This is the speech that I gave to the Farmingdale State University Class of 2005 on May 22nd, 2005. It was originally posted here.
My name is Jim. I am thirty-three years old. My wife, Kerry, and I have a two-year-old daughter named Kyra. We live in a modest Baldwin home with a small but well-groomed yard and a driveway that looks like it belongs to our next-door neighbor. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, the three of us make the time to sit together on the front porch beneath the shade of an old oak tree. Kerry and I talk about things like home improvements or parties we’ll be attending or books that we’ve read. At other times, we just sit silently, taking in the warmth of the afternoon. At these times, I have the opportunity to reflect on my life and the experiences that have lead me here.
When I received the letter informing me that I was a candidate for valedictorian at Farmingdale State, I was stunned. I’ve worked hard to get good grades but it never occurred to me that the honor of being the valedictorian might be the end result. After all, I’m not going to school to receive awards. I’m going to get skills that will help me put a roof over my family’s head and food on our table. It was never my intention to do anything but my best. And now, here I am accepting an honor that suggests that my best might actually be considered the best.
I’ve never been the best at anything.
I’m the type of person who prefers to let my actions speak for themselves; so admittedly, it makes me a little uncomfortable accepting an honor for doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I guess I’ll have to come to terms with the discomfort and take on my responsibility as valedictorian to lead you, the class of 2005, into the future. Before I can do that, I need to define what being a valedictorian means. To me, a valedictorian demonstrates leadership, compassion, and commitment, while gracefully balancing the responsibilities of school, work, community, and family. A zest for life should lead the individual to pursue what he or she is passionate about as well. Excelling at everything, this person sometimes overcomes great hardships to do so. A valedictorian is the kind of person that everyone wants to be and is the kind of person that anyone can be. I certainly know that, valedictorian or not, this is the kind of person that I want to be.
That being said, I’ll take the time now to give you all an idea of how I got here. I’m sure some of you will be able to relate to my story because it’s certainly not unique.
I came to Farmingdale State in the fall of 2002, twelve years after my high school graduation. I guess you could say that I took the long road: I earned a music degree from Five Towns College; several credits toward an Associates degree at Suffolk Community College; and a Network Specialist Diploma from the Computer Career Center. Farmingdale State University enabled me to integrate all of my previous education into a single package. I chose Computer Programming and Information Systems as my major. Though I have worked very hard to keep my grades up, I think that my GPA is more a result of having found my ideal major than any kind of extraordinary work ethic.
Earlier, I mentioned my music degree. I play the drums and am proficient in many styles from Rock to Jazz. Long ago, I lost track of the number of times that I have performed professionally. The most rewarding of these performances are those that benefited others. Participating in concerts that benefited senior citizens or disabled teens helped me understand that doing what I love and doing for others are not things that have to be mutually exclusive. There is a duality to the act that benefits everyone involved.
Life’s not always as rosy as we would like it to be. Sometimes, hard times hit. In the moment, it might seem that a problem may be completely insurmountable. As I grow older, I realize that hard times pass and memories fade. The lessons learned by the hardships do nothing more but enhance the life that we live. Maturity means knowing that we’re not finished growing. I believe sadness, anger, resentment, and all of the other unpleasant emotions have their foundation in one single emotion: fear. The more difficult something is, the more uptight, anxious, or fearful it makes us, the more beneficial it is for us once we’ve been through it. I was afraid to come back to school at thirty, thinking perhaps it would be a waste of time for someone my age to even bother. Luckily, because of the experience that my age has afforded me, I realized I was making excuses and that I was fearful - the same fear I had had all of my life. This time I used the fear to motivate me to take the step. Returning to school ended up being difficult anyway but not because of my age. Juggling a job, a family, and an education can be tricky. Yet, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else in the world.
Of all my accomplishments, it is my family that I am most proud of. In June, Kerry and I will be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary and our daughter, Kyra, will be celebrating her second birthday. My wife and daughter bring purpose to my life: their love and support encouraged me to achieve my goals. Being valedictorian is an honor I share with Kerry, as I’ve done with everything else in my life. Looking at my family, I realize I have accomplished much more than I had ever dreamed.
I, and I’m sure the rest of the graduating class, would like to thank also our parents, siblings, in-laws, and, of course, the faculty and staff at Farmingdale State University.
I’m not sure if I’m the right guy for the job of leading the class into the future. I am not even sure if I am valedictorian material. I certainly don’t always feel like it. I often have severe bouts of self-doubt that last for several days at a time. When this happens, all I have to do is look back at all that I’ve accomplished. Have I gracefully balanced the responsibilities of my job with my education, civic duty, and family? Have I been compassionate and committed? Did I make time for myself to pursue the things that I love? Am I a leader? Am I the best? As I sat on my front porch writing this speech, I reflected on all of these questions and found that I could not answer them myself. I have learned enough to know that others may perceive me differently than I perceive myself. And as I said earlier, I’ve never been the best at anything. Sitting there, I did come to one realization. I saw it in my well-groomed lawn and my old oak tree. Today, I see it in my wife’s smile and in my daughter’s eyes: I did my best.
Class of 2005,
“WE are the music-makers, and WE are the dreamers of dreams!”
Wherever life takes you from here, do your best.