Salutatory Address: Suffield High School Graduation, 1996
Members of the Board of Education, Administrators, Honored Guests, Faculty, Family, and Friends, welcome.
About a month ago, one of my best friends asked me, "What are the chances that someone from Suffield will ever make it big?" To my dismay, his tone of voice suggested that he already knew the answer: those chances were mighty slim. I'll admit, on the surface, this assumption seems all too true, because all of us come from this small town. Because so few students attend Suffield High, our community readily notices our achievements. Our parents, teachers, and mentors duly record our every accomplishment. Our school is small enough to encourage and to support the development of everyone's particular talents, giving all of us plenty of room to inhabit our own niche, with little competition, fuss, or hassle. Consequently, praise can seem easy -- at times too easy -- to come by.
As a result, sometimes we students think that uniqueness in Suffield will not necessarily translate to uniqueness out in the real world, that the first taste of competition will blast us out of our particular field. We fear that our achievements in our small environment will never mean much once we get out into the world. I often think that too many of us limit ourselves with this big fish-little pond mentality, this tragic outlook that is inherently incorrect.
While Suffield may seem to coddle us from time to time, to insulate us too much from the outside world, our school and community have molded, shaped, and nurtured the development of the one quality within us that makes each one of us unique, that will make or break our success: our character.
Our character defines us. It dictates our desires, our dreams, our passions, and our achievements. It chooses every turn our lives take, driving us toward our accomplishments, and steering us around obstacles. In short, our character provides our very essence. It grants us our destinies. We must learn to balance its two components—image, how others perceive us, and identity, how we perceive ourselves—in order to make the very most of our lives.
We are often judged by only one half of our character, the image we project. We all know that our reputation precedes us wherever we go, and lingers long after we leave. We are often remembered far more for our demeanor, our uneasiness or sense of calm, than for the words we say or the ideas we put forth. It is no secret that we are all characterized by our clothes, our lifestyle, our hobbies, and even our friends. These qualities form the basis of how the world perceives us and our accomplishments.
But these qualities prove superficial: they lie only on the surface of our being, and are easily detached from what lies within. Many of us try to polish our image, deftly changing and rearranging our looks, our lifestyles, our friends, or our conduct solely to gain acceptance. Striving to be admired, even exalted by our peers, we do whatever it takes to project ourselves as shining, glossy models of perfection. And sometimes we succeed.
But this glamorized image we strain to uphold is often bought at a hard price. When we consume our lives trying to cater to everyone's expectations, we let the more vital half of our character—our identity—bleed away. When we spend all our time projecting solely what others want to see, we leave little left to feed our soul. Our identity shrivels and wilts inside us like a flower caught in endless drought, and all we have left is a hollow, outer shell—a pathetic, bogus image, a life without essence or definition.
Without identity, without a true sense of who we are and what we feel, our dreams will always lie just beyond our grasp, and at best we can only hope to be a mirage of the perfection we seek. We can surely make plans for our futures, even pursue them and reap some rewards. But without an identity, a true sense of self, our character is incomplete, and we are left half-blind and half-numb to our truest needs and desires. We cannot achieve our greatest aspirations because we are uncertain of what they are, and more importantly, of what they mean to us.
I ask that we not fall into the trap of image over identity, of style over substance. We must realize that to succeed, we must first grasp hold of our identities. To save the world, we have to save ourselves.
And so I ask all of you to sink down deep within yourselves and to survey the dominion of your souls. Dare to explore yourselves, to walk through both your light and your dark aspects, to travel the high road and the low. Scour yourselves for truths and insights into your characters. Accept what you cannot change, and change what you cannot accept. Pluck out your dreams, your whims, your prejudices, and your desires, ball them up with your weak strengths and strong weaknesses, and with them forge an unconquerable identity, a feeling of self that can never be stolen or trampled or lost. This will be your reward for your difficult journey. You will have found your peace, your direction, and your dreams within you. And once you have done that, you can achieve the impossible.
And so to answer my cynical friend's question, "Who of us is going to make it big?" I must say that we can all succeed, we all have the power locked within us. We are limited not by the size of our town or school, nor even by the scope of our dreams, but instead by our own faith in ourselves. We are special not because we come from Suffield, where special is easy to come by, but because our rich, well-developed characters make us brave, bold, individual, and unique. We made ourselves be noticed here, and I believe we shall make ourselves noticed anywhere we go. Hold fast to your identity in the pursuit of your success, and let your character drive you toward the stars.