In the past few years, my school started a “senior speech” program. Five seniors get up and talk to all students and faculty in grades 9-12 about their lives. Coming out as gay. Mental health challenges they face. Racism they face. Code-switching. Being a conservative in a liberal environment. Bullying. Friendship. They usually make me tear up. (Stupid onions.) After each one, I think to myself: “Wow, if I were a ninth grader hearing these seniors be raw and honest and vulnerable, it would help me on a path to become brave and speak my truth.” I also think: “Why don’t we collect these all and publish them somewhere?” I don’t want them lost.
One of my students this year told me I could put her senior speech on my blog. So here it is, for posterity.
How I Have Changed the Way I Have Thought about Myself and the World
When I was a lot younger, I was more hyperactive than I am now and I was always doing something to take up my time. I mainly always liked to keep myself out of my house because then I wouldn’t have to be in the middle of what was going on inside.
There was a lot of fighting that happened between my parents. They’d get physical with each other or throw things at each other. They never seemed to think of my brother and I being there.
I realize now that I was fearful of what was going on, that it put a lot of stress on me. When I was younger my thoughts were not so developed. When I would be with the rest of my family, my brother would be there to protect me. He could not prevent me from seeing or hearing certain things, but he would take my mind off of it the best he could. I don’t know what I figured the behavior between my parents meant or was- but if they were loving to me, I forgot about it and moved on. This was the way life went for me for many years. It was a contorted way of thinking.
At this time I also felt that the person I was defined by was my home life and my immediate family. I felt this way yet I didn’t think moments when my parents were violent towards each other or embarrassing my brother and I were moments that meant anything. I was always taught to let it pass and start new. That way of thinking ran me into trouble. I took what was happening in my home outside of it and I would have unkind thoughts/ engage in unkind behavior towards people I loved and cared for. Afterwards, whether I identified if it was mean or not, I would move on. I didn’t think it said anything about who I was.
Then in seventh grade I was in Ms. Oster’s health class and she showed us this speech by an author named George Saunders. It’s titled Advice to Graduates, and it is centered around the questions why aren’t we kinder? and how do we become more kind? It touched on the idea that becoming kinder comes with age but there are ways you can speed up the process. I didn’t feel like It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard these words before, or as though this was a new concept to me but they processed differently this time and I began to question who I was.
I realized that I had always thought I was a really nice person but if I wasn’t genuinely acting kind, meaning my actions weren’t speaking for themselves, how could I be a nice person? This caused me to think back to things I had done and ask myself a series of questions like: Did I do the right thing? What did I feel that made me act the way I did? What caused that feeling to arise? Why could that feeling have been brought up?
Seeing that my actions didn’t reflect who I knew I was, I continued in life being very analytical of instinctual tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors. This way of questioning took over and continues to this day. Questioning myself allowed for me to realize the roots of my actions so I can allow myself to change. If I can identify the root, then maybe I can change the way I do things.
And so, through this process of questioning, I came across the concept of time and how I spend my time. I thought to myself what I spend my time doing makes me who I am. I thought, what had I been spending my time doing? School came to mind. I go to school most days out of the year and I am in school most hours out of each of those days. Again, it wasn’t that I didn’t know these facts before this moment but I had never paid attention to the concept. When I began to pay attention I realized that school was a place that nurtured me in all positive ways and I was taking it for granted. I could look to the building as a safe place, the teachers as people who could listen and give me advice and, my peers as those who stand equal to me in our journey to understand and live with ourselves. I am very grateful that I am able to attend school, have teachers who care for their students, students who engage deeply in class conversation, and a place that I can actually call my home.
At this point in my life I feel I have come a long way. Since 7th grade I have realized that a lot of what I was seeing when I was younger was my mom struggling with her mental health. In 8th grade child services took me from living at my mom’s house. They had been in and out of my life until this past summer when I permanently started living with my dad. It has been difficult accepting that my mom was not able to guide me through big developmental parts of my life but I love my mother and I am so thankful she is the woman I call my mom. Now here’s a George Saunders quote that is important to me.
“If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.”
Now also, Over these years of high school I have come to understand that change is inevitable and a big part of our job is to adapt, learn, and accept it. Through that process I am continuously discovering my best self.