’s, paramedics, and painters, running-backs, horse-back riders and center-mids – with unparalleled work ethic, integrity and zeal. We poured hundreds of hours into term papers and test preparations – and, well, it all paid off.
Yet somehow, we managed to have fun. Seniors, we were a class that crossed a lot of lines. We had ghostriding incidents, we put something in the water, and as far as I know, we’re the first Hopkins class ever to graduate in sunglasses.
Now all of this is wonderful. It’s who we are as a class. But the first point I want to make is that who you were at Hopkins doesn’t define who you will be for the rest of your life.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a mother gave her children some paints to play with. Six out the seven kids painted puppets. The last kid took the paint and drew a life-size army battalion all over the walls of the room. That kid grew up to be Napoleon Bonaparte. Similarly, some of you already know exactly who want to be. Sam, I expect you to be president by our 30th reunion; Alex I want to see that Nobel prize, and Adam, you better be a 5-star general.
Let me tell you another story. A couple years ago, studious girl from Tennessee, plays in the school marching band, aces the SAT and gets into Barnard College. Today, that girl is Ke$ha, spelled with a dollar sign.
“Just be yourself” – I know these are supposed to be words of freedom, and of course they are, but it seems to me they can also be constricting: when you change, people get scared. It takes bravery to step out of your comfort zone, and people will always have something to say about it. You make new friends, suddenly you’re a social climber. You wear a new outfit to school, and suddenly, oh you’re trying so hard. NO. Okay, maybe the denim jumpsuit was a bad idea. But don’t listen. You have absolutely no obligation to be who you are at 18 for the rest of your life. It’s not wrong to change.
“Be yourself” means “be whoever you want to be.” Not “be who your friends think you are.” Not “be the same person you were last year.” If you’ve always known what you want to be, more power to you. But it’s equally great if you wake up tomorrow morning thinking, “I’m gonna take a gap year to make a documentary in Cambodia.” “I know I signed up to do Teach For America this fall, but – I wanna start a hedge fund.” Dare to be who you’re not. The world has no right to tell you who you are, so don’t let anyone’s judgment or expectations hold you back.
That’s point one. Let’s first come back to who we are, class of 2011. I began this speech by saying we have crossed lines together. But let’s face the reality: we go to Hopkins. Sure, we all make a big show of living life on the edge. “Macbeth paper due next period? Haven’t started.” You hear that everywhere. But everyone knows that in 55 minutes, that paper will be on Mr. Johnson’s desk. That’s also part of who we are: we so want to be rebellious, but we always get the job done.
So I think there’s a good chance that, sometime in the future when we are free from the constraints of Hopkins, many of us will want to do more than talk about breaking the mold. And that’s point two. If you want to rebel, rebel in a way that matters.
There’s a quote I love from Lolita – and this is probably the first time a valedictorian thought it was a good idea to quote a child-molesting psychopath – that reads as follows:
“it occurred to me - not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience - that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good.”
A rebel has courage. A rebel undertakes personal risk for something they believe in. Anyone can say, “forget this,” cut class, smoke weed. You know why? Because it’s easy. It doesn’t make you a rebel. You’re a failing cog in the machine, but you’re still a cog in the machine.
If you don’t like the system, get out of the system. Because a lot of the time, the system is wrong. I don’t need to describe societal injustice; you know it’s out there. There is so much to fix. So often, the system is broken. Another mistake is to think that we have somehow maxed out, or “arrived.” With iPads, 3D-Printers, 4G networks, it may feel as though things can’t get any better, as though we’ve already made every possible breakthrough. But let me tell you, people felt that same way when fire first came out, and then stairs, and car-phones. There is ALWAYS something unfathomable around the corner. Instead of being shocked by the next earth-shattering discovery, make that discovery. Be the one salmon that swims downstream. Rock other people’s worlds.
If you want to be a rebel, don’t just break the rules: make the rules.
You could characterize rebellion as doing the WRONG thing for the RIGHT reason. My final point is that sometimes, it’s also okay to do the RIGHT thing for the WRONG reason.
What is the right reason to do the right thing? I think we, seniors, wrestle with this question all the time. We know too much to think people are saints. Seniors, you know what I’m talking about: you all filled out the CommonApp, and included the 5000 hours of community service and soup kitchens. It can make you more focused on the motive than the deed itself. You wonder if people actually care about the impoverished nation they’re holding a bake sale for. You want to volunteer at an animal shelter because puppies are cute, but also because girls go crazy for that sort of thing. And deep down, a voice inside you asks, “if I’m doing this for a selfish reason, should I be doing it at all?”
But again, don’t listen to that voice. Your motives may not be pure, but by taking action, you are doing more for the world than someone who does nothing at all. Doesn’t matter if that same voice says, “Working in a soup kitchen is so cliche.” Do it anyway. We’re too smart not to be cynical. But let’s be smart enough to be idealistic as well.
Well guys, this is it. The time has come to say goodbye: to your room, to your dog, to your childhood. Our time at Hopkins is over. For most of us, it’s the last time we’ll play on a varsity team, or know the name of everyone in our grade. All of us have toasted our last Ski Lodge Day marshmallows. We’ll never again be sent “off to class.” We’ve pledged our honor here for the final time.
So what have I said to you today? Dare to change. Dare to disobey. Dare to take action. My friends, you are brilliant, you are unbeatable, and now, I ask you to be bold as well.
If you go downtown, to the corner of College and Grove, you’ll find yourself at the Yale War Memorial. It’s quiet and cool, and the names of Yale’s fallen servicemen are carved on the walls. Above these names is an inscription, and very people know this, but that inscription was chosen by Hopkins’ own Simeon Baldwin in 1912. It reads, Courage disdains fame, and wins it. My friends, Hopkins class of 2011: Be courageous. Cross the line. Congratulations. Thank you.
Well, there it is. Leave a comment please! Again be gentle about my public speaking abilities :P