You Are Not Special Commencement Speech from Wellesley High School
A Very Special Graduation Speech
Almost everyone in the small Alaska town where I live sits in the gym bleachers each May for our high school graduation. It's as much a rite of spring as daffodils and fresh salmon. Some years are better than others—I'm glad to say this was one of the good ones.
It wasn't so much what was said by the two top students, who always give the speeches, as what these particular graduates did. Actions really do speak louder than words, and they are often easier to remember.
The valedictorian, a tall, cheerful girl who will be playing basketball at a community college next year, spoke sincerely and succinctly about her classmates. Abby's talk lasted less than 10 minutes. All she did was say one sentence about the best qualities of each student, but that was plenty. As soon as the audience realized she wasn't only singling out the class stars, you could see each graduate anticipate his or her turn, then sit up and bask in the glow from Abby's praise. The dads of those students nodded proudly or held up a camera while the moms reached for a tissue.
Even the "problem kids" received a good word. Of a boy who barely earned his diploma, she noted that he could always fix your car. (His dad pumped a fist and hollered "Right on.") About a girl who had some issues with attendance—she skipped school a lot—Abby said she always made her classmates laugh when they were down. Her mother and aunts cheered.
Who knows? Thanks to Abby, that boy may become an Army mechanic and save lives with his skills, and the girl may decide to be a nurse's aide and help children in the pediatric wing of a hospital. I have a feeling that if Abby had said, "Follow the golden rule and love your neighbor as yourself," the message would not have resonated in the same way.
The salutatorian, who will be going to the Naval Academy as one of just a handful of young people from here to ever apply to such a place, much less get in, used his few minutes at the podium to acknowledge each of the school's nine teachers. Blake said that without their instruction and support, he would not have even thought about an academy appointment or known how to get one. Understanding that you don't succeed all by yourself will help make him a fine naval officer.
I suppose Blake could have told his classmates to "walk confidently in the direction of their dreams," but instead he said "thank you" to his teachers and the other community members who had helped him do that. One of the local Tlingit Indian elders who live in this part of Alaska once told me that sometimes "thank you" is the most important speech you can make. Blake proved that.
Though you're not supposed to pray out loud in a public school, the impulse to do so, especially at graduation, can be overwhelming. For many parents, teachers and no doubt the principal, just seeing some of these students accept a diploma is proof of the power of prayer.
This year the choir came up with a creative compromise: They sang the Lord's Prayer in harmonious Swahili. When they performed "Moon River," many of us grew teary thinking about all the proverbial rivers we've forded since we were 18, how quickly our lives sped off after our own high school years and how maybe, as Abby had pointed out to her classmates at the conclusion of her address, just maybe, we had changed the world for the better—even a little—with the way we raised our families, ran our businesses or volunteered around town.
The final speaker to take the podium was Ms. Martin, the English teacher. Really, all she had to do was stand there as living proof that each student could be anything he or she wanted to be. Ms. Martin had managed the Bamboo Room Restaurant, a one-room grill in town, for 10 years before going back to college and eventually earning a bachelor's degreein English. She didn't stop there. She also has a master's degree in secondary education. She said that no matter what the students chose to do, she hoped that like her, they would "set goals and never give up on your dreams."
As she finished her speech, we all sprang to our feet and cheered.
I am wiser because of the lessons I learned in the high school gym: Find the good in people, be grateful and work hard to make dreams a reality. As we filed out, my husband said, "That was the best graduation we've had in a long time, maybe ever." He was right—it really was. At least until next year.
"One of the local Indian elders who live in this part of Alaska once told me that sometimes 'thank you' is the most important speech you can make."
HEATHER LENDE is a contributing editor toWoman's Day. Her most recent book isTake Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs. She lives in Haines, AK.
Video: 'You're Not Special' Graduation Speech
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