My badass cousin, Sophie, recently gave the valedictorian speech at her high school’s graduation. She’s wicked smaht in the Getting Good Grades sense; more importantly and more visibly, though, she’s wicked smaht in the whole thoughtful, well spoken, humble, and gracious sense. She’s someone who doesn’t need the weird title of valedictorian to validate those smarts. My aunt—her proud mamma—emailed me her speech. I was blown away.
She spoke with eloquence, wisdom, and humility about community, interconnectedness, and knowledge:
I figure that every big speech starts with some wise quotation that will make no sense initially and then tie everything together perfectly by the end and allude to the meaning of life. I don’t have a quotation, and I can’t promise the meaning of life, but I have a poem:
We are the faces on both sides of the table
Brought nearer by the candlelight.
We give to each that solace which two different notes, One high, one low, struck together,
Seem to give each other as they combine.
One thing alone is clear:
It is not knowledge
But unity that we desire,
Intimacy itself, which is knowledge.
So if you’re thinking, “that is far too poetic for Sophie to have written it,” you’d be correct. I did not write any of the lines in the poem. I only strung together the words of Woolf, Nietzsche, Marx and Beckett to mimic creativity for Dr. Cunningham’s English final. I used lines that I found in books written by thinkers far greater than myself and threw the lines together on the page, and yet, somehow, their words became mine. Nor did any one of us, the Class of 2016, write the poem of our lives: we’ve thrown together lines written by our peers, and still, each of our experiences is unique. We’ve risen together, we’ve drawn strength from belonging to this community, we’ve shared joy and struggle
She later spoke (prophetically) about two things I grapple with a lot, the idea of competing—against others, against our past selves—and the necessity of companionship.
None of us could have reached this diploma alone. As individuals, we are not responsible for our success here, and I say this not to undermine today’s accomplishment, but to remind us that we do not succeed (or fail) alone. As the poem ends: “It is not knowledge but unity that we desire, intimacy itself, which is knowledge.” We came here for knowledge, but we leave with something infinitely more valuable: companionship, the type that reaches for our hands and tells us that we don’t have to write our poems alone.
I used to struggle with this, speaking well about others. I resisted admiring my peers because I didn’t want to ask myself the question: are they better than I am? I have found that I can only grow by finding role models among my peers and leaning into the discomfort that they might be better than I am in many ways.
In the days leading up to this speech, when I felt unable to give words to our impending loss, to process my memories and apprehensions, let alone those of our whole class, I looked to role models. It turns out that it’s not nearly as scary to wonder if I’m not the best than to write a speech (or a poem) alone.
So the only truth I can offer today is that the relationships we forged here matter, they shaped us, and they will always be with us. We came here a group of individuals looking for an education and a college acceptance, but we leave a class bound together by common experience and a feeling of belonging. As the poem says, “It is not knowledge, but unity that we desire; intimacy itself, which is knowledge.” We don’t have to write our poems alone – we shouldn’t, and we actually can’t – and I can think of no one I’d rather write my poem with than the Class of 2016. Thank you.
Holy moly. This is so good.
Sophie’s talk reminded me of one of my favorite recent commencement speeches—from the godmother of the 21st century memoir, Mary Karr: http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2015/05/transcript_mary_karrs_syracuse_university_commencement_address.html (If you have time, read the whole thing. If you don’t have time, just read the headline.)
(Back to Sophie). I have a tattoo, for goodness sakes, that says, I am happy to be here now together. But sometimes, I forget that— that I have a tattoo and that, when I’m most clear-headed, that’s what I most thoroughly, utterly, totally believe. I believe in people and conversations and listening. I believe in sharing stories and collaboration and learning and growing with others. I believe there’s a fine line between honoring our introverted, imaginative needs and neglecting valuable companionship; it’s a constant balancing act. I wrote about solitude a couple weeks ago, and now I’m writing about not solitude. So it goes.
It’s easy to get lost in the hollow hope of Making It as an artist and forget how
important imperative our relationships are. I get stuck—creatively, personally, interpersonally— when my work becomes driven by a desire to market ME instead of a need to celebrate WE; when my work stubbornly takes priority over the together. I write/photo/film to relax and play but ultimately to remember and articulate our interconnectedness.
I guess this is my tangential way of saying, Thanks for the wonderful reminder, Soph! You rock.
I get by with a little help from my friends. — The Beatles
Learning, yes, reflecting on what matters:
People, impermanence, lack of attachments.—Ben Haggerty
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. –MLK