Valedictorian Speech Discusses the Lifelong Process of “Becoming” Our Best Selves.

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“Becoming” by Sarah Watson, Valedictorian of the Class of 2019

Games, musicals, matches.  A vibrant room with an alarming number of ducks. The room 105 famous board. Allegedly intelligent squirrels. A fierce game of musical chairs our freshman year. A memorable senior prank. These have been the shared moments that have made our 720 days together so special, adjusted for snow days of course. I’d like to give a huge thanks to the teachers and administration that have made NDA our home. I’d also like to say Thank you to the Class of 2019. It is because of you that I look back on these past four years with immense joy. Thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts this evening, it is one of my greatest honors.

To be completely honest, writing this speech has been a challenge. I found it difficult to reflect back on four years that have been unique to each of us, and I have no idea what the future holds. So I turned to the advice of the wisest man I know, my father. Not only is he intelligent, humble, and hilarious, but he has the best name in the world – Dr. Carl Christopher Rupert Watson.

My dad once told me that life is rather like climbing a mountain. You focus all your energy on the path before you and eventually reach the peak. You take a moment to rest, breathe. Then you open your eyes to look at the view, and before you know it you have found a new summit you wish to climb. Class of 2019, we have done this all our lives. Now you are here, on that long-awaited summit. So take a precious minute to think of the challenges, laughs, and people that got you here. Thank them. These are the moments that make life so fulfilling. Don’t freshman bio tests suddenly seem far less daunting?

What touched me in my dad’s words was not the focus on the past, nor the future, but simply what I call, “the becoming.” We are all in this period of becoming, which just means “to begin to be.” We are becoming who we were created to be. Becoming our identity. And becoming the ultimate expression of ourselves. While this period of becoming involves a certain alarm, it also allows us to rest, reflect, and think about who we truly want to be going on from here.

In Michelle Obama’s new memoir, she jokes that the silliest question someone can ask a child is “What do you want to be when you grow up? As if being is something finite. As if one day you become something, and that’s the end. Instead, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. It’s a forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. That journey never ends.

We do not need a drawn-out plan for our entire lives. But we do get to make our own choices in the “becoming” of who we are.

Albert Einstein famously remarked in a conversation with Werner Heisenberg that there is a great ship in the west with all the comforts of the modern world. But what it lacks is a compass, and so it it does not know where it’s going.

The Dalai Lama expanded on this idea of the paradox of our times. He said we have wider highways, yet narrower viewpoints. We have greater knowledge, but less wisdom. More degrees, but less sense. As Martin Luther King Jr once observed, the irony of our humanity is that we have guided missiles, but often misguided men.

Don’t you think it perplexing that humans have split the atom, but not prejudice? We have learnt to make a greater living, but not a life. And the same humanity that travelled to the moon and back struggles to start a conversation with the stranger a few feet away.

I think we live in a world where we often mistake the limelight as the only type of light. Where we have exchanged understanding for knowledge, empathy for education, and genuine happiness for temporary success.  Personal success is good, but never let success become a substitute for your values. Your education and achievement is important, but it is far more important to have empathy and compassion.

So how do we dissect this paradox of our times? Its by taking the moment to press reset, realign our values, and contemplate our choices. From here on out, we get to decide what our values our. We get to define the measure of our own success. And we get to dictate the future of our humanity.

This is not encouraging you to be someone you are not, but rather, to fulfill the highest, truest expression of who you were created to be.

Today is May 15th  and today is the day we graduate and the rules begin to change. This is one of those rules: decisions are made by those who show up. So never forget that you are a citizen of the world.

The framers of this nation went out of their way to guarantee this to you – a promise that decisions are made by those who show up. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Pursuit, like becoming, is a very active verb. It is neither passive nor guaranteed. It suggests that we cannot simply sit to the side and hope that the challenges facing the world disappear; but that we have been given the freedom and authority to go and alter our universe.

So go. Make the choice of empathy and compassion no matter how tough. Carpe the heck out of the diem. And as you go, remember this: education and talent do not for an instant put us above the world. It makes us responsible for it.

It is nights like tonight, our graduation, that I am filled with immense hope for our future. I am blessed to know so many empathetic, compassionate, and powerful members of the Class of 2019. While we may on this lifelong process of “becoming” our best selves, you have already come so far, and it is a true sign of your intelligence. I am reminded that there are fierce women graduating from NDA tonight who hold social justice apart of their very DNA. I am reminded that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Because it’s the only thing that ever has.

How do we know this? Because again and again, we see global heroes arise out of national tragedies. As our nation has recently suffered two incidents of violence within schools, brave souls have willingly sacrificed their lives. Riley Howell of the University of North Carolina, and high school senior Kendrick Castillo proved themselves examples of modern heroes when they ran into the fire. As Aaron Sorkin once said, The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our brothers and our sisters, our friends and fellow students. Yet everytime we think we have reached our capacity to improve this world, we look up and we realize that capacity may just be limitless.

We honor their memory- they are true heroes. Class of 2019 this is a time for global heroes. Not just heroes of drama or literature, but everyday, visionary heroes who make the choice to selflessly sacrifice and recklessly love in every action.

We must also choose to do one thing solely for ourselves in our “becoming” –   It is the development of our own souls. The kingdom of God is within all of us, and we should not clutter up our souls with things of little value. I’ll tell you what, you’ll never see a UHAUL following a hearse. So, store up in your soul the most precious of things: Nights like tonight. People like the ones here to support you. Jokes that make you cry with laughter. And really, really good books.

I’d ask for a moment to honor the two people in my life who have given me the freedom and support to become exactly who I want to be. Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Momma, papa, you two are my giants on whose shoulders I rely. Thank you to the Class of 2019, and well done. I cannot wait to see how you continue becoming the unstoppable women I know you to be.

There is a poem by Meredith Gray that I think sums up this concept of becoming:

So, do it. Decide. Is this the life you want to live? Is this the person you want to love? Is this the best you can be? Can you be stronger? Kinder? More Compassionate? Decide. Breathe in. Breathe out and decide.