On Friday afternoon, Staples High School valedictorian (and captain of the state champion tennis team) Will Andrews addressed 482 fellow graduates, and a crowd of over 3,500.
Unlike most such speeches, his was powerful, insightful — and very, very honest.
Drawing heavily on what he learned in their Myth and Bible class, he compared the challenges of Staples to a hydra — the Greek monster. Will followed up with a shout-out to mentors, without whom he and his classmates would not have been able to complete, like Hercules, their own personal labors.
Then — turning from nadirs to the elixir (magical life-prolonging potion) — he shared what he’s learned during his journey through high school.
From late summer through much of this school year, I struggled with severe depression brought on by a number of personal circumstances. I had to leave school for a period of time to try and resolve this issue, and spent a few days in the hospital; this it is something I still struggle with and work with today. I say this now not as some grandiose personal statement, but rather because through this experience I have learned an immense amount about appreciating those around you and appreciating the present.
I’ve learned that perhaps the most important thing we can do each day is be kind to one another. It seems so simple but can have such a profound effect on those around us, even for such simple acts as greeting someone in the hallway or complimenting a peer’s work. I implore all of you to practice kindness in your lives, as much for the people you don’t know as the people you do.
Practicing kindness is not only an outward expression but an inward tas well. That is to say we must also be kind to ourselves. Much of my depression stemmed from a toxic self-image. There’s something inherently damaging about trying to hide part of yourself, especially such a basic characteristic of who you are, from other people, in that, at some level, it’s an expression of embarrassment or shame or discomfort. Each of us is with ourselves every moment of every day from the time we enter this world to the time we leave it. We can’t live happy and fulfilling lives if we don’t accept and love the one person who’s along for the entire ride.
The second part of what I believe to be my elixir is knowing the value of distress tolerance and mindfulness. The Staples environment is oversaturated with stress and competition.
This year I was walking behind two sophomores holding a conversation about their futures, which, according to them, were hanging precariously in the balance. One lamented what was sure to be a late night studying for a massive chemistry test that was definitely going to alter the course of his life and perhaps the course of the entire world. He said if he didn’t get a good grade on this test, he wasn’t going to get a good grade in the class and his GPA would suffer.
If his GPA suffered and he didn’t take 13 AP courses and found 4 clubs and singlehandedly end poverty in Ecuador and learn to unicycle while blindfolded on a tightrope in a hurricane he wouldn’t get into a good college. If he didn’t get into a good college he wouldn’t get into a good graduate school, he wouldn’t get a good job, he wouldn’t make enough money, and he wouldn’t be able to support his family and retire comfortably somewhere in a Florida gated community where he can enjoy water aerobics with octogenarians named Esther in bikinis.
There in the Staples hallway was a sophomore terrified thinking about his retirement decades down the road. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in this circular logic, we get stuck at the nadir of the hero wheel and don’t allow ourselves to reach the elixir. His logic is undoubtedly flawed, but it is not uncommon at Staples.
My math teacher, Mr. Papp, told us that success is not linear. Our fallacy is that we think in order to achieve success we need to meet a successive series of steps and that any diversion from the path precludes us from reaching our goal. The truth, though, is that success is always within our reach. We don’t need a numerical representation down to the ten thousandth place to quantify our high school experience or any of our other typical markers of achievement; we just need to redefine success as finding happiness.
Competition and stress definitely have their place in academics and in life; the capitalist economic model is based largely on the idea that competition drives innovation and expansion. When there is too much competition and too much stress, however, as there too often is at Staples, we create an environment that not only chokes academic growth but also plainly makes life so much less enjoyable.
As clichéd as it is, we’re only given one life. There is a time to work, and during that period we must throw ourselves unreservedly into our studies and ensure that we are prepared for whatever tests, discussions, or projects we may have. But there is also a time to relax, and during that time we must throw ourselves equally unreservedly into however we entertain ourselves and let the stress fade.
Stress is inherent at such a high-achieving school like Staples in a successful community like Westport, but parents, students, and school officials alike have unduly exacerbated its influence in recent years. So many people, and I’m not excluding myself from this group, take classes not because they are genuinely interested in the material but rather because they look impressive on a resume, or they spend their summers at tutoring services desperately trying to gain an edge in a cutthroat competition rather than enjoying days with friends doing anything or doing nothing.
This is my elixir, molded by my personal high school experience. Our presence here today demands that we each have one, and with this elixir, each and every one of us have completed our first journeys as Greek heroes. We are ready for whatever adventure calls our name next.
The true value of a hero, though, is in sharing his or her elixir with the world and making it a better place. So, to the family and friends gathered here today, I urge you to speak with your graduate about what his or her everlasting gift is.
Master Oogway, from Kung Fu Panda, said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” I don’t mean to suggest that taking cues from animated movies is always wise, lest we wait for fairy-godmothers to come solve our problems, but in this case Oogway is right. There are so many variables in our futures that we simply can’t control, so many random strokes of chance that could redefine our lives for better or for worse.
There is simply no sense fretting about a future we can’t control when there is so much to enjoy here, now, in the present. Of course, we must prepare for the future and put ourselves in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that may present themselves. Once we put forth our best effort, though, we can’t control the uncontrollable, so let us not idle away in worry; let us instead practice mindfulness, and focus on the physical and emotional feelings of the present.
In the series finale of The Office, Andy Bernard reflects on his years at Dunder Mifflin, ultimately wishing that “there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Friends, family, teachers, and peers: we are in the good old days, and we can always be. We must simply believe it.
Thank you, and congratulations to the Ancient Greek heroes of the Class of 2016. Slay on.