NASHVILLE — Parents, we ask you to hold your applause until the names of all the medal winners have been announced. When the ceremony is over and your child has not left her seat, though nearly every other kid is taking home ribbons and trophies and enough scholarship offers to make a real dent in the national debt, please take a few moments to congratulate the winners as they head off to their well-earned celebrations. Then we ask that you return to your seats. We have a few special achievements left to acknowledge.
To the student who does all the homework in his hardest subject and turns it in promptly, who studies diligently for tests and shows up at every before-school help session, who has never once read an online summary instead of the actual book and who nevertheless manages to earn no grade higher than a C: You have already aced the real tests. School is the only place in the world where you’re expected to excel at everything, and all at the same time. In real life, you’ll excel at what you do best and let others excel at what they do best. For the rest of your life, you will never again think of this C, but you’ll bring your character and your capacity for hard work to all your future endeavors.
To the student with friends scattered hither and yon, across grades and groups and genders: You may feel like an outsider at every insider gathering. You may wonder what it’s like to feel deeply enfolded within a group whose very membership confers identity. How easy it would be, you may think, to be told where to go and what to wear and whom to stand next to when you get there! In truth, membership in a group always feels provisional; insiders inevitably wonder if they’re the next to be cast out. But a gift for friendship that transcends circumstance, for recognizing kinship wherever it blooms? That gift will make the world your home.
To the student who sits in the back of the room with the chemistry textbook propped open and a library book tucked inside: You’ll have to learn chemistry, there’s no getting around it, but we revel in your love for the written word. In times of trial and worry, of disappointment and despair, a book will be your shield. Immersing yourself in a grand story will be a respite from your troubles, and a lifetime spent lingering over language will give you the right words when you need them yourself. No one writes a better love letter than a lifelong reader.
To the bench warmers and the water boys and the equipment managers who follow every play without getting a smudge on their pristine jerseys: We delight in your love for the game, and we salute your loyalty to the team. You may never score the winning goal or hit a walk-off home run or feel the exultation of your teammates as they carry you from the field, but you will know the pleasure of belonging, and you will be spared the sadness of fading glory, too. When you look back on these years, what you’ll remember is the pride of wearing that jersey, the privilege of supporting your team.
To the student who fled for the restroom on dissection day and took a zero in biology lab: It’s a great gift to love animals. When you can sit quietly in the presence of another creature, when you can earn a fearful animal’s trust, you are participating in the eons. Whatever it may seem to almost everyone else, this planet is a great breathing, vulnerable beast, and we are each of us only one of its cells. We celebrate the tender heart that has taught you this truth, so urgent and so easily overlooked.
To the student who bombed the history final because you stayed up all night talking to a friend whose heart is breaking: There is honor in your choice. You can make up the history lessons, but compassion is not a subject we offer in summer school. Today we rejoice for the A you’ve earned in Empathy, the blue ribbon you’ve won in Love.
To the daydreamer and the window-gazer, to the one who startles when called on by the teacher or nudged by a classmate, whose report card invariably praises your good mind but laments your lack of focus: We are grateful for your brown study. Here’s to the wondering reveries of the dreamers and the dawdlers, for the real aha! moments in life are those that cannot be summoned by will. They arrive by stealth during moments of idleness, creeping in while you’re staring out a window or soaking in the bathtub or just wandering aimlessly along.
Summer beckons, a great, green, gorgeous gift. We’ve already kept you far too long, so let us send you forth with just one last reminder of a truth that somehow you already understand, though school is not the place where you learned it:
Life is not a contest, and the world is not an arena. Just by being here, unique among all others, offering contributions that no one else can give, you have already won the one prize that matters most.
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