Emily zurcher OPC '17
Good morning Mr. Reinhold, Mr. Cash, Dr. Ford, Mr. Larrabee, and Mr. Burkhart, family, friends, and fellow students.
I honestly had no idea how to start this speech. After staring at a blank page for hours, I actually googled “how to start a commencement speech” and found my way to a WikiHow article. With pictures. So, after my extensive research, I learned I could begin by thanking my family, I could congratulate our class, or I could quote Time of Your Life by Green Day and pretend I know what I’m talking about. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that no matter what I choose, 20 minutes after commencement ends, I’ll have thought of the perfect opening line. This presents a certain sort of frustrated nostalgia, as I’ve spent an equivalent amount of time reliving my awkward encounters in the hallway as I have studying during high school (and that’s not even factoring in the social mistakes that happened in class and after school). These mistakes range from calling my teachers ‘mom’ to falling down the Senior Stairs in front of the entire school. The embarrassment of having to text my coach and tell him I wouldn’t be at the lift because my knees were swelling wasn’t made any better by the fact that he saw right through me and knew the skipping was more due to injured pride instead of plain injury.
There are two reasons I’m talking about my faux pas in front of a crowd of people. Firstly, I’m incredibly proud of myself for making it down here without tripping (I was so unsure I actually have an alternate joke written in case I did fall). But the actual, poignant reason for this is that there isn’t anyone here who makes fun of me for falling down a flight of stairs except for myself. And that’s how it should be. While we were here, our voices cracked, we experimented poorly with makeup, and we chose really embarrassing Instagram usernames. We’ve seen enough movies to know that high school can be a lot of things, whether that’s a musical with Zac Efron or the stuff of nightmares. But, no matter how much we want them to be, movies aren’t anything like the real thing. Watching Troy Bolton win the state game and sing his iconic Breaking Free duet with Gabriella solved every problem he had to face, and in the end he was done growing and everything was tied up in a neat, extremely handsome bow.
We don’t get that, not even on our graduation day. We were growing when we first started Penn Charter, whenever that was, and we’re still growing now, just as we’re about to leave. There is no Breaking Free duet and no bow for us to wrap up our time here. Constant intellectual and emotional growth (I know it’s not physical or I’d be taller by now) has characterized our class and turned us into a community where we have learned to embrace and celebrate our own vulnerability. Our many mistakes, witnessed and unwitnessed, are able to make us better because of this community, and because of its values. We even have time to agonize over every single one those mistakes once a week, in crippling silence, at Meeting for Worship.
Silence is something we’ve all learned to endure for 40 minutes every Thursday at 11:05. The majority of us got very good at not talking on those uncomfortable wooden benches, but the ability to be silent is not one that should be underestimated. Silence has taught us to be thoughtful and compassionate.
But what will truly serve us as we leave this friendly place is the ability to break that silence. Silence teaches thoughtfulness and compassion. It’s in those moments of silence that we are able to reflect, and out of those testimony rises. Testimony teaches us how to think passionately, and how to act on those thoughts. We hear often that silence is more powerful than words. But sometimes, silence will not do. When we give testimony to people we love, or people we have never met, we are vulnerable.
This one year, these four years, these thirteen years, have taught us that being vulnerable allows us to put forward the best parts of ourselves, passionate, outspoken, and headstrong. While this may have driven Mr. Larrabee crazy, it’s in these moments of discomfort and conflict that we are able to grow. Admitting to our mistakes has made us vulnerable, but it has also helped us seek to understand rather than to prove we’re right. Giving testimony about what we believe doesn’t just mean saying what we think. Listening to each other and letting that change what we believe in is just as important. William Penn has said “Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it.” The kindness he speaks of is the compassion of silence and the passion of testimony.
As I’m reminded every time I glance at the clock during Meeting for Worship, Penn has also said that good instruction is better than riches. We’ve proven that by giving up our sense of style, our social lives, and half our hours of much needed sleep, we will be awarded this gift of knowledge. But we’ve been instructed, whether that means being terrified by Dr. Comiskey or hit in the head with a dodgeball by Mr. Mellor. We’ve built cars out of cardboard, glue, and determination, and we’ve all at least skimmed Hamlet. And once we walk out of those red doors for the last time, it’s time for us to start instructing others. To break the silence when it needs breaking, and to share our testimony no matter how vulnerable that makes us.
And if we somehow end up falling down a flight of stairs along the way, we’ll always have each other to land on.