DCS Class of 2019 Valedictorian Jacob Harris gave the Valedictory speech at graduation on June 21, 2019. Here is his written version.
It’s always been my strong belief that each and every person has the same innate desire: to be the best person he or she can be.
This singular pursuit of excellence is what drives us to build and maintain institutions to help nurture and develop it in our young people. The key word here is excellence—not reward, not gratification, not even recognition. Excellence will undoubtedly look different to each of us, considering how each of us got onto this stage.
Like many of my 59 classmates graduating today, on a crisp fall morning in September 2006, I trudged to the end of my driveway on my chubby five-year-old legs with a backpack on my back, a lunchbox in my hand, and absolutely no concept of what would transpire over the coming 13 years. Before long, the big yellow mechanical dragon whisked me away to the dark, brooding castle of Duanesburg Elementary School.
Actually, school wasn’t that bad, besides the fact that I fell down the fire pole on the giant wooden playground on the very first day of school and forever cemented my reputation as a klutz. (pause for effect) In elementary school, I knew I was intelligent, but I was hindered by my lack of social skills, a result of my Asperger’s Syndrome. To combat this, I was helped immeasurably by an excellent team of aides and counselors, who guided me throughout my early years and contributed to my personal and emotional growth. I guess they did their jobs too well, considering how I became dependent on their assistance in late elementary school. To remove this dependence, I asked my parents to request a slow decrease in the programs I was being offered by the support staff. I was granted this request and gradually moved away from the aides’ collective influence as I grew more confident throughout middle school and high school, flourishing as a student along the way.
Of course, I could not have succeeded as a student without ample support from the wonderful people in my life, all of whom have committed their lives to excellence, themselves:
- people like my parents and grandparents, who have each gone every step of the way in helping me achieve my goals both inside and outside of school
- people like my swim coach, Jenn Dixon, who has helped unlock a passion for the incredible sport of swimming in me that has borne me throughout middle and high school
- people like my physics teacher, Mr. Dornbush, who set my life on a new course with his highly-engaging and incredibly thorough instruction of physics.
- people like my English teacher, Mrs. Pless, who has enabled me to become a potent writer and attentive reader through her constant support of my pursuits in her class.
And, of course, people like the incredible members of the DCS Class of 2019. Since that fateful first day of school, we’ve had a little too much fun together, grown together, learned together, struggled together, and, in 2015, we weathered the loss of our dear friend Summer, together. And here we are tonight, together again, ready to start our journey into our respective new endeavors.
It doesn’t matter if we were gifted the intellect necessary to thrive in school or given the work ethic to push through our challenges in the classroom—we are here now. It doesn’t matter if we spent our time giving back to our communities or challenging our preconceived limits—we are here now. It doesn’t even matter if we embraced school or searched our surroundings for less traditional methods of learning—we are here now, and that is what matters.
And where do we go from here? Just like the classic tales of centuries ago, like Star Wars and Back to the Future, we will leave home, fight the forces in the world that seek to destroy our individuality, and we will inevitably prevail. We will study in college; we will navigate the job market; we will devote ourselves to the military; we will build our own businesses; we will defraud thousands of people of their life savings—hold it. Not that last one! (pause for effect)
It will not be easy: no road to success is lined with cheering fans and paved with testaments to one’s greatness (although presidential runs do beg to differ!). These paths are often pitch-black, packed with miscreants who have long since given up on the righteous search for better and now attempt to drag unwary travelers to their low state. But we will keep faith in both ourselves and in life, and we will rise far above those who wish to do us harm. This is excellence, too.
So, as we depart this school and go our separate ways to the same destination, I beseech my many friends in the Class of 2019 to continue to pursue excellence over gratification. Do what is right over what is easy; choose the profound over the vapid, demonstrate sensibility over impulsiveness, and privilege riches in the heart over the riches of the world. Thirteen long years together have brought us to the doorstep of the ravished world, which has waited in patient agony for leaders like us to will the people to a brighter future. And therein lies the choice each of us has within us to choose greatness over mediocrity.
It is time. We will go forth. We will be excellent.
DCS Class of 2019 Salutatorian Hanna Avery gave the Salutatory speech at graduation on June 21, 2019. Here is her written version.
I would like to thank everyone for coming to the class of 2019 commencement ceremony. We have all been patiently awaiting the day that we would get to walk across this stage to start the next chapters of our lives.
Well, today is the day. But we couldn’t be here without our mentors, our teachers, our coaches, our peers, and of course our parents; you are our pit crews and our cheerleaders. So, for that, we thank you.
Next, I would like to congratulate everyone here on this stage. It was no easy task. We have worked hard, not only over the past year, but over the course of our middle and high school careers. And after years of waiting anxiously and impatiently, today has finally come. But it didn’t just come; each and every one of us has worked for this.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to congratulate the class of 2019 valedictorian, my close academic rival for years, Jacob Harris. I am pleased that we have joined forces tonight to share some thoughts— a common motif, of sorts.
In March, I attended a freshman orientation at Houghton College, where they orchestrated a most unusual, yet amazing thing. They excerpted the highlighting moments from each of our college essays and put them on display. Naturally, I searched for mine among the crowd. This was the excerpt that they chose:
“Despite a broken relationship, I found love. Despite years of pain, I learned to forgive. The greatest gift from my experience is my personal growth, my ascent from the ashes.”
The essay was inspired by an experience. Long story short: when I was fourteen years old, my father lost a battle with a heroin addiction.
My parents divorced when I was six.
The last time I saw him was on my tenth birthday.
Addiction has impacted many people in my life, both past and present. Relationships have been stretched and strained, and sometimes even broken. And losing a loved one is never an easy thing to do.
Some of you may be asking why I am telling you this. Addiction and substance abuse has become a sort of taboo in our society. As students, we have been told time and time again about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. But, still, underage drinking and substance abuse continues to be a problem. We don’t see the impacts of our actions before it’s too late. But, as I stand before you today, my message is that there is incredible power in our choices.
In one of Steinbeck’s great novels, East of Eden, which is a personal favorite of mine, there is a very short and simple word that holds such power: “Timshel,” which is Hebrew for “Thou Mayest;” It means that we have the freedom of choice. We can choose to be great. Or we can choose to let ourselves fall.
Each and every one of us has a story. We all have our struggles, our tragic flaws, our bad days. Sometimes things get hard, and we just want to lie down in our beds and forget the world. But remember this: it’s not the hardships that make the person, but what we do with the situations that does. We can either succumb to the pressure, or we can choose to make the most of it.
We cannot rewrite our pasts. We have to deal with the consequences of past decisions, as I did with my father’s, but in facing the choice to let those decisions break us or empower us, we should choose to look ahead, and let those decisions offer lessons.
As students, we have all faced adversity— relationships, poverty, stress, loss: these are all issues that our nation’s youth is facing on a regular basis. Some of the challenges we face may even seem superficial in the moment, like that upcoming quiz that you struggle with, no matter how hard you’ve studied. But it is still a challenge— our education has become more and more about making the grade. These are hurdles and the key is getting over them. And if you trip? Well, you just get up, dust yourself off and keep moving forward.
Today is a very important milestone in our lives. Today, we will walk across this stage for the last time as the class of 2019. Tomorrow, we will no longer roam these halls. Tomorrow, we will no longer bang on Mr. Schalekamp’s door asking for pieces of candy. Tomorrow, we will no longer be here to drive our teachers crazy. Tomorrow, we will begin our journeys.
The choices we make are powerful things. It is important to always be aware of the impact of our actions because we cannot go back and do things over again, no matter how much we wish we could. I used to wish I could time travel and change the course of events, the choices that were made. I had to learn for myself that this was impossible. Time travel doesn’t exist. That is where that quote from my college essay really comes from;
I learned the power of forgiveness. I learned that sometimes things don’t go the way we hope and it is our reactions to situations, our hard work, dedication, perseverance, optimism— those are what make us. We wouldn’t be sitting here on this stage without them.
Today we begin a new chapter in our books— the pen is now in our hands. It’s up to us to choose what we will do with it.