I did not want to attend my own high school graduation. By the time graduation rolled around, I had my eye on summer vacations and heading 1,500 miles away to college and didn’t really buy into the pomp and circumstance of a 3-hour long spectacle. Naturally, my parents made my graduation party contingent on walking at graduation. Very clever, parental units, well-played.
Of course, I’m not the only graduate to be a little cynical about the exercise. One valedictorian, however, took it to the next level at her 2010 graduation ceremony by using her speech as a platform for criticizing the American public school system and education in our country as a whole. [To read the address in its entirety, click here.]
Erica Goldson, valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York, talks about her disillusionment with our focus on accomplishing goals as opposed to learning. She astutely points out that, for many teenagers, the only reason to work at school at all is to do enough to get out. However, this is not a speech about slackers or underachievers – she struck at the very heart of the kind of student I was in high school:
I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning.
I think so many of us, raised in “gifted” programs and taking advantage of magnet & charter school programs, feel this way. The goal is getting good grades, doing well academically, gaining admission to a good college – but then what? Even throughout college, the focus on having a stellar GPA and solid package [to gain admission to graduate school? find that perfect job?] takes precedence over learning for discovery’s sake.
I love how she has the nerve to call out the system and remind her friends, parents, and teachers that there should be more to life than earning degrees, getting jobs, making money, and being consumers. She calls for passion – oh that word – over meaningless achievement, which how I sometimes view my own accomplishments (high school degree, college degree, resume lines, etc.)
What I respect about Erica’s speech is that she issues a challenge that is unusual for a commencement speech – instead of the insipid advice usually given, she challenges her classmates to challenge the system. In a direct opposition of the “generation me” stereotype, she reminds her peers that there are more to come through the system after them and they have a responsibility to make it better for the future.
I say kudos to you, Erica, for a wonderful graduation speech – a challenge to the system, an expression of real fear and doubt which is remarkable for a young person, and a call to arms to make change.