The First Academy: Valedictorian's speech

I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a long time. From the moment I started high school, I told myself that I would do everything I could to be valedictorian one day.

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  • | 1:45 p.m. May 20, 2022
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a long time. From the moment I started high school, I told myself that I would do everything I could to be valedictorian one day. It was a goal I strived for over many years, and it took a lot of time and effort to get here. I still remember the day I was told I was valedictorian. For the first few minutes, I felt like I was on top of the world. I had finally made it.

But after the initial buzz wore off, two haunting words filled my mind: “Now what?” I had nothing more to chase, no goal to reach for. I thought being valedictorian would fulfill me, but all it did was leave me aimless, wondering what’s next for me? I didn’t fully understand why I felt this way until I finished my senior season of track a few short weeks ago. 

Track is a sport where you’re always constantly chasing a better time. Once you beat your PR, you have to beat it again and again and again. When I finished my last track meet, I felt a similar kind of aimlessness that I had after becoming valedictorian, and those same words invaded my thoughts: “Now what?” Because there was no more time to chase, was I simply done? I thought about what I had gained from running track. Did I just walk away from the sport with a good mile time, or was it about something more? 

Then it hit me. Track isn’t about individual times. Each race is a culmination of training and preparation of the races prior. The sport, at its core, is about the journey, the work put in that makes you a better runner as a whole. Improving race times is merely a side effect. I realized I had become too focused on the next race, on the next time, to enjoy the little moments, the small improvements, the team memories, that shaped my season and the runner I became. And this applied to school, as well. I was so consumed with chasing this one goal, to be here as valedictorian, that I never considered the journey along the way. 

As a class, suffice to say that we’ve had a wild four years. We’ve survived everything from a global pandemic to high school drama. I’m still not sure which of the two I think is scarier. I’ve seen that nothing can stop the Class of 2022 from doing what we set our minds to. However, among all the triumphs and failures we’ve experienced, we have a tendency to focus on the future, on the next assignment, the next game, the next weekend, whatever it may be. I’d venture to say that all of us have thought those words: “Now what?” or “What’s next?” 

It’s not bad that we’re constantly looking to the future: 

This is a driven class who wants to succeed. But in the heat of it all, we lose sight of where we’ve been, how we got here. I’m reminding you … to acknowledge the complete journey, the good times, the bad and even the mundane, because God has used every moment to mold you into the men and women sitting here today. Run the race one step at a time. And here we are, on these final steps. 

I always thought that the valedictorian is the kid who’s got it all figured out. That he’s somehow cracked the code and knows exactly how to succeed in life. Standing up here now as that kid, I can’t begin to tell you how fake that is — in my case, at least. God gifted me with a good brain, but high school outside of the classroom wasn’t a breeze for me. I faced plenty of struggles. Loneliness was one big problem I dealt with. Sure, I had lots of friends, but most of these relationships were surface-level. One way to describe it was that I was friends with everyone, but best friends with no one. I had many days where I felt alone, like I didn’t have anyone to go to, although I tried never to let it show. I think all of us have felt that way at some point in our lives. I found myself longing to make memories and build deep and lasting relationships, but I never knew where to start. Suffice to say that I definitely don’t have it all figured out. 

But I believe God does everything for a purpose. At first, I didn’t know why I had these struggles, why I could never seem to find my place. So, I retreated to my safe place, the Bible, and hoped to find peace and clarity. Eventually, I found Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” When I read this, I felt God’s voice whispering in my ear: “I’ve got you; I’m by your side,” and I felt a peace wash over me. …

Tonight is bittersweet. We celebrate the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. Like it or not, The First Academy has played a major role in all of our lives. This place, these people, will always be a part of who we are. And it’s sad to leave that all behind. Not only that, we are leaving behind our childhood in these hallways. The type of life that we’ve lived for 13 years is over, and now life requires that we become adults who can deal with all the new responsibilities thrown our way. 

What comes next will vastly differ from the lives we’ve lived thus far, but it will be exciting. We’re all at the cusp of an amazing adventure. New friends, new knowledge and new memories await all of us, wherever you may go next. I know you all are fully capable of great success in this next phase of life. And if you ever feel your steps wobbling and your path is unclear, look to Jesus, who is your friend and protector. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” 

— Conner Riley


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