Four Commencement Speeches for the Ages

Vol. 14 No. 9

heads eletter Vol.14 No.9 graduation

Congratulations to your graduating students, School Heads! There’s just one more step you must take with them before they embark on their bright futures—getting them through commencement ceremonies. To lighten your mood during this hectic season, we’ve found what we think are some of the most entertaining, profound, or downright unbelievable commencement speeches delivered by high school students to their peers.

1. East Jessamine High School’s Stand-Up Act

One of the most common ways in which folks react to stress is with humor. This graduating valedictorian from East Jessamine High School, however, takes the cake with appropriate-yet-hilarious humor during what normally is an exceptionally serious occasion.

We’re thankful this speech didn’t crash—even if our seats did come with personal flotation devices.

2. "A Musical Journey Through The High School Experience"

Valedictorian Lance Jabr doesn’t actually sing during his speech, but the musical accompaniment provided by Jeffrey Herman on the keyboard makes us wonder why all commencement speeches aren’t done with musical cues and flourishes.

The satirical hyper-generalization of the high school experience makes Lance’s “speech” familiar to most—if not all—students, which elevates his humor to a larger audience without diluting the personal touches of maple-syrup-covered-walls and a dramatic marriage-college-search metaphor.

3. Life is like … A Rubik’s Cube?

Valedictorian Carl Aquino took a leaf from Lance’s book two years later when he also featured musical accompaniment of a guitar during his speech. However, his speech took a more profound turn as he compared the high school experience to completing a Rubik's Cube, a three-dimensional cube puzzle.

Despite his nervousness and occasional pauses—gracefully received by the listening audience—Carl deftly balanced insights with anecdotes like the wet pants story. (It’s not what you’re thinking.)

4. “You Are Not Special.”

So this speech wasn’t given by a student, but we feel like this speech needed to be included on this list. Mr. David McCullough, Jr., does a remarkable job reaching to the heart of why commencement is important. It’s not (only) a day for family to gather, or for students to wear silly hats and trip over their robes as they shake your hand in exchange for their diploma. It represents the journey of the student—not in school, but in his or her approach to life.

We’ll close our list out with a selective transcript of the speech for those who would rather not play the video recording. However, we encourage you to listen to it in full—it’s worth the 12 minutes.

It’s fitting, for example, where we find ourselves for this auspicious rite of passage [commencement]. The venue: Here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something.

And your ceremonial costumes—shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic Xbox assassin—each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.

And for your diploma—except for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. [...]

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cossetted, doted upon, helmetted, bubble wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again. [...]

And certainly we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every Tweet.

But do not get the idea that you’re anything special, because you’re not. Empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. [...] Across the country, no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from about 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians. 92,000 harmonizing altos. 340,000 swaggering jocks. 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. [...]

You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, then trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken yet not-so-subtle Darwinian competition with one another—which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our own dread of mortality—we have, of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. [...]

I hope you’ve learned enough to realize how little you know… now. For today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.

Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. [...]

Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself.

Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tic of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer, and as surely as there are commencements, there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality, no matter how delightful the afternoon. [...]

Get busy. Have at it. Don’t wait for passion or inspiration to find you. Get up. Get out. Explore. Find it yourself. Grab hold with both hands. [...]

Climb the mountain—not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge and enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. [...]

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.

Additional ISM resources
The Source for Admission Directors Vol. 9 No. 7 Saying Goodbye to the Seniors: Students and Graduation
The Source for Private School News Vol. 10 No. 3 Graduation Safety Tips

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members
I&P Vol. 36 No. 14 Alumni Relations and the Portrait of the Graduate

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