Valedictorian Emily Bae’s Great Neck South High School Graduation Speech

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Emily Bae
Emily Bae

Good afternoon. Before I begin, I would like to express my gratitude to the dedicated administration; they are the foundation of our remarkable school. I would like to thank our teachers; we really do have wonderful teachers—they are the framework that has supported and shaped our education thus far. Thank you to the Class of 2016, our school’s brick and mortar, for an unforgettable high school experience. And, of course, thank you to my parents and family for your bottomless love and understanding, and to all the parents here for taking care of us and helping us get to this point.

I am just as honored to be giving this speech today as I am underqualified. I’m not any wiser than the rest of you to be giving you advice, and I’m not even clever enough to fall back on humor; in fact, I spent an entire day watching notable commencement speeches for inspiration—but that day ended in tears because I could never be that funny. I figured, though, that I should save my tears for the actual ceremony. So I’m just going to tell you what I’ve learned in high school and what I hope we will all remember as we face greater challenges and opportunities ahead.

People say high school and college are about figuring out who you are. Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Frankly, I have no idea who I am, but I’m not worried about it. It just doesn’t seem possible or fair to define oneself in concrete terms. So let’s not worry about trying to define ourselves, just don’t let others define you. Social media, friends, people who aren’t your friends, even parents—it can feel like there are eyes watching us 24/7. But judgments, perceptions—they all exist, but they’re all relative and they’re all secondary. If there is anything I’ve learned in high school, it’s that every external accomplishment starts from the inside. I’m still trying to become a strong person, but sometimes you just have to fake it till you make it. J.K. Rowling said it better. She said that one thing she learned standing in her school hall at the age of 18, just like us, is that “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Believe you can do what you want and don’t listen to the voices trying to drown out your own. Maybe you cannot define yourself with words, but no one will ever know you better than yourself. Trust in your intuition and push yourself to turn an inner dream into an outer reality.

When I first found out that I would be giving the valedictory speech, I promised my friends that I would try to avoid sleep-inducing platitudes. Of course, that meant I would not compare life to a road, path or route of any kind, all due respect to Robert Frost. I said that not just from an aversion to clichés; I said it because we’re all different. The Class of 2016 is diverse and talented, and every one of you is different. Don’t waste time living someone else’s life. There will always be someone smarter than you, wealthier than you, prettier than you, skinnier than you, more athletic than you. But everyone faces hardship in some way at some point, so don’t be fooled that anyone’s life is perfect or that anyone is worth complete emulation or jealousy. Eighteen years has not been long enough for me to know if life is really like a set of forked roads; but if it is, there must be infinitely many, each different and traveled only once. We are infinite. Let’s be proud of and feel safe within our individuality.

On a less existential note, I’ve also learned that procrastination is not your friend—it just follows you everywhere anyways. Older adults are always telling us to enjoy these days of minimal responsibility. There will come a day when we can’t procrastinate paying our bills, feeding our children or doing our jobs—that is, of course, unless that job is in the United States Congress.

Finally, I mentioned earlier inner strength. I don’t think that I would be here if I didn’t have people to prop me up when I felt like crumbling from the inside, and, unless that feeling is just a side effect of adolescence, we all feel like that sometimes. Whether it is your family or your friends, people who will provide you stability and a sense of constancy despite the vicissitudes of life, people who will remind you that it will be alright, can make it a whole lot easier to feel strong even if you’re not.

For many of us, Great Neck South has been a source of that comfort and stability throughout four years. We’ve gone through so much together: the testing, the sleepless nights, the college applications. We went to Rebel War and International Night, collectively lacked spirit during Spirit Week (Go Rebels!) and had an amazing time at Senior Event (a quick shoutout to the PTA for transforming our school into a New York City Festival). There, we have forged friendships and we have grown up together, and now we have finally graduated and are leaving that place of comfort, that home.

Class of 2016, I wish you strength, plenty of sleep and sincerely all the best in whatever comes next for you. Thank you.

Read the complete graduation speeches from the Great Neck North Class of 2016: Adir VegonGraelin MandelIsabelle Sehati and from Great Neck South: Annabelle GoldenAnnie YangEmily BaeHaley RoachLance Kim and Michael Shen.

Learn about the 2016 valedictorians and salutatorians here.

Find out about other 2016 award winners here and here.

See who the 2016 Great Neck North graduates are here.

Find out who graduated from Great Neck South here.

For a list of The Village School graduates, click here.

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