Graduates, parents, teachers and community members, I am humbled to have the opportunity to speak to you today and join in the celebration of our graduation.
First, I would like to use this time to express my deepest gratitude for all of the people who have helped to bring us to this moment. It is because of all of you — our families, friends and fellow Islanders — that we are able to sit here today and feel proud of what we’ve accomplished. Graduates, take this moment to think about the extraordinary people who have helped you along your personal journey. And if you haven’t already, sometime today tell those people how much you appreciate their love and support.
The last time we all sat together in one place as a class, we were in the Performing Arts Center, anxiously awaiting the start of freshmen orientation. Since then, we’ve experienced a number of absurdities. We painstakingly glued together fragile strands of linguine just so we could wait for them to collapse into a billion pieces. We carefully navigated the halls to avoid tripping over garbage cans full of rain water. Some of us may remember the first time we told our parents we got a grade of -10,000 on a paper in Shark’s English class. And now we’ve made it. We’re here, ready to embark on our next journey, whatever that may be. It’s pretty amazing. Congratulations!
Starting today, we are no longer a high school class. But while today we begin to travel down our separate paths, we all still share one thing. All of us now hold something that we have never had before — the ability to shape our own future. And I hope that you use this new-found freedom to change the world for the better.
I can’t tell you what to do with your life. And I certainly can’t claim to have all the wisdom in the world — or maybe any of it. But I hope that my words may inspire you to think about using your incredible talents to make a difference in the lives of others.
Often we are taught that achievement and wealth are the only measures of success and happiness. That without these things, we have failed. But anyone who gives you advice like that is mistaken. A successful life is one in which you take some small part in making the world a more peaceful, equal and joyful place.
We are artists, athletes, musicians, teachers, academics, engineers, thinkers. Each one of us possesses something distinctive to offer the world. I encourage you to use your unique skills to do something positive for society. Wherever you find yourself, wherever you surround yourself with people and make your life, there is a community that needs your support.
Don’t let yourself be complacent with the current state of the world or with your understanding of its realities. There are opportunities all around you for promoting peace and equality. If you simply allow yourself to be open to them, the opportunities will present themselves. I hope that we all rise to the occasion.
We are fortunate to live in a community with so many great role models. We are constantly given a vivid picture of putting these words into action. This is a community that takes care of people in need, celebrates people’s lives and looks out for one another. This Island is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone — maybe a little too well sometimes — but the sense of community and shared traditions will provide us with a source of strength for the rest of our lives.
As I began to write this speech, I asked a few teachers, all of whom have made an impact on my high school experience in their own way, for a piece of advice for the graduating class. I asked for something unusual, something surprising. I had no idea what kind of responses I would get, and to be honest, I was a little afraid of what these teachers might actually say.
Mr. Tinus told me he would get back to me, but I’m still waiting.
Ms. Kurtz contemplated my request for nearly two weeks before she finally emailed me in distress. She claimed she couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, though I didn’t believe that. Her note included some very useful advice, but it was what she said at the end of it, a simple, nonchalant line, that struck me most:
“I may be emailing you periodically as I come up with new and improved pieces of advice, which I know don’t probably exist, but I will not stop trying to find them.”
I don’t know if she was trying to be profound here, but I thought her words were inspiring. Never stop searching for your happiness. Never stop looking for ways to give back to the people in your life. And never stop trying to live with purpose.
Similarly, Shark took a long time before sending me something that was, not surprisingly, deeply philosophical and intellectual. I was ready to use a short quote from his two-page dissertation in my speech when he sent me another email, which was just meant to be a casual thank you. He ended with the following, the kind of advice I’d been originally hoping for:
“If the boat needs rocking — rock it.”
Rocking the boat may be difficult and uncomfortable. It may seem daunting or dangerous. But sometimes it’s necessary. We can’t just sit back and watch the world go on, filled with heartbreaking injustice and suffering, without attempting to solve its problems. I hope you spend a part of the rest of your life working to alleviate these problems. And I hope you make a few people happy along the way.
Many years ago, my Aunt Sharon died tragically a few days before her high school graduation. She was a gifted and prolific writer, and she had written a speech to share with her class. She never had the chance to deliver it, and I never got to meet her. I would like to share a quote from her speech so that her words may somehow fulfill their original purpose.
“We must believe in ourselves enough to be able to listen fully to our own voice, and to trust that voice alone.”
My aunt’s story inspires me to live without limits. You never know what circumstances may present themselves. The truth is, your life could end tomorrow, or even today. Everything you do matters. Every good intention is important in the process of living a good life. Small kindnesses make a difference to everyone around you. So make sure that every day you do something that brings some small joy to even one person. We will all thank you for it.
I will end with the words of beloved writer Maya Angelou, who sadly passed away last Wednesday.
“The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.”
Good luck. Buena suerte. Boa sorte. Bonne chance.
Thank you and congratulations again to the class of 2014.
Sarah Ortlip-Sommers is valedictorian of the class of 2014. She will attend Stanford University in the fall.