Congratulations: Class of 2007

By Ryan Galer/Valedictory Address
published online for the Newburyport Current by GateHouse News Service
Thursday, June 07, 2007, 03:25 PM EDT

Remember when we used to draw our suns wearing sunglasses? I used to just think it looked cool, but recently I realized the absurdity of such a picture. The sun is the only "guy" who does not need sunglasses. Why would he wear them? With his sunglasses on, he can only hope to see a distorted image of himself. He must be afraid to look at who he truly is.

He also won't let anyone look him in the eye. It's as if he's always playing poker with the rest of the solar system. If "the unexamined life is not worth living," as Socrates believed, then I would add to that, "The secretive life is not worth living." So here is our sun, provider of all life on earth, apparently unworthy of his own life. I think we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow humans to take away his sunglasses; and to make sure our lives do not resemble a surreal childhood drawing. Literally speaking, we must look at people, including ourselves, square in the eye, and start living more thoughtfully and openly.

To prove my conviction and to rise above the status of preacher, I must describe a recent change in my own thinking. Perhaps you believe that, standing here as the valedictorian, I have learned a lot throughout the past four years but have not lived much. But living and learning are complementary. If one studies a lot, but does not use what he learns in order to live fully, he is not learning anything important. On the other hand, one who learns what he cares about and applies his knowledge is truly living. My story describes a transition from the former to the latter.

It all started during junior year. While a few classes were stimulating, in too many, I was bored. In others, I was overworked. Some homework felt more like slave labor for the mind? and hand. Then I read John Gatto's essay on compulsory schooling, which he had originally presented upon receiving the New York City Teacher of the Year award. That was the first time I felt the urge to rebel, as my heart and mind both agreed that something about our education system is just plain wrong.

In February, class ranks came out. The unexpected attention I received for being number one was unbearable, primarily because I did not find it as important an achievement as everyone else seemed to. I knew it did not mean I was smarter than anyone else; I had just received better grades. In fact, I have always considered my school work a private matter. Since I do not believe that my grades signify who I truly am, I would rather people not judge me by them.

I went on to read Emerson and Thoreau, learning about self-reliance and civil disobedience, while preparing for the RAID. Finally, I was studying subjects I really found interesting and meaningful. I eventually came across The Teenage Liberation Handbook; when I got my hands on it, I read it voraciously, but also secretly. This was the first book I had ever read that was both specifically for teenagers and not dumbed down. The author explained the problems of school in her view, then described the world of unschoolers, radical home schoolers who direct their own learning. One sixteen year old even sailed a boat around the world alone. I have yet to find a more impressionable book.

Over the summer, I suffered invariably, as I was split between my personal desire for a real life and society's expectations for young people. I decided I didn't want to spend my senior year at NHS, but I failed to convince my parents that there existed a reasonable alternative. Therefore, in September I returned to school, hoping that soon I would be out. Although the system satisfied some people, it was not working for me. Finally, about a year after my discontent had begun to grow, I said, "I quit." I could no longer survive in school; I needed freedom! I wanted to seize the day, as Nick described it earlier. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

I believed the best way to do this was to create my own curriculum, but my refusal to continue attending school alarmed people, who began talking to me as if I needed salvation. Nobody could accept the concept of unschooling, which felt like the path I wanted to take. Although I tried to break out of the system, under pressure, I cowered. When I agreed to return to classes, it felt more like signing the Treaty of Versailles.

However, I did not lose my resolve completely. I still wanted to experiment with self-education. Finally, through persistence and creative thinking, along with the support of some teachers and administrators, I attained the freedom to design and implement an independent study on alternative educational philosophies. This experience of challenging the status quo, for really the first time in my life, is the cornerstone of who I am, and I wanted to share the truth with my friends and community, before we all go our separate ways to explore the world.

I cleared up a lot for myself by writing this speech. I hope that you all can confront your past more honestly, too; whether by writing, thinking, or using another medium. Don't ignore your findings, but implement them as soon as you can muster the courage. Having already created your own goals, you can't resign yourself to definition by external standards. To everyone, young and old, if your life does not feel right, question every detail uncompromisingly and do not be afraid to change. If your life has not been enjoyable, perhaps for your children you will consider the alternatives. You might be shocked by what you can do by forging your own path, rather than following the common tread. I know I was.

Originally, I was talking about the sun with his shades whose view of life was distorted. Never resign yourself to a life like that. Dr. Joyce on many occasions has said, "The 60s was a blur." Of course we all know he wasn't on drugs: he afterwards explained that it was because so much happened to him then, including his marriage. Still, don't let your life flash by in a blur. Examine every detail, or as many as you can handle. Don't let it all blow by you. While we all agree that seizing the day is important, we have to do so consciously, always maintaining our individuality. Otherwise, we might end up acting in the moment, but for someone else. As Mr. Keating says in Dead Poets Society, "Sucking all the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone." While we must approach each day with vigor and passion, we must always guide our actions with honest self-examination if we expect to make our existence worthwhile.

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Current.)
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