LISA MADDOX: Salutatorian

Good evening and welcome to all who have come tonight to celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2012.

High school is a general term for a collective of possible experiences. We have all dedicated ourselves to dozens of different pursuits, which one would think would divide us, but despite this we have found more experiences that have unified us than not.

One such rite of high school passage is the Questions. Now, that is Questions with a capital Q. Every student here knows what I am talking about: The litany of inquiries that come from everyone you encounter upon their discovery that you are a high school senior. From September until early April the questions (Where are you applying to college? Which school is your first choice? Where have you gotten in?) are so constant and unchanging one could think they come from a book. (How to Tourture High School Seniors in Three Easy Steps is now available at your local independent bookstore.) We learn early on how to deflect and redirect, to give broad, obfuscating answers that seem to satisfy our audience, because in truth, we’d love nothing more than to secure 10 blissful minutes of college-free talk.

Finally, in April, we think there will be a reprieve. We now have a concrete answer. We know where we are headed in September, and it feels great. We will gleefully point anyone who asks towards our recently acquired bumper sticker, sweatshirt or keychain. We will talk for hours with anyone who will listen about our options for housing, whom we have met and why we chose our school.

But this is not what seems to interest our inquisitors any longer. Our short-term goals are no longer fodder for polite conversation. The people we meet now want to know the answers to more grandiose questions (and no, it is not whether or not you were able to secure your football season tickets yet). They want to know, most importantly, what do we want to do with our lives. Answers of uncertainty usually garner responses that range from nonplussed to sympathetic. It seems that once you decide upon your destination for the next four years of your life, you also must plot the rest of your course as well.

When I was faced with this very question a few days ago, it took all I had not to respond to the well-intentioned asker with a flippant quip about living with the dolphins or becoming a professional spelunker, which is about as likely as there being a freak snowstorm in October. Oh wait…

Because, quite honestly, I have no idea, and this question incites tremendous anxiety within me. I obviously missed the “check here for your complete life plan” box on the Common App. At this juncture in our lives, I do not think the question should be what we want to be, but who do we want to be.

In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded a 31-year-long study of 10,000 men and women that charted how many jobs they had held in their lifetimes. The result? Between the ages of 18 and 44, the participants had held, on average, 11 different jobs. For all of you mathematically inclined folks in the room, this means that amongst the 193 of us graduating here today, we will hold approximately 2,123 jobs in our collective lifetimes. What we intended to or are doing now has little to no bearing on what will end up doing in the future.

What does matter, what will stay with us over the course those 11 careers, is our character. Author and poet James Joyce once said, “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”

We may think, and rightfully so, that today is an end, that all future moments are predicated upon what we have already done, who we already are, but who we are today is still changing, still evolving. We have to ask ourselves in this moment, and in all future moments, who we want to be and how we want that to alter the course of our lives.

When you meet people, they will not remember what you do for a living or what your major was in college. What they will remember is the kind of person you were. Our actions and our character make the most lasting impressions on others. Make those impressions count. Make sure people remember you for the right reasons. Who you are in this moment and who you are 10,000 moments from now might not be exactly the same, and that is okay. Who we are as we sit in these seats is not the same as the people that sat in the bleachers overlooking the football field on the first day of ninth grade.

I do not mean to suggest that you need to decide in this instant what your values are and who you want to be, but I do think we need to shift our focus. Deciding on a major, on a career path, those are tangible steps towards the rest of our lives, and as such, they are relatively simple to accomplish. Committing to self-examination and introspection is not. It is very easy to settle into the comfortable routine of being who you think you are; however, challenging those assumptions, that is what allows us to grow and change.

Making the conscious choice to think about our actions and motivations and how they affect our dreams and desires puts us ahead of the game. Knowing who you are, or being cognizant enough to admit that you are still figuring it out makes you already luckier than most other people.

So, Class of 2012, celebrate this end today and allow yourself to think about where you want to be in the future, but do not let yourself to forget who you want to be in the process. The standard of integrity and honesty to which we hold ourselves permits us to be successful in life. No level of success can ever imbue you with a sense of who you are. Thank you.

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