What follows is the text of my farewell speech, written as part of the final AP English Literature project. We all wrote farewell (valedictory speeches) and delivered them formally in the auditorium. It was a unique experience. See the Wordle I created from all of the speeches in the post below.
You Will Live Many Lives
It takes me 17 minutes to drive to school, if the weather and traffic are right. Those 17 minutes in the car are my minutes, all mine. In the morning, I’m trying to wake up and get right in the head before greeting students. In the afternoon I need to decompress. I’ve driven the same route (or nearly the same) 7,980 times. The way to and from school is so familiar that I sometimes think the car must know the way on its own.
Over the years I’ve watched buildings being built, gardens take shape and burst into bloom, and kids grow up. I’ve witnessed, through my windshield, life in progress. It seems that nearly every day I see something I have not seen before, which could be because it’s actually a new element in the landscape.
Or it could be, and I think this is the more likely view, that the thing was always there, but I had simply failed to notice it before. Danish writer Peter Høeg said, “What we see in nature is not really a matter of what exists; what we find is determined by our ability to understand.” What he means is that our ability to perceive and make sense of our world depends on who we are at any given moment. Let me try to explain further by getting back in my car.
On these morning and afternoon drives I’ve spent 135,660 minutes listening to the radio, CDs, or now, my iPod. Once in awhile I’ll listen to Morning Edition on NPR, or All Things Considered in the afternoon, but if I’ve had too much of the world, which is more often the case than not, I will listen to music—loud music. And since I tend to listen to the same music over and over again, various songs and artists become familiar in the same way my route is familiar. You might think that if you had listened to any one song fifty, even a hundred times, that you would know it so well that nothing new could ever emerge from hearing it one more time. But, that is not true at all.
For example, about a month ago, I heard Spring Song by Lucy Wainwright Roche as if I had never heard it before. The song itself had not changed, of course, but I had. The change in me was a simple one: having recently submitted my intent to retire letter, I began to see everyone and everything in my world from a new point of view—even this song. This shift in my perspective allowed me to see how perfect the song is for the situation you and I now share.
Spring Song is about the songwriter’s decision to end her teaching career to pursue music full time. She sings about the end of the school year, in spring, when students are excited and ready to go home for the summer. And while her students will be back at the books when the “fall rain brightens the sidewalk leaves and autumn hues,” she won’t be, and neither will I. And, in a way, neither will you. Therefore, I will borrow her words and urge each of you to “go ahead now into the summer [and] make the best of who you really are, and mind the things you tend to overlook and hide.” Summer is a welcomed break from school routines, and it allows you to pay attention to things you might not have had time for as you were learning the subjunctive tense or reading the world’s great novels. So take time now. Look around you. Use this summer as breathing space as you reorient yourselves for post high school life.
In September, you will be much like Lucy’s students, who will be “starting again, walking to school in your bigger shoes.” Now, obviously, I don’t think your feet are going to grow over the summer like they did when you were children, but college is going to require you to stand in adult shoes. For maybe the first time in your lives, you won’t have the immediate support of your family. Everything will be new and it will be up to you to interpret what it all means. It won’t just be the campus that is new to you, but the entire imagination of your life. But that is good and as it should be, for like I said before, it is in these moments of new perspective that we find insight.
This leads me to my next point. When Lucy says “go ahead now into the summer [and] make the best of who you really are,” she means that you should seize the day or live in the moment, which is, of course, important. But more important is her insistence that you discover who you really are. So who are you, really? Or who am I?
When I was twelve, I had it in my head that I had everything I needed to be able to live my life. I could cook, take care of the house, and take care of babies. I vividly remember wanting to move out of my parents’ house so I could do what I wanted to do. I reluctantly acquiesced to the fact that I’d have to actually be an adult before I could make that happen. I was not happy, but I survived. What I learned about myself from that moment and others like it was that I am supremely self-aware and confident in my abilities. I think knowing that about myself has given me the courage to try new things.
For example, when I was thirty and literally sanding my fingerprints off at Richardson furniture factory, I set my sandpaper down one day and said out loud, “I am made for something better than this.” A few months later, I enrolled at Lakeland College to earn my teaching degree. Being a wife, a mother of an eight and a six year old, and a full-time college student wasn’t easy, but I knew I had to do it, and I was determined to succeed.
Sometimes when I look back at that moment in the sawdust-filled factory, I wonder who I would be now if I hadn’t had the courage to leave one life and head off into the unknown for another. If I had been afraid to change, I would never have had this wonderful journey of the last 21 years. I would never have known each of you or the hundreds of other students I’ve known before you.
In her 1999 Mount Holyoke commencement speech, writer Anna Quindlen asked graduates to discover their true selves, saying “nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations.” But Quindlen also acknowledged the difficulty of the task. She said, “There is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave.”
I could not have said it better. If we’re honest, we will all admit that we’ve had moments when we shifted our behavior or changed just this or that about ourselves to fit in or to be liked or to make others happy. But in such moments we lose a bit of our true selves because we are doing something not honest or real. This is why it’s so hard, this self discovery. Discovering who you really are takes effort, but living a life that honors the real you takes even more.
So all of this brings me to my last point, which is to suggest that self discovery sometimes leads to unexpected consequences, such as suddenly deciding that one’s life must go in a new, totally uncharted direction. When Wainright Roche wrote Spring Song, she was trying to understand the upcoming transition in her life that would move her from familiar to unfamiliar, known to unknown. I am in that place now. So are all of you. She calls it “[moving] on into the next big fear,” which is exactly what you and I are doing. It takes courage to move into fear. The root of the word courage is “cour,” which means heart. In one way, high school is about learning what’s in your heart so you will be prepared for life ahead, and you have all done that, with the relationships you’ve built, the obstacles you’ve encountered and overcome, and, believe it or not, the disappointments you’ve suffered. While you are all probably bundles of excited anxiety, I know you’ve also got the heart to move on. You’re ready.
I am ready, too. Before I began teaching in 1990, I had never worked at any job longer than two years. We’re late bloomers in my family, and it took me a long time to become a teacher, something I had wanted to be since Kindergarten. And as much as I have loved teaching, I am also kind of amazed that I kept at it for this long. I’ve always had a restless soul, and I have “miles to go before I sleep.” Stepping into my next big fear, I want to discover what else is out there for me. I want to know what else I can do.
When people tell me that I am way too young to retire, they’re absolutely right. So I’ve decided I’m not retiring. I’m simply changing. Maybe it was my twelve-year-old self who gave me the courage to leap into the unknown, I don’t know. But the unknown it surely is, for I have no idea if I will be successful or not. And still I leap off into the abyss that is the future. My husband holds my hand. We are ready to discover what could never be discovered by standing still.
So, my final advice to you is this. In years hence, when you find yourself where I am, feet glued into one place for far too long, look into your heart and find the courage to go to an unknown place, a place where you can create new steps and find insight in new perspectives.
You will live many lives, but you will only have one chance to live each one.
It’s spring when the year ends
Spring when the year ends
All you kids are in the home stretch
You’ve tried your hardest and you’ve done your best
And now its spring when the year ends
And I’m not coming back
When we saw snow out the window
We weren’t sure if time was moving or pretending
Now we can count the days until the ending of this
Spring when the year ends
And I’m not coming back
Go ahead now into the summer
Make the best of who you really are
And mind the things you tend to overlook and hide
And when the fall rain brightens
the sidewalk leaves and autumn hues
You’ll all be starting again
Walking to school in your bigger shoes
I’d like to think we’ll all remember
As we move on into the next big fear
We’ve taken some steps, however small this year
And now it’s spring when the year ends
Spring when the year ends
Spring when the year ends
And I’m not coming back.