Students Leave Words to Live by

Editor’s Note: Below are student graduation speeches, including Old Rochester Regional High School Valedictorian Amaya McLeod and Tabor Academy Co-Heads of School Olivia Justice and Percy Ackerman.

ORR Valedictorian Amaya McLeod

            Good afternoon parents, families, guests, school committee members, administrators, faculty, and most importantly, the class of 2022. Let me take you back in time for just a minute to when I was in Kindergarten. I would see the sixth graders walking by in a massive blob in the hallways and would press myself up against the wall for fear of being trampled by the kids who at the time seemed like they were all 6 feet tall. Then, all of a sudden, I was one of those sixth graders in the massive blob.

            Let me tell you, I was not 6 feet tall and I was still scared out of my mind. I was afraid of going to a different school and meeting new people. I survived middle school and in eighth grade, I was given a tour of the high school. I remember thinking there was no way I was going to get through it. The textbooks were too big, the syllabuses were too complex, and the hallway seemed like a maze specifically designed to confuse newcomers, especially since I couldn’t find the pool everyone was talking about.

            Now, you might be sensing a theme. My entire life I have been scared of what’s next. This doesn’t apply to just big steps like changing schools. I’ve spent hundreds of hours stressing about tests and projects. I’ve had nights out with friends ruined because I couldn’t stop thinking about a Spanish presentation I had the next day in class. I’ve stayed home because I was too freaked out about an exam I already studied for. I’ve wasted precious moments because I couldn’t get past the anxiety of what lay before me. And what I always failed to realize, and what I think most of us fail to realize when we are stressing about the next step, is that of course, we can make it through the next thing because this class has gotten through so much already.

            Changes in life always seem really scary and impossible, but we can make it through them. I am not going to lie to you, the idea of going to college terrifies me. Obviously, I’m excited and I can’t wait to go, but I’m also feeling this urge to curl in a ball and refuse to leave my house. College is scary because we have never experienced anything like it. But I believe in us because this class has faced so many unprecedented challenges and new ways of living and come out here on the other side. I mean if we can make it through the time everyone was doing Fortnite dances, watching Tiger King, and making slime, we can make it through anything.

            And we don’t have to make it through alone. I wouldn’t have made it this far without the love and support of my family. My sisters are the ones who taught me that it is important to stay humble. Whenever I get too self-inflated they do me the favor of taking me down a peg with a snide comment, like “well at least I can drive.” Love you guys.

            I wouldn’t have made it this far without the lessons taught to me by my amazing teachers. Ms. Barker taught me that being kind gets you farther than anything else. She is one of the sweetest people I know and, through her kindness, she has made the lives of hundreds of students better. Señor Bernardo taught me that it is important not to take life too seriously and to remember to laugh. Annoying him in class always made my day way better and made me 10 times less stressed. I could go on about how much the teachers in this community have influenced my life, and I’m sure every graduate sitting here today could do the same.

            And last but certainly not least, I wouldn’t have made it here without our class. This class taught me that the only way to succeed in life is to give it your all, even if that means throwing away all sanitary caution and eating food off the floor. Being in this class has taught me that friends can help you through anything. I’m not saying you need a whole entourage, even one good friend can help you through the toughest of times. My friends have always made my life better in so many ways, even when they hip check me into lockers and make fun of me for being a tad short.

            I am proud to be a part of this class because we have not only made it, but we have helped each other hit every curve ball thrown our way. We shouldn’t waste these precious moments worrying about how we will do in the future and instead spend them appreciating how far we have come.

            In the words of a very wise man named doctor Doofenshmirtz, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Congratulations Class of 2022. Enjoy your summer and your journeys. Thank you.

Tabor Academy Co-Head of School Olivia ‘Liv’ Justice

            I crave stability. In my life, I have attended five different schools, lived in five different houses in three different cities. In every new environment, I found new friend groups, new hobbies, new interests; I became a master of adapting.

            Adjusting to a new school schedule was easy. Learning the routine of car hums and barking dogs in new neighborhoods, or even the angry footsteps of the family that lived above mine, was nothing. Strategizing a plan on how to successfully navigate the social food chain of every school I went to even became monotonous. Figuring out who I am though, that challenge topped the rest. After repeating the cycle a few times, my personality and my aspirations became fluid.

            The only consistent part of my life was school. No matter how chaotic everything else became, my classes and my work were always there. Like that one parent who was always first in line at carpool, education became the calm in my life’s storm. The classroom proved to be my peace of mind and my safe space. Despite the comfort I find within writing, reading, and engaging in class discussions it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the stability I so heavily rely on.

            In a wider world in which there is so much hate in the air like a smog that makes it hard to breathe; no one should feel like they’re suffocating in an environment that was created to nourish our minds, body, and spirit. However, in some places that smog has inundated entire communities poisoning every ounce of safety and comfort that once lived there so freely.

            Most recently Salvador Rolando Ramos fatally shot 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. I think about them today because their safe place was violated in ways unimaginable for many of us. Those beloved children will never have the opportunity to grow into their own as we have. They won’t walk across the stage and earn a diploma as we will soon, and for the faculty, family, and friends they left behind, school may never be a safe place for them again.

            I’m reminded of the privilege we experience every day by not having to contend with such tragedies. So, I ask myself, what can I do with this privilege? How can I take advantage of this safe space and channel the skills this institution has taught me to do something meaningful? How can we as a people, who all bleed the same, show compassion for one another especially when it becomes hard to breathe? For these answers I don’t turn to Google or Siri or one of the million essays I’ve written over the past four years. Instead, I look to my classmates, my teachers, and this community as a whole.

            The solutions we so desperately need lie within us and our capacity to empathize. For so long, I found my peace in the classroom, and after four years of learning and living here, I realized that part of my peace came from the people I surround myself with. We lift each other up, we bring each other back down to earth, we wipe each other’s tears off our cheeks, and even though we get on each other’s nerves at times, we also ease each other’s minds when they’re racing.

            My mind is in 100 places right now. Between the joy and celebration I feel for my fellow graduates and the heartbreak that follows for all that I’ll miss here, I’ve been reminiscing about countless special moments I’ve shared with people on campus. These memories have been invited by the melting pot of emotions I’ve been feeling over the past week.

            I know many of you have been riding the same rollercoaster of emotions with me, and in bittersweet times like this I think we all crave stability. So, as I take my first steps away from this campus, I am taking a piece of that grounding force I found here with me. Whether it was in many ways or just one, I believe Tabor Academy and the far-reaching network of people it connects has grounded each of us. I ask that you think about how you center yourself and specifically to the graduates, how did you do that during our time here. Understand that is likely all of our answers differ.

            I preserved my sanity here at the Academy with Door Dash. Although I wish money grew on trees, it unfortunately does not. So, this means wasn’t sustainable. Most times, I protected my sanity by spending quality time with my friends, becoming more globally aware, taking as many humanities courses as possible, and learning the invaluable art of self-advocacy. To the rest of the Class of ’22, wherever the next phase of your lives begin, I hope y’all find your stability, too. And more importantly, I hope you all make an effort to create it for others. Thank you.

Tabor Academy Co-Head of School Percy Ackerman

            Thank you, Liv, and good morning.

            On Monday night at the senior faculty dinner, listening to Mrs. Young speak, enjoying a delectable M&M cookie, I found myself nodding my head. She’s right, things have been really hard for us. As she continued, I grew increasingly aware of just how much I agreed with her.

            Bite, chew, chew. And then she said this: “I am certain this class is going to move mountains.” This is concerning. UGH! She just gave my Commencement Speech. Thanks a lot, Mrs. Young.

            But I understand why this happened. It’s inevitable that people are going to stand up and give the same speech. We all question the purpose of life and try to make sense of ourselves. It’s just what we do. If we tried to do this every day though we would go out of our minds. So, we do it at milestones in our lives and on special occasions, like this.

            It also occurs to me that if we feel compelled to spend every group milestone we reach trying to make sense of life, then maybe the real message is that life doesn’t make any sense. What are we in school for? Explain COVID-19 to me. You know, how long has Mr. Becker really been at Tabor? But in this miasma of uncertainty there is boundless opportunity. Each of us gets to decide for ourselves what it means.

            One January afternoon I found myself in the most crucial role I’ve had at Tabor Academy: Tabor Hockey League (THL) goaltender with around 30 seconds left. I was getting peppered with shots. The red team special line was in front of my net, five on one, as the rest of my teammates were dusting the ice and toe picking on the other end. I made 1 … 2 … 3 … saves as the clock ticked down toward zero.

            Then, something unthinkable happened. Someone lifted the puck off the ground. I watched in awe as the game winning goal leapt over my pad, into the net, and down in intramural hockey history just as the good old hockey game was finishing on the speakers. Naturally a pig pile celly, which is hockey lingo for celebration, ensued for the red team, and I was left in the crease, still in shock.

            But for those of you who don’t know the THL, memory regarding wins and losses runs pretty short. Next thing you know there are a few black jerseys in the celly pile, too, because every time the THL plays a game, the THL wins. Together, we found joy, connection, and purpose. The joy I, and so many others, found in the Tabor Hockey League was not only the product of the goals we scored or the faces we planted, but from being there every day with 30 people who were just excited to be together. We were terrible. We were beautiful and we had fun, but mostly we were terrible.

            I found purpose in big cellys for bad hockey. Other Seawolves found their purpose in geeking out, in making art, in lending a hand. The limitations imposed by COVID-19 did not stop us, but instead forced us to push against our own limits and find our joy, our connection, and our own purpose.

            Learning to work hard and work together might be the most important lesson we learned here. As we move on, no matter what kinds of communities are in our future, we will enrich them with the strength and spirit we bring. We will move mountains … or hills or pig piles; whatever we decide.

            Thank you.

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