Oberlin Blogs

The Long Road to a Graduation Speech

December 30, 2008

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

I knew the moment I first wanted it. June of '98 and my last day of elementary school. A time for relief and celebration--and I could not have felt worse. There I was, sitting fitfully in an audience of nervous ten-year-olds as class valedictorian Melissa Yang prepared to give the fifth-grade graduation speech. Dressed to the nines and poised behind the giant wooden podium on stage, she delivered the biggest address of her young life. I cupped my head between my hands and lamented missed opportunities. High-achieving but still not at the top of my class, I had narrowly missed both the valedictorian and salutatorian slots for my grade. What must my parents think? Would I survive middle school? How could I possibly go on to lead a successful life? Three years away from puberty and already I was on the road to therapy and a mid-life crisis.

By the end of Melissa's speech, I was a wreck. I remember crying into my father's arms on the way out of the auditorium, questioning why it couldn't have been me up there, riding the waves of applause and praise, and getting recognition for all my hard work. My dad assured me that being valedictorian wasn't everything in life, that he and my mother still loved me, and that they were very proud of my ten-year-old accomplishments. It was nearly the same conversation I had with him almost seven years later--this time on the way out of my high school graduation, crying for different reasons (goodbye familiar friends, hello scary college), and coming up past my dad's shoulders instead of his arms. Three of my friends had seated one, two, and three in the senior class and each gave a speech at our 76-person graduation ceremony. That hardly made things any easier.

Graduating from high school obviously felt different from elementary school, but my reaction to the speeches was eerily similar. The speech-makers in both instances had a lot of influence, a captivated audience, and were, in every case, decidedly not me. As a result, even the ordeal of my high school ceremony, paired with a speech by Cory Booker, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey, became surprisingly emotional. I don't know what it is about giving a speech that makes it so affecting, its ability to connect with and instill hope and pride in the hearts of listeners. All I knew at the time was that it was something I had to experience doing. On the drive back home from Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall that day, I vowed that at college things would be different. At Oberlin, I would work hard, earn the title of valedictorian, and give the graduation speech at commencement.

Four years and one (of surely many) forgotten promises later, I'm getting ready to graduate. And ironically, throughout the last four years, finishing at the top of my class has been the last thing on my mind. Don't get me wrong, I still strive to do my best, but for some reason, doing well for the sake of high marks has really lost the luster that it had in high school. I am still happy when I do well, but grades have become less about competing with those around me than they are about testing my own effort and ability. Perhaps it's because I have come to appreciate a more independent work ethic while at Oberlin, something that was largely absent from my high school experience. So much of it revolved around fanatically trying to please and impress others--parents, college counselors, admissions offices. I don't do well for anyone else's benefit anymore and I am not crushed when others fare better than me.

Not that I would really find out anyway. One of the things I love about Oberlin is how little people here talk about grades. It seems to be another (literally) unspoken part of our culture. I have heard horror stories at other schools where competition over grades gets so cutthroat that there is actually sabotage on the parts of students towards one another. At Oberlin, people seem to be motivated more by their own triumphs than at the expense of others' misfortunes. That is why, even despite a recent proposal to institute a Latin Honors system (cum laude, magna cum laude, etc.) for students at graduation, the measure failed to pass by a faculty vote of almost 3-1, largely out of vehement student objection. And I was one of those opposing students. It's not that I don't think good grades should be rewarded, but pitting students against each other in a ranking system breeds an unnatural obsession and contempt over grades that take away from other aspects of college life.

And besides, finishing at the top of my class at Oberlin wouldn't have helped me much anyway. The class valedictorian doesn't get to give the graduation speech at commencement--the class president does.

And so as you might expect, what followed in the spring of my junior year was a month-long crusade for a bid at senior class president. Despite a strong conviction and a desire to win, I wanted to play the race as "fairly" as one could--which meant no fliers, no soapboxes, and definitely no baby-kissing. People had the opportunity to read my statement right alongside the others, and I would rely solely on a (questionable) good reputation and enough faith from my fellow classmates to decide my fate. It helped that my three "rivals" were friends, which made it easier to accept a possible defeat at the hands of any one of them. By month's end and with sufficient effort (or lack thereof) expended, my dreams still came up short--I was seated with the title of vice president (by finishing with the second-highest number of votes), and my hopes of giving a graduation speech were once again dashed.

But thankfully, this story has a happy ending. And it came at the hands of elected class president, Derry Kiernan. Watching the 2008 commencement ceremony in May together with heavy hearts and the thought of a year's worth of work ahead of us, he turned to me and asked if I would be interested in giving the speech for December graduates at the end of the year. The senior class president usually gets the honor and distinction of giving all of the various class speeches, but knowing from an earlier conversation that my fondest dream was to give a graduation speech, Derry was kind enough to concede. Naturally, and hardly without batting an eye, I accepted his offer.

I have come to have a lot of respect for good public speakers, largely as a result of hearing so many in my time at Oberlin. As for me, I have never fancied myself particularly spectacular. Public speaking fills me with the sort of nervous anxiousness that makes me want to do it, less out of pure enjoyment, and more simply in spite of my fears. And that was exactly the sort of feeling I got when I had the opportunity to give the speech at the Mid-Year Graduation Ceremony. It was a pretty small affair, maybe 50 or so graduates standing around Peters Hall, with the majority of the nearly 700 seniors not gradating until May. On hand though were various deans and dignitaries--Dean Gates who gave the speech before mine, and President Krislov who followed--not to mention VP of Communications Ben Jones and fellow blogger Yitka who was among the graduates! Offered up for the palette was a smattering of hors-d'oeuvres that actually proved to be quite delicious. I mingled with a few familiar faces and entertained my stomach until show time.

Writing and delivering the speech was a great experience, one that did not come without its share of trial and error. In fact, a significant inspiration for my speech came (laughably) in the form of Baz Luhrmann's seminal classic, "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen"--released just one year after my fifth-grade graduation--that for me represents the height of practical graduation advice. I even ended my speech in part with a quote from it, reciting: Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday. But more than that, writing the graduation speech allowed for something truly wonderful--a chance to reflect on a school whose lasting impact on me will not end with the simple act of graduating.

For all it's worth, and even if no one else remembers the speech I gave that day, it will forever live on for me as the fulfillment of a dream, and the feeling that I could give back in some small way to the people and the place who have made me who I am.

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