Dear Class of 2021,
“Life begins after high school.” For most of my time at Madison, I subscribed to that adage without a second thought. I anxiously anticipated the end of high school, thinking that only then could my existence commence — only then could I blossom into myself. I was wrong, and I cheated myself by adopting such a closed, pessimistic mindset. So here is my message to you: Life has already begun, so be sponges! Saturate yourselves in new experiences, friendships, and passions, and most importantly, be courageous enough to learn about others, about yourself, and about this terrifying, mysterious, awe-inspiring world.
Firstly, do not discount or compartmentalize high school experiences because you feel embarrassed by them; those experiences, however awkward or unpleasant they may be in the moment, will teach you the most. When you answer a question incorrectly in class, do not shut down. Do not bow your head or grab your phone. Instead, listen! Not only will you discover the correct answer, but you will train yourself to disregard your ego in favor of self-improvement. An inflated ego will prove your arch-nemesis in your pursuit of growth, because it will grinningly deceive you into believing that your worth shatters if you so much as acknowledge an error on your part. Do not surrender to the false security of supposed superiority, however tempting. Allow yourself to be wrong. Make mistakes and admit to them, and then ask, “What have I learned? How can I improve?” Life is never about perfection, but rather about development, and the only way to develop is through millions of mistakes. Ultimately, the extent of your progress in high school and in life rests on your own shoulders. Do not allow pride to stunt your growth.
However, that is in no way to endorse human doormat-hood! High school can be a stampede in which one can all-too-easily be trampled, because so many students feel insecure, confused, and desperate to assimilate regardless of the ramifications for others. Though undeniably easier said than done, always retain a sense of your inherent and indisputable worth. It will provide you the resilience to continue forward despite setbacks, be they thoughtless comments, pointed reproaches, rejections, or simply feeling unnoticed or underestimated. Value yourself beyond the confines of high school, beyond the scope of social approval or popularity. As David Pelzer wisely states, “When you please others in hopes of being accepted, you lose your self-worth in the process.” Challenge yourself to seek those who appreciate you for yourself, flaws and all, even if this means liberating yourself from current friend groups. And let yourself eat lunch alone! Genuinely recognizing yourself and your implicit value trumps all external validation.
But isolating, not to mention accepting, your true identity can prove exceedingly difficult in the overwhelming upsurge of high school insecurities. As hopeless as it may seem now, you will discover yourself, but more importantly, high school is not the end-all-be-all. At graduation, you will not suddenly experience an epiphany and realize exactly who you are and what you want to do with your life. No, self-discovery is a lifelong process, but high school can equip you with the self-knowledge to embark on this journey — if you embrace your vulnerability. Join clubs, talk to people you think are too cool for you, take a class you would never think of taking, smile at people in the halls. I promise that it won’t all work out. That club might just not be for you. You might hate a class, or maybe you drop the class and it ends up being amazing. Those “too cool” students might reject you. For every person who smiles back, there might be six people who do not. And all of that is okay. Retain your receptivity to others, to the world around you, to changes in your own mindset. You will survive, and these experiences will mentally and emotionally empower you in the long term, as improbable as it may seem in the moment.
So as I leave you today, my final message is this: you can refuse to acknowledge that life has started in high school and just subtract those years off your “life.” You can cloak yourself in pessimism and closed-mindedness; you can refuse to grow. No one will stop you. Or you can embrace high school, in all of its awkwardness and insecurity and all the general floundering it entails. High school is a strange, sinister ocean brimming with life lessons; we must summon the courage to plunge into the water and soak up its secrets. Thank you.