Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

‘Now It Is Up to Us': 2013 Graduation Speeches That Inspire

June 25, 2013 4 min read
Tassels are turned near the end of the Horry County Schools Early College High School graduation at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina earlier this month. Read on for excerpts from 2013 high school graduation speeches that readers and editors of Education Week Commentary found particularly inspiring.

“The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude.”

This is what David Foster Wallace said in his well-known 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College titled “This Is Water.” In that address, Wallace talked about staying engaged and aware in the face of what can seem like the drudgery of human existence. The writer also brought up a common problem with commencement speeches: The most important advice in them often comes across as clichéd.

That doesn’t mean the advice isn’t valuable. As Wallace put it: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.”

See Also

For a look at last years’ selections, read “Words of Wisdom: 10 Inspirational Graduation Speeches.”

For the second year in a row, Education Week’s Commentary editors recently asked readers to submit 2013 high school graduation speeches they found particularly inspiring. Commentary intern Ellen Wexler also searched the Internet for thought-provoking advice from other high school commencement ceremonies.

Read on for excerpts, and feel free to share more graduation wisdom in the Comments section below.

What student speakers had to say:

You’ll suddenly come to a point (hopefully now) where you realize that all those books you read, those theorems and formulae you memorized in the past 12 years, weren’t just learned for their own sake—every instant you learned changed the structure of your brain in its own way, and those marginal changes make you who you are today. Your mind is a window for every conscious moment you ever experience—each word you read, friendship you make, and person you love opens that window wider, cleans up the glass. The chunk of matter in your skull that sorts out Sartre and Pythagoras is the same matter that loves, the same that laughs, the same that tells you when you’ve found someone you should never let go of. You can only appreciate what you have when you know what else is out there—and what’s out there is 7 billion times bigger than everything you experience.

Steven Johnson
Senior Class President
Westfield High School, Westfield, Ind.
Read the full speech.

Now it is up to us. To move into this next chapter in our lives with a renewed sense of self-awareness and motivation and momentum. There are going to be that many fewer people telling us what to say and what to think, and we will have to start deciding for ourselves whether to say yes or no, to do or not do, and imagining the consequences of both.

Madeline Boles
Student
Tilton School, Tilton, N.H.
Watch the speech.

The future is full of responsibility: student loans, car payments, rent, having to do our own laundry. But it’s truly a beautiful thing to have the entire world waiting ahead of us, ready for us to make our mark.

Abby Madison
Student
Canton High School, Canton, Mich.
Read the full speech.

To know who you truly are is the first step to enlightenment, to happiness. It sounds so facile, yet discovering and accepting who you are meant to be requires introspection and a willingness to submerge yourself into darkness. And that is what makes the task so daunting, so terrifying, if approached with complete authenticity.

Mitch Anderson
Salutatorian
Belton High School, Belton, Texas
During the speech, Mr. Anderson announced that he was gay.
Read the full speech. (PDF)

What nonstudents—some of them famous—advised:

In the end your mind is the one thing you have going for you when it comes to happiness. A deliberate mind, a mind that works consciously—choosing, at every turn, what you are saying, what you are doing, and what you are thinking—this is very, very hard to achieve.

David Guterson
Novelist
Roosevelt High School, Seattle
Read the full speech. | Watch the speech.

Sheryl Sandberg—Gregory Bull/AP-File

Your life’s course will not be determined by doing the things that you are certain you can do. Those are the easy things. It will be determined by whether you try the things that are hard. The classes that seem impossible on the first day, but you study hard enough to pass. The jobs you want, realize you are not qualified for, and then work like crazy to get the necessary skills. The moments when you feel alone, ask for help, and create a bond with someone because working together helps them as well as you. The times when you see things nobody else sees, and fear speaking out, but you speak out anyway ... and convince everyone else. Those are the moments where you can have real impact.

Sheryl Sandberg
Chief Operating Officer, Facebook
Sequoia High School, Redwood City, Calif.
Read the full speech.

The point is ... that resilience and grit, that ability to pick yourself up when you fall. Those are some of the most important skills you’ll need as you make your way through college and through life. And here’s the thing, graduates: These qualities are not ones that you’re born with. They’re not like the color of your eyes or your height. They’re not qualities that are beyond your control.

Michelle Obama
Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School, Nashville, Tenn.
Read the full speech. | Watch the speech.

At your age, and into your 20s, you can screw up spectacularly, and still look good doing it. Frankly, if you don’t make mistakes along the way you’re either (a) lying, or (b) a little bit boring. Right now, you are probably as open-minded as you will ever be. As you move toward your 20s, your interests will focus and narrow, and you will tend to surround yourself with people of similar interests. This is natural, but be careful, because it can also be the start of a closing mind. When you feel this happening, I encourage you to fight it with everything you have.

Mike Vanness
Vice Principal
Rossland Secondary School, Rossland, British Columbia
Read the full speech.

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Deputy Commentary Editor Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week

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