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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2020 8 months ago

Windermere Preparatory School valedictorian's speech: Rebecca Sealy

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The first time I really considered what I was going to say in this speech, it was spring break, it kind of felt like the world was ending, and I wasn’t sure if we were even going to have a graduation.

By Rebecca Sealy

The first time I really considered what I was going to say in this speech, it was spring break, it kind of felt like the world was ending, and I wasn’t sure if we were even going to have a graduation. But this is how the world has always been for us. I remember one day in Mrs. Huryn’s English class, we drew a timeline on the board describing all the major world events since the oldest one of us was born. The first event on the timeline was 9/11, and none of us can even remember a world before the war on terror. We grew up through Hurricane Katrina, species extinctions, the 2008 recession, school shootings and so many other catastrophic events. A few months ago, we were joking about World War III, Australia was on fire and the stock market had its second-worst day in the last 124 years. Now, we’re reaching one of the most significant milestones of our life so far — our high school graduation — and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel like the world is ending.

Why do we feel like this? Is it because things are truly worse than they have ever been, or is it something else? Like any true IB thinker, I did some research. In 1348, the Black Death really hit the Eastern Hemisphere, and one Franciscan monk left open space in his diary “for continuing [my] work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future.” In 1666, England suffered through the Great Fire of London, war and a plague — all in one year. Many called it “the year of the beast” and suspected the world was ending. In 1919, we had just come out of World War I, we were in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, racial tensions and violence hit an all-time high, the public was concerned about ties between the U.S. and Russia, the government began an attack on suspected radicals and immigrants, and President Woodrow Wilson himself admitted in private that “the world is on fire.” Sounds a little like today, right?

Does this just mean that people like to overreact? Maybe so, but it also means that despite all sorts of catastrophes happening in the world, things that we think are bad enough to threaten our very existence, we are capable of surviving.

Speaking of trying to survive, I was a part of the cross-country team. Cross-country was one of the hardest things I ever did and one of the first things to teach me how important perseverance really is. I’m convinced mile repeats — where you run a mile at a certain pace, over and over again — were designed as some sort of torture. At times, it felt almost impossible to keep running, particularly because I really wasn’t very good at cross-country, and it’s so much worse to keep running when other people keep running a whole lot faster than you. But finishing a workout became one of my favorite feelings, because A) it meant I was done, and B) it meant I had actually accomplished something that I had to work really, really hard for.

I’m sure every one of my classmates has experienced the same feeling I did after cross-country practices and meets, whether it was after finishing one of Coach Kurtz’s workouts, after finally passing one of Mr. Crocetti’s tests, after the last performance of “Peter Pan,” or some other activity that meant a lot to you and required immense dedication and occasionally some suffering.

A few minutes ago, I brought up a lot of catastrophic historical events, but I want to bring in some of my family’s history, too. Ninety-four years ago, my great-grandmother Ruth Russell was the valedictorian of the Middletown Agricultural High School Class of 1926. She lived through World War I and the Spanish flu, and she graduated high school right before the Great Depression struck America. These events affected the way my great-grandmother lived forever (and sparked many family jokes about her thriftiness), but in spite of what she lived through, she attended business college, very unusual for a woman in the 1920s, and raised an amazing family that would eventually yield three salutatorians and three more valedictorians. In her speech at her high school graduation, she said, “We who stand tonight at the meeting between our happy past and our unknown future have reached not the end, but the commencement of our lives. And what these lives are to be depends in a large measure upon the foundations we have been building for them in our high school years.”

I would add on to her quote, if I could: Our years at Windermere Prep definitely have an impact on who we become, but more importantly, we choose who we want to be every day. We can choose to give up, or we can keep going in spite of the challenges life throws our way. Our ancestors chose to keep living even when they thought the world was ending, and we have the capability to do the same thing now and for the rest of our lives. Our time at Windermere Prep and the activities we pursued here — whether it was sports, academics, fine arts or any other pursuit — taught us how to endure difficulties to achieve what we want in the end, and we are capable of enduring and growing beyond larger difficulties in life the same way.

From the outside, the world probably looks like a terrifying place, filled with suffering, fear and death. However, I think sometimes we forget to acknowledge how much joy, beauty and genuine kindness we’re also surrounded with. I am beyond honored and humbled to represent the senior class on this stage and to have been a member of Windermere Prep’s Class of 2020 for the last 10 years of my life. Looking at the senior class tonight, I see the incredible potential of kids — adults, now — who are capable of changing the world for the better, in ways both big and small. It’s all up to what we choose to do, and to our decision to persist in seeking what we want in spite of every obstacle the world throws at us. I’m thankful to have been able to meet all of you, and I wish everyone here the very best for the rest of their lives. Thank you all so much.

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