Sunday, June 7, 2015

Standing Up

I've been asked to post the speech I gave at senior celebration, the school awards ceremony held a few days prior to graduation. The video of me actually delivering the speech is MIA, so the best option I have is text. I'm currently procrastinating diligently working on another piece about a personal project I undertook this past year (look for it to show up here in the next few days), so I'll put this up to fill the time. Before you start reading, I'd like to share a few fun facts:

  • Speeches for senior celebration and graduation were selected based on auditions before a committee of teachers. I was one of three students who gave it a try, and I found out the next day the results of my audition. They told me that my speech was the overall best without question, but that I couldn't give it at graduation because "they were unsure how the graduates would react in the new venue, given how exciting the speech was. After all, we don't want graduates crossing the three-foot wall between the audience and the floor." So, I was relegated to Senior Celebration speaker
  • "Senior Celebration" was marketed as an awards ceremony to recognize every student, not just Honors Students. The teachers told me it would be great for everyone. It was not.
  • I was warned to cool down and to not get too informal in my speech. Oops.
  • Towards the end, as everyone was reacting to my speech, multiple teachers were giving me the "kill it now" sign. God forbid a senior class be excited about graduating.
  • In his brief farewell address at graduation, the senior class president urged the class to "in the words of Austin Hays, stand up." I seem to recall some shocked looks on teacher's faces as the graduates suddenly stopped being quiet.
So, I was an anti-authoritarian idol for a short time. Enjoy the speech that made it so.

Good evening, guys.

Well, shoot,  we’re about to graduate. Can I get a collective sigh of relief? Yeah, that’s good.

It is an amazing pleasure to be speaking right here before you in this moment. To have conquered these four years at Dutch Fork High. To put every struggle that got us to this place behind us, and to turn our gaze to what comes next. To have done it all as one class united by the Silver Fox. Truly, there is no group I’d rather stand among and no place I’d rather be than with you, the Class of 2015, in this very place here and now.

Now that we’re all done with classes, and I know y’all are so disappointed about that (especially you, our esteemed faculty), it’s easy to get sentimental. I think this point in the speech is where one would typically start listing off all those memories we had as high schoolers. The chatter between friends walking from class to class. The crisp air of the stadium Friday nights in October. The sudden panic as we realized we were walking through the commons without our ID’s. In a few short days, we’ll don our green garments, with all of our regalia around our necks, and walk together as a class one more time. They’ll say that that’s our defining moment:  gathered together in our caps and gowns, wearing cords and stoles that represent our achievements. They say that’s our greatest moment at this age.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. There must be something much more powerful within this class of 2015. This class, with its state championship rings, its award winners, and its strong, diverse minds and hearts that keep on beating, just doesn’t feel like it can be summed up by simple descriptions. There must be more dwelling within us, waiting to be revealed.
The last time I was with this large of a group of high school seniors was at a conference in Philadelphia last year. There, the speaker was a man named Michael Curry, and he told us all that he had one word he wanted us to remember: “go.” Folks, that word hit me hard. This zany old man running around the stage yelling at the top his lungs that he wanted us to go. Is that a challenge, Mr. Curry? Where do you want us to go? I know you said we were so young and full of energy, but how do you expect us to go somewhere while we still have to finish high school? Some of us don’t even have a car!

But--it was that word and the challenge that came with it that assured me of my place. That we, as young men and women, were on a mission, and that individual talents--yours and mine--make us strong. That as graduating seniors, graduation is just the sudden beginning to what we’re about to do, and that in spite of the ups and downs we faced as students, we’re primed to make an impact--even the most subtle dent--in our communities, our state, our country, and the world.

I’m not speaking here because of any special achievement I had in school. I’m not in the top 10, I never did a sport, I was never voted class president or prom king, and I never joined that many clubs. That’s not to say that no one deserves those achievements; we all labored to get where we are today, and we’ve earned everything we’ve got. But ask yourself, when graduation is over, and you hang your cap and gown et cetera in the closet, what is it you are going to remember?
Are you going to remember your GPA and class rank? Are you going to remember the number of cords you wore and their specific colors? Are you going to remember how many times you were quoted in the yearbook?

Or will you remember the moments that genuinely made us what we are today? The teachers, coaches, and staff who challenged us and made us greater than we were. The family and friends sitting around us who have supported us in every step of our journey. Moments of self-discovery and growth that somehow, someway made us realize our talents and told us “hey, I think this is where the road should take me.”

Every single one of us has worked hard for this, and we’ve got it now. We got here not because we are all capable of doing everything, or because the green and silver are magical colors that turn us into superhumans, but because we each carry our own set of talents that as a whole cannot truly be summarized by words or symbols. We’ve endured aching limbs and sleepless nights, we’ve pushed ourselves to the our limits of our will, and we’ve lost some battles along the way, but dagnabbit, we’ve made it here. We have this moment, where we’ve reached the mountain we’ve been climbing for four years, and in this moment, there is not a single person who can bring us down. You can tell me just how high Dutch Fork is ranked by all the news outlets, but unless those guys actually have an algorithm to measure us not as test-taking students, but as diverse, passionate leaders, I don’t care about any arbitrary rankings.

But! (Yes, there is still a “but” in this moment, and just like in Finding Nemo, I’m going to touch upon that “but” and make it clear). But, let’s remember that we will still have to come down from this mountaintop moment eventually. We’re walking out into a much bigger world, and we will face struggles and tasks anew. We might not always be sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going. I don’t know about you, but sometimes, that scares the CRAP out of me. In spite of that, let’s remember the individual talents that brought us here, and keep using them to power through those trials. We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again, and we’ll do it bigger and better.

You can tell me that you never enjoyed your time here, or that what we’ll never use what we learned in real life. And I understand how frustrating these four years have been, believe me. But if you can look me in the eye and tell me that you have never grown or discovered yourself in these four years, you can come down here and shake my hand, because I don’t think a single one of us hasn’t been changed for the better.

Now, in the spirit of the man who first told me it was time to “go,” and also keeping in mind that we will have to do a lot of sitting down at graduation, I want you to remember these words: stand up.

Wherever your talents bring you, stand up to show them. Stand up, you scientists and engineers, in the laboratories to research the answers to the questions we still face. Stand up, you artists, to create the works of beauty that reach for the soul. Stand up, you activists, to bring justice for the suffering. Stand up, you fighters, to defend this country and work for peace on Earth. Stand up, all of you who believe in the wild notion that though we’ve made it to the summit, this is not our limit. That there is an even higher peak out there, and that we will find it, and we will keep climbing as hard as our bodies will allow, and we will reach that peak, too. That even when we get knocked down, we’ll stand once more. That even as the powers that be tell us to sit down, we will keep standing.  Keep standing, because our greatest achievement will not be walking the stage, but running the world. Keep standing, because now that we were told to be “Responsible, Respectable, and Reputable,” it’s time for us to be “Relevant, Reinvented, and Revolutionary.” (Give us some classy cash for that, world).

We are the class of 2015, and as long as we’ve been sitting down, this is our time to stand. Once we’ve followed through with all the pageantry on Thursday, when this is all done and over with, let’s make the rest of the world stand with us.

This has been Austin with your afternoon announcements. Stay outstanding, foxes.

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