Good afternoon teachers, faculty, family, friends, and most importantly, the Class of 2023. It feels good to be here, at the finish line, with all of you. Though the road was paved with blood, sweat and tears, and some all-nighters, we’ve finally reached the end of it. But before I begin, there are some people who deserve thanks.
Thank you, teachers, for pouring your energy and time into us. You have been patient, kind, knowledgeable, and firm when needed, and have gifted us with the education we have received. We thank you endlessly for that. Thank you to the faculty and administration, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure our school operates smoothly. Thank you to the Board, who have made the necessary tough calls and led our school with Christlike grace. Thank you to the parents, who have prayed for us, helped us study, driven us to all our sporting events, and put up with the unpredictability that comes with raising teenagers. It would be a gross understatement to say that none of us would be here today without you. And finally, thank you to my classmates, my fellow survivors of high school, for sharing this journey with me, teaching me in ways I never would have expected, and being there for all the highs and lows.
Today is an incredibly important day for us—today, we graduate high school. The last 13-14 years of our lives have led up to this very moment, and it will all be wrapped with a trip across this stage, a handshake, and a diploma.
An incredibly important part of my preparation for today was the task of composing this speech. Through the process of writing it, I’ve gone through the cycle that every procrastinating writer goes through—desperately rifling through the disorganized file cabinet that is my brain in search of a single morsel of inspiration. I was hoping for something motivational, maybe tear-jerking, but definitely inspiring at the very least. And what did I come up with? Staircases. Dreary and uninspiring, but necessary, which is everything I had hoped this speech would not be. But hang in there, I am going somewhere with this.
Stairs can mean many different things to different people, but to most, they barely mean anything at all. They are a means to an end and a nuisance of one as well. But that’s not quite the right angle to take—so many of life’s meaningful journeys could not have been done without an ascent or descent whether steep and sudden or gradual. It was on the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Rocky Balboa raised his fists in victory. At the end of the movie The Truman Show, Truman Burbank, a man who has lived his entire life as the unwitting subject of a reality tv show, slowly ascends a staircase out of his artificial world and enters the real world for the first time.
Some sets of stairs are beloved for their beauty and the beauty of the destination that comes at the end of them. The 999 steps of Tianmen Mountain’s Stairway to Heaven are certainly not for the faint of heart, but at the top is one of the most breathtaking views our world has to offer. Savannah’s own stone stairs of death leading down to River Street may not have international recognition, but the fall of many a tourist on them has prompted the creation of their very own Facebook page. How many sets of stairs can say they have a cult following on Facebook? I’m willing to wager not very many.
But to really illustrate my point, I’m going to talk about a set of stairs many of us know and probably do not love: the infamous Habersham Hall stairs. Those big, three-story, fire-hydrant red steps have been a mainstay in the lives of students and teachers at Habersham Hall. They have been the bane of many of our existences in our years there, and it’s easy to see why—no matter your age or level of athleticism—you’re left huffing and puffing by the time you reach the top. I can recall lamenting to my classmates about the daily aggravation of going up and down these stairs, and making outlandish suggestions on what to replace them with—maybe an escalator? Maybe a rope-and-pulley system with a bucket to bring each other up and down? But alas, none of this was to be. The stairs stayed. There was simply no creative way to get around them—to get anywhere you wanted to go, they were the only way.
But as I begrudgingly learned, these stairs are as important as the ones I mentioned above. They don’t lead to any world-famous views, nor are they the site of any important historical event. But now I can see just how much I learned in the climb.
Most recently, my class and I learned that these stairs can be taxing in quite a different way. In the planning and execution of our senior prank, these stairs got caught very much in the crosshairs of our vision to make the school into a “winter wonderland.” Anyone who came and witnessed the mess the next day could tell you that our exuberance got out of hand. Those stairs looked quite merry and bright strung with twinkling lights and striped like candy canes—but they were also coated in layers of glitter and tiny shreds of paper that would take days to clean. What followed was a slow and arduous ascent—we found quickly that our gesture was not well received, and as recompense, every single tread of the stairs had to be cleaned. If we were not yet familiar with how incredibly hard it is to get glitter out of tight crevices, we quickly found out. Not our finest moment. But it was one that we learned from—the night of fun we had as a class turned into early mornings of vacuuming together.
But cleaning up and down those stairs under the glare of the classmates whose day had been interrupted by our mischief felt to me like a walk of shame. I myself have a tendency to be a serial people pleaser, so I allowed the fun we’d had the night before fade behind the feeling that I had disappointed them. I beat myself up over something that, in the grand scheme of things, was incredibly small. I even punished myself by staying home and sulking while the rest of my class had fun at the beach! I know now that this isn’t the way to go—even though I knew how to have grace towards others, I had refused to extend it to myself.
I’d encourage all of you not to do what I did—remember above all else that you are not perfect, and you cannot expect perfection of yourselves. We are all bound to disappoint people, to fall short of expectations, and fall down many metaphorical staircases. The goal is not to make as few mistakes as possible—a life lived like that is a life lived in paralyzing fear. Without our mistakes to propel us forward, we would be stagnant. This is not what we should seek for ourselves, nor is it what God wants for us.
In fact, I can’t think of a single book in existence more rife with cringe-worthy mistakes than the Bible. David—called a man after God’s own heart—yet an adulterer and murderer. Jonah—a prophet tasked by God with the delivery of a message—yet one who completely defied God’s command. Peter—a disciple of Christ, who would deny Him three times. Paul—one of the greatest evangelists in the Bible, who was once a prosecutor of Christians. All of these are people who God loved dearly and used in tremendous ways, and their mistakes are likely much bigger than anything you or I could make. Yet, in spite of how far they fell in their sin, God provided them with the path to redemption. He is prepared to provide us with the same all-encompassing grace if only we choose to accept it and adjust our course to align with His.
We are on the precipice of leaving the familiar and comforting set of stairs we’ve become so accustomed to the past four years. Even though at times the journey up and down them felt monotonous and restrictive, so much quiet growth was happening. We ascended and descended the same set of steps for the last four years, but our destination did not stay the same. Our path was set for us, but each year brought new goals and aspirations to fulfill. On our best days, the climb felt featherlight and easy, but on our worst, it felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders, pressing us down and making it impossible to reach the top.
It’s important for us to remember that our experiences en route to our next stop are entirely up to us—our perspective is what colors the journey. The world we’ll be soon entering is an unpredictable one, with many staircases leading to many different destinations. They will take us on journeys we cannot yet even glimpse, but leaving The Habersham School, we know we will be ready for them. Everything we have learned, everything we have gone through together has shaped us into people who are ready to go forth and conquer, and to fight the good fight. Even today, each of you will ascend the steps of this stage and receive your diploma—and by the time you descend the steps on the other side, your childhoods will be officially over. It feels strange to say aloud, but now we’re entering adulthood.
The stairs we’ll encounter next will take us higher than we’ve ever been before, but the path there will not be so easy. There will be no safety nets to catch us, and the path we take is our choice alone. But however high we climb, we must not be afraid of taking steps back. Growth is rarely a linear thing, and we must be kind and forgiving toward ourselves as we discover the miraculous plan God has for us. Class of 2023, I urge you not to live in fear of making mistakes, to accept yourselves for who God has called you to be, and go forth boldly, knowing that He walks beside you. Thank you all, and congratulations to the Class of 2023.
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