About three years ago, a few weeks after school had let out, every day at around 2:00 you could find me walking down my quarter-mile lane to check the mailbox. Now, what could a teenage girl be so interested in receiving that she skipped right across 168 everyday? Looking back now it’s a little embarrassing to admit, but it wasn’t a package or concert tickets that I was so anxiously anticipating; it wasn’t even a love letter. The one thing that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on at the conclusion of my freshman year… was my report card. My REPORT card! I wanted so badly to tear open the envelope and find out what my class rank was. If that doesn’t stand to show how happy I am to be up here today, idk what does. When the report card finally came I was thrilled to learn that I was 2nd in my class. The very first thing I did was share the news with my family. They all greeted my accomplishment with the same enthusiasm and congrats, all except one person… My pap. Now, we all have that one family member who always says exactly what’s on their mind no matter the circumstance… well, that’s my pap. He’s here tonight and I’m sure he’s over in the stands right now entertaining everyone within earshot. Hi, pap. Anyway, when my proud 15 year old self bounced up to him, smiling from ear to ear and practically sang out my accomplishment, he looked me straight in the eyes and said “You are not special.” and I said “what” thinking maybe I had misheard him, but he continued to enlighten me on how there are over 35,000 high schools in the United States, which means there will be 35,000 valedictorians vying for jobs within the next few years and I wasn’t even a part of that elite group because I was second, not first. He went on (no he wasn’t finished) to say that everyone graduates from high school nowadays, so whether I was first, second or one-hundred and second, graduating high school did not make me special. Now before you all call and report my poor pap for child abuse, let me assure you that there was a twinkle in his eye during his whole monologue, and he was merely trying to tease me, as all grandfathers are all truly adept at. But little did he know that even after I told on him to my mimi, who gave me a big bowl of ice cream to drown my sorrows in, I would carry questions from his display of tomfoolery with me all the way up to my very own graduation day… What is the purpose of today? Why are we here making such a big deal on this June evening when thousands of students across the country have earned the same piece of paper as we have? Why do we take pictures and spend money and fly in relatives for something that has become so much of a normalcy in American culture? These questions have tumbled about in my head, and it became strikingly clear to me (when the word count on my speech still remained at 0 after hours of trying to get my thoughts out of my head and onto my laptop) that I was going to be consumed by writer’s block until I could come up with an answer to these questions myself. Thankfully, right after we landed back in Pittsburgh after the senior trip, exhausted, emotional and practically delirious, just like us, everything finally came together.
The chances are slim, but there might be another senior class out there somewhere that is home to a kid with the craziest laugh (personally I think he sounds like a pterodactyl) who can often be found bickering with a girl who has died her hair about seven different colors since middle school and always speaks her mind. There might be another senior class where a band-turned-chorus kid who can bust out a mean polka is best friends with a quiz bowl champion whose buffalo chicken dip can change your life. There might be another senior class home to the best barber in town, a real-life Troy Bolton who doubled as a varsity athlete and the villain in the high school musical this year (happy birthday Kyle) or even a football team who can transform into a professional dance crew as soon as the song “Gasolina” comes on. It’s possible. It really is. But can you find a high school out there, any of the 35,000 in the United States, that has proudly housed this combination of students for four years? It can’t be done. The truth of the matter is this. The class of 2017 is anything but “not special.” And even though some of us like to think that we haven't connected with anyone in our class, the relationships we’ve forged here by simply coexisting with each other have changed our outlooks and perspectives forever.
There is a popular message that directors like to include in their pre-concert speeches before their ensemble takes the stage. I’ve encountered this message on many occasions, and it goes something like this.This ensemble is only alive for this very performance. Once the final note is sung, you [as a whole] cease to exist. Sure, you all may sing together again someday, and you may even perform the same repertoire. But the way that you sang the music and interpreted each note will never be the same, because you as people are constantly changing. Just as music cannot be replicated, nor can we. And that is why today calls for the greatest of celebrations. There will never be another class with our exact quirks, strengths and even struggles, and because of that, we are ready to face anything. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of “if only” and make ourselves susceptible to the unknown. It’s easy to say “if only” I had gone to a bigger school, or a richer school or a school that isn’t in the middle of nowhere. But the way I see it, this tiny, rural school has given us the best education beyond what is taught in its classrooms… because we know what it’s like to be the little guy, the underdogs. We know how to make the most out of the resources and opportunities given to us and still come out on top. And because of that, the rest of the world will never see us coming. As we go forward it won’t be a matter of “who will let us,” it will be a matter of “who is going to stop us.” Congratulations, class of 2017, and thank you for giving me such a special high school experience.