Valedictorian Zachary Lee’s Great Neck North High School Graduation Speech

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Zachary Lee, North High valedictorian

This year is a grand finale in a lot of ways. Next year, Mr. Kaplan won’t be greeting students in the halls of North High. Neil Saggerson will no longer oversee the countless shows, concerts and special events on the stage. Classes will no longer gather to support their peers at the end-of-year Stages show. Mr. Larry Gross, after 36 years of outstanding service, will no longer be on our school board. And, of course, we will be leaving the place that we have called home for the last four years and the friends we’ve made there. But for every door that closes, another opens. Although we are sad that things we love have to change, we also are confident that the legacy of GNN will continue in Great Neck and in our lives. This is a community that supports education and each other, that came out in overwhelming, historic numbers to vote for the school district bond and budget to ensure continued excellence for the next generation.

But, after each grand finale comes a grand beginning. Most of us will be going off to college. Come fall, we’ll be in an entirely new place, a stranger amongst strangers. It very well might be one of the greatest changes of our lives. This is an opportunity for a fresh start. For the first time, we’re truly on our own. After every destination has been so clearly marked for us, how will we navigate our own course through these new waters?

Do we rush recklessly into the deep sea, heedless of past rules, to drift aimlessly or sink without a trace?

Do we fear to venture into this new world and take refuge in a secluded cove, missing out on what might have been?

Or, do we focus on an island in the distance and dash toward it, speeding along through life with blinders on, eagerly awaiting some momentous occasion (whether it’s graduation, the right job or marriage) when we imagine we will finally have the time to be happy?

But time is precious. It can’t be stored away to use later. We can’t get more of it and can only move through it in one direction—forward. There are no time turners, DeLoreans or Tardises in real life. We must make every moment of our time count, to focus on making the most of the journey from the very start.

How do we do this? I get my inspiration from a wise guru. He’s small, with snow-white hair and a full set of whiskers. He begs with the soulful eyes of a child, and he speaks through actions over words. I’m talking about my dog, Arley. His advice would be, “Stop and smell the flowers (and everything else) and then pee on them.”

One of the greatest pleasures my dog can imagine is a walk. Whether it’s night, day, sweltering hot, icy cold, even if it’s the same route he’s taken 1,000 times, or he’s faced with disappointments along the way, he manages to discover new, exciting opportunities and never stays dissatisfied for long. Arley doesn’t race down the street. He smells everything he can along the way, plunging his face into what he finds and inhaling deeply. And sometimes he digresses, briefly tracking side scents before continuing on his course.

Like him, rather than dwell on things we can’t control, we should look for the good that can be found in our lives. Savor the beauty and wonder we find in the world, take advantage of every opportunity, be unafraid to explore new things, and when we discover what is most meaningful to us, pour our passion and hearts into it.

Finally, after a thorough sniffing, my dog pees on the spot. We, too, must (how do I put this?) leave our “mark.” We must give back to the world—use the opportunities we sniff out to their fullest and leave a legacy for others to follow.

So, Class of 2017, I say—embrace this new beginning. Remember what you learned yesterday while you prepare yourself for tomorrow. When you see someone who looks like they may feel lost or alone, remember Mr. Kaplan’s hand-written notes and personal greetings in the lobby each morning, and show them that you care. When you’re faced with tasks that seem insurmountable, remember that Neil Saggerson proved a bunch of teenagers can build a world from nothing. When you find yourself among a group of strangers—roommates, classmates, or coworkers—remember how Stages showed that teamwork can accomplish amazing things. When you’re faced with daunting challenges, remember that our class rallied together to fight for the future of Great Neck—and won. Use this time to find who you are, be who you are and let everyone know who you are.

Class of 2017, our future is now. The future is not some far-off time when we will accomplish things. The decisions we make now will set the course our lives will take. Our families and friends, our teachers, our years at Great Neck North have prepared us well. Now it is time to pass on that inspiration, to make a difference, to leave people and things better than we found them and to appreciate those we meet along the way.

Before I conclude, I would like to take a moment to honor, on behalf of the Class of 2017, Mr. Neil Saggerson, who is retiring this year. Neil has taught many of us about how to live up to high standards and how to always ask the best of ourselves, and his warmth and wit in and out of the classroom, as teacher and department chair and co-facilitator of Stages, have shone through over and over again, lighting the way to more meaningful futures. It is a great honor to invite him to graduate with us, and to receive a diploma as a member of the Class of 2017. Thank you for all you have done for us.

Thank you.

Read the complete graduation speeches from the Great Neck North Class of 2017: Yunyi (Anita) Zhang and Zachary Lee, and from Great Neck South: Rachel Brenner, Isabella Harnick, Isabella MalfiBenjamin Newman, Joshua Putter, Shrinath Viswanathan and Melody Yang.

Learn about the 2017 valedictorians and salutatorians here.

Find out about 2017 award winners here and here.

See the complete list of Great Neck North graduates here and the Great Neck South Class of 2017 here.

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