[Last Saturday we had a lovely Commencement for the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2018. Attached here are speeches from the Valedictorian, Lucas Williamson, and the Salutatorian, Carolyn Lane. Yesterday I posted the two talks from our Baccalauteate Service as well, and on Tuesday I posted my remarks from the Commencement. Lucas and Carolyn wrote speeches for an audience to hear them, not read them. With that in mind, please excuse any editing errors. JRP]
Teachers, students, and families of St. George’s Independent School:
Although it may yet be difficult to believe, our final minutes together have finally arrived. Before I begin the speech proper, I strongly encourage you, the members of the Class of 2018, to take some time and look among one another and truly appreciate the presence of your peers – this remarkable group of young men and women will never again be fully assembled. Sure, there will be the occasional alumni event or class reunion down the line, but it is inevitable that many of you will be absent from these. Moments like these are truly precious. I know that I do not speak only for myself when I acknowledge a certain surreal atmosphere hanging low within this tent surrounding us and giving rise to the awesome, yet bitingly ephemeral, sanctity of this very moment in time.
Now, as I have gathered by my own inquiries, the number of people present at this event who are confused as to the true role of a valedictorian is rather astonishing. It is unfortunate that so many of us have learned the definition of the word “valedictorian” as the member of the graduating class with the highest GPA who gets to write some fancy speech to say at his commencement. This is not his entire purpose, nor is it even his most important. However, upon closer examination of the Latin roots behind the word “valedictorian,” his job becomes clear as day. “Valedictorian” can be divided into two parts from which it takes its meaning: “vale” comes from the Latin word vale, which means “goodbye.” (When said to a group of two or more people, it acquires a suffix, becoming valete.) The second stem in “valedictorian” is “dict,” which comes from the latin dictus, meaning “having been spoken.” Thus, a valedictorian is best defined as “one who says goodbye.” Although the honor of this title is traditionally given to the highest-ranked student in the graduating class, my real purpose here today is to say goodbye.
And so, one who is tasked with delivering this honor is met with the following conundrum: how does one say goodbye? How does one speak of such an exhilarating yet tear-jerking moment in time– a single, transitory moment in which one great era ends as another, perhaps even greater era begins– in a manner that both does it’s perplexing nature justice and provides it’s participants with a satisfactory end? These questions have weighed heavily on me for some time now, and I hope to answer them in a manner that makes some sense.
As I prepared this speech, I figured a solid place to begin building my farewell would be that bothersome trial in which many of us have endured much suffering throughout this past year: calculus. I firmly believe that adversity is an excellent teacher, and I would encourage each member in this audience to take that to heart. Now, to the uninitiated, calculus is the mathematical study of change, working with strongly related rates at which various processes happen in order to solve real world problems. Often, in the course of our studies, those of us who deal with calculus must deal with what is happening at single, critical points in time. For example, a typical problem may ask a student to determine the speed of an object at a specific moment given a function that describes its motion. What strikes me about this scenario is that we are looking at unrealistic conditions. There are an infinite number of points that make up a standard continuous function, and they all sort of blend together into this thing called a line. Where does one moment begin, and another moment end? And sure, we can certainly talk about what an object does at any of these specific points (and don’t get me wrong– this is important stuff to talk about), but when would we ever encounter an object frozen in time? We wouldn’t because that is impossible based on our current understanding of the laws of physics.
And that brings us to the following realization: math– calculus, statistics, mathematics as a whole– is fiction. Realistic fiction, perhaps, inspired by the world around us, but fictitious nonetheless. It is a means by which we understand the universe, and a means by which we are able to communicate its inner workings to one another. Math is a language: it is the language with which we speak to reality. Without it, without counting numbers, or standard deviations, or derivatives, we as a species lose touch with the inner machinations of the world. And, just like any other language, we use it to talk about things– things like how many apples there are in that tree, things like how different one score is from another, things like how to describe critical points in time.
And, what is a goodbye but a critical point in time? It’s a moment in which everything changes after which things will never quite be the same again. But, an important point I raised earlier in this discourse is the uncertainty of the discrete existence of such points. Sure, we can approach them by looking forward or backward to them all we want, but a goodbye just happens. Moments are transitory: the past and future seamlessly flow into one another in the present. Again, I pose the following question: where does one moment begin, and another moment end? As the old saying goes, the present is a gift.
If we examine this relationship logically, then if all goodbyes must be said in the present, then goodbyes must be gifts too. Sure, they might be bittersweet gifts (or not, depending on who you’re saying goodbye to), but in the best case scenario, they provide us with an obligatory end to a finite era that accentuates the sentimental value of the memories we have forged while enabling new growth to occur. By their very nature, all ends are themselves beginnings. As a testament to the truth of this fact, many traditions from across the world recognize this relationship between ends and beginnings in their own way. In his Tao Te Ching, the elderly wiseman Lao Tzu writes of a fundamental balance of opposites to the universe known to the Chinese as the Tao and to many Americans as the Yin-Yang, and there are few concepts that demonstrate this balance as that of a farewell. In Buddhism, there is this idea of dependent origination where all physical phenomena simultaneously arise from their respective opposites, and it is clear that beginnings cannot exist without ends. And, in Christianity, there is a notion of death leading to life anew, just as the end of our time at St. George’s must lead to the birth of our new lives in the adult world.
So, how does one say goodbye? My approach to answering this question is hopefully accomplished by this speech– to remind the person to whom you’re bidding farewell that a goodbye is paradoxically little different from all other moments in time while unspeakably sacred as a gateway from one age to the next age. All things must come to an end (such is the nature of our universe), but all ends must lead to new beginnings. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I’d emphasize our shared pasts as something time can never take away from us: for as long as we live in good health, we will never forget our memories we have created together at this school, and as long as the universe exists, it can never undo the effects of the actions we have taken here. But, my time speaking to you all is almost up now as are our years at St. George’s. Members of the Class of 2018, fellow academics, athletes, and artists; friends… men and women, the hour of our ascension into the world at large is at hand. Do good out there. Valete.
To Mr. Peters, the St. George’s board, and distinguished members of the faculty, it is an honor to stand before our acclaimed alumni, family members, and friends gathered here. But most of all, it is an honor to be here with you, class of 2018.
14 years ago, you all opened your arms and dragged me through the doors of the Germantown Campus, as excited as ever to be welcoming a new student, even one who had masqueraded as a Briarcrest Saint for a year. That year, we jumped all over the school, shouting incoherent phrases and wishing we would be chosen to sleep in Mrs. Foreman’s fort during nap time. Some of us brought animals to show-n-tell, and many more broke out the building blocks during free time, eventually connecting enough to wrap from the wall of one classroom and into the teachers’ secret workroom. At that age, we learned that the best rewards were ice cream sandwiches and that being a little crazy is okay. We learned to be ourselves, as being anything but was not even option.
Six years later, we – with 10 or so new additions to the mix – moved from the hallway where we’d spent 3rd and 4th grade learning multiplication and voraciously reading to reach AR goals to the stand-alone 5th-grade rooms across the sidewalk. It was there where we received the first hint of what life would be like here at the Collierville campus. At the conclusion of each class period, we would pick up what hadto have been 1,000 pounds of books and trudge up the ramp from Ms. Petite’s room to Ms. Tate’s and Ms. McWaters rooms. Of course with our class being who it was, there were always a few who would take a shortcut and leap over the metal railway separating the classrooms; some cleared it their first try while others may have become friends with the ground a few times before mastering the skill. Soon after, our learning environments changed from those on campus to the caves of Cumberland Caverns. It was on the Cave Trip that we learned to spelunk through the caverns’ natural tunnels, army crawl through its low corridors, and slide down the muddy terrain of Bubblegum Alley. The caverns were where some of us learned that bringing a portable air mattress on a class trip was a recipe for disaster, as throughout the night all the mattresses magically came unscrewed and everyone woke up lying on the cavern’s jagged surface. At that age, we learned that Mrs. Tate’s humdinger project could quickly become the bane of a fifth grader’s existence and to enjoy our elementary-school moments while we could.
Five years later, our focuses shifted as we entered sophomore year and began to understand that our futures were starting to unfold. We joined clubs, played on sports team, and starred in musicals. We rode the Wagon Wheel all the way to state, where our football players earned a state championship ring, and after that amazing win, the whole grade celebrated the entire ride back to Memphis. We learned to accomplish our goals and to try our hardest to be the best versions of ourselves. We had students join the journalism staff and recognize that being a storyteller is just as important as being a storymaker. We traveled to Heifer Ranch, where we learned that Luke Georgi could still make a fantastic meal with only rice, carrots, and the spices Ellie Franklin smuggled in from her house. We figured out that there is so much in this world for which we have to be grateful and that we must always take advantage of the opportunity going to a school as amazing as St. George’s gives us. We learned to blossom where planted and to never doubt our incredible gifts, as they had begun to shape us into the people we would become.
Fast forward two years as we all began our final year at St. George’s, utterly unaware of how fast the time would fly. Those first couple of weeks, we opened our arms to the two newest members of our class and helped them find a place within our family. We applied to colleges in what felt – for some of us – to be a never ending cycle, only made worse by the endless “what college are you going to” questions we received to which our reply was more often “I don’t know” than anything else. This year, we learned to step out of our comfort zones with three new water polo players, five new soccer players, and two new thespians joining our teams and drama troupe for the first time. We learned to reach for the stars, to push ourselves even if we don’t succeed the first time, and to enjoy the time we have left.
But regardless of how much I have been preparing for college these past four years, here I am standing before you, 14 years after first walking through these doors, having absolutely no idea how to tell you goodbye or how to move on from the school or the people that made me who I am today. You taught me how to love, how to fight, how to win, and how to cry. You taught me that everything doesn’t have to be perfect all the time and that not being okay is perfectly fine. You taught me to love myself not in spite of my flaws but because them. You taught me to be me, and it’s for that that I can never thank you enough.
So as we begin to move on from our time here at St. George’s, I want you all to take what you have learned here and soar. Go be world-renowned scientists, Michelin star chefs, Tony-winning Broadway actresses, millionaire CEOs, world-changing political correspondents, pulitzer-prize-winning journalists, and everything I know we as a class have prepared each other to be.
As I close out this speech and say my final farewell to the incredible friends and family I have made here, I only have one more request. As my dad reminded me when I began writing this speech, it’s been scientifically proven that valedictorians and salutatorians typically don’thave the most successful careers of their class, so to any and all future millionaires out there, remember, donations to the Carolyn Lane fund are always appreciated.
But from the bottom of my heart, thank you for being such an amazing class and family to me over these years; I truly will never forget each and every one of you. Thank you.