My 18-year-old wisdom

I was valedictorian of my high school.  In the words of Heather Armstrong, of Dooce, “The reason I am telling you about the valedictorian part is because being able to say, “I was the valedictorian” is the only privilege I ever got in life from achieving that goal. No one ever hired me because I was valedictorian. The lesson to be learned from this is: AIM LOW. Save yourself the time.”  Couldn’t agree more.

This is the speech I gave at my high school graduation.  I still agree with most of it, although I no longer want to be an actress.  I will explain why at some point.

graduation speech

“The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea.  In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers.  The Lupine Lady is little and old.  But she has not always been that way.  I know.  She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.  Once upon a time she was a little girl named Alice, who lived in a city by the sea…Many years ago her grandfather had come to America on a large sailing ship.  In the evening Alice sat on her grandfather’s knee and listened to his stories of faraway places.  When he had finished, Alice would say, ‘When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.’  ‘That is all very well, little Alice,’ said her grandfather, ‘but there is a third thing you must do.’  ‘What is that?’ asked Alice.  ‘You must do something to make the world more beautiful,’ said her grandfather.”

Many of you probably recognize this as the children’s story Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  Yet in the youthful statement “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea,” I can see myself as a child.  Personally, I’ve wanted to be an actress since I could talk.  But I remember in fifth grade Emily and I were sure we would live together in a little house by the ocean in Owl’s Head with seven cats and five dogs.  I would be a writer, and she would illustrate my books.  One of my best friends wanted to be a “singer ballerina actress cowgirl.”

I have come to realize that some of the most important life lessons I have learned over the last eighteen years have not come from a text book or even a kind word of advice, but through my experiences with children.  On the weekends in the winter for the last two years, I have given three- to six-year-olds ski lessons, which is really more like babysitting on skis.  If you have ever asked a child what he or she wants to be when she grows up, the responses are diverse, but often ludicrous and impractical at least from an adult’s viewpoint.  Ballerina, cowgirl, movie star, rock singer, princess, and baseball player are all common answers when I pose the question to the kids in my ski groups.  Kids seem to have an endless supply of dreams.  They don’t think “I can’t” immediately, because no one has ever told them that they can’t do something.

Adults are generally much more realistic and practical about their goals.  Still, there are plenty of people who immediately think “I can’t” before their dream even has a chance to develop.  It’s often more comfortable to make excuses rather than pulling yourself out of your comfort zone and risking failure.  If you never try, it’s easy to say “well, I could have done this, but something prevented me.”  If every adult kept a bit of that childhood optimism inside him or her, I am sure many more dreams would be realized.

Another thing I have learned in working with children is the importance of experiencing life as though everything is happening for the first time.  Children explore their world with eyes of wonder, and never become blasé.  To a child, everything is new and exciting.  My five- and six-year-olds, for example, are fascinated by the way light reflects off the snow as you ride over it in a chairlift.  I’ve seen this phenomenon so many times that I think “hmm, pretty,” and then forget about it.  But the children are mesmerized by the glistening white.  Children can also play with blocks for hours, and then are surprised every single time when the tower they have constructed falls down.  They find wonder in the smallest things, such as the shape of a flower or the way a bird soars through the sky.  As adults, it becomes all too easy to let these small things of beauty pass by.  The world becomes gray and dull, because we’ve seen everything before.  Yet if we stop every once in a while, and smell the proverbial roses, we will be amazed at what we encounter.

I urge you, the Class of 2002, retain a bit of your childhood self.  Remember how even the smallest things in life can be infinitely beautiful, and never give up on your dreams.  Never become jaded or pessimistic.  We’re lucky.  We’re young, and we have the rest of our lives to correct the mistakes we may (and probably will) make along the way.  So take a few risks, see the world, do something you’d never imagine yourself doing. And travel the world, and then do something to make the world more beautiful.

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