Emma Cockrum was in her second week of quarantine when her father discovered an old bike behind their house.
And that bicycle turned out to be a gift: With school closed at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, La., bike riding for Emma became a way of coping with the loss of the rest of her senior year.
“I would say the first two to three weeks we were out of school, I was not the most fun person to be around. I was a ticking time bomb,” says the 18-year-old, who’s headed to Northwestern State University in the fall. “One minute, I would be fine and dandy, and then the next minute, I would be crying.”
As she pedaled through her neighborhood each day, those bike rides forced her to stop and take in the world around her — and they became the inspiration behind these words in her valedictorian speech:
“I got to see life happening. I saw families spending time together, like children playing basketball on their driveways, or fathers teaching their own kids to ride bikes. When we stop to observe our surroundings, we are oftentimes provided with new perspectives on our situations.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused many high school graduations to be replaced with virtual, drive-in and other alternative ceremonies. And so, the tradition of valedictorians and salutatorians addressing their classmates at this huge moment in their young lives is a little different this year.
NPR spoke with a few student leaders about their speeches and how a not-so-typical senior year inspired their words for the class of 2020.
Valedictorian, East Ascension High School, Gonzales, La.
Aside from her bike rides, Cockrum was also inspired by a few words from Sol Rexius, a pastor at The Salt Company Church of Ames in Iowa. She says Rexius uses the analogy of a dump truck full of dirt being emptied all over their senior year. Here’s how she put it in her address to her classmates:
This may sound harsh, but it’s not untrue to how some of us feel. It is easy to feel buried by our circumstances. However, he [the pastor] goes on to paint a picture of a farmer planting a seed. Did the farmer bury the seed? Well, yes, but he also planted it. Instead of feeling buried by our situation, we must realize that the pain and heartache that has been piled upon us is not meant to bury, but to plant us in a way that will allow us to grow and prosper into who we are meant to be. As you stop and take in the circumstances around you, will you allow yourself to be buried or to be planted?
As we move on from this place and embark on the next big journey of life, whether that’s college, the workforce or something else, life will at some point begin to feel like it’s going too fast. My bike rides have taught me a new way to handle these times because they allow me to exercise and be among the beauty of nature, which are things that cause me to slow down. When life becomes too much like a race for you, it may not be riding a bike. It may be playing an instrument, sport, creating art or something else entirely. I encourage you to find that one thing that allows you to unwind and refocus when life seems too much to handle.
Now, I’d like to take you on a bike ride with me as we share this experience together in our faces, something that is both exciting and terrifying: freedom. We sit atop our bikes of life as high school graduates and now have the freedom to choose who we are and where we will go.
Salutatorian, Paducah Tilghman High School, Paducah, Ky.
Chua says he wanted to make his speech something that would provide some happiness to people, even if only be for a little while. Before offering some advice, he began his speech with a personal take on the famous line from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
“Life is like a fistful of Sour Patch Kids,” Chua says in his speech, recorded on video from his home in Paducah. “Right now things are sour, but eventually they will turn sweet.”
The sharing of knowledge is just as important as receiving it because, without sharing, knowledge has no value. The first piece of advice I want to share is to always try new things and challenge yourself, even if you think it’s a bad idea in the process. Always attempt to answer questions and solve problems. Find new ways to do the same tasks. Wear all white to black out. Take that ridiculously difficult course load. Buy that oversized $30 pack of UNO that is literally impossible to shuffle just so you can say you own it. Just spend responsibly, kids. All in all, just make life spicy. Make life something you want to reminisce on.
The second lesson is simple. Just be nice to people. Trust sows the seeds of freedom, and a little respect truly does go a long way. It could even solve a few of the world’s problems. You never know when you’ll need to fall back on someone, so build strong connections early and maintain them.
Lastly, the phrase “I don’t know” is powerful. By admitting ignorance, you are asking to learn. Inevitably, I know I will come upon a hard stop, and I hope that when I do, I’ll remind myself to pause and ask for a hand of enlightenment, so that I might come back from that hard experience knowing more than when I started. Life rarely hands you a golden opportunity, so make one. Just as the tornado creates a path in the wake of its destruction, this class of 2020 will, too, create their own, hopefully without the whole destruction part.
Valedictorian, Lake City High School, Lake City, S.C.
Ross says she wanted to remind her class that they can get through any obstacle. She recalls the adversities they’ve gone through together — like the death of a beloved coach — and the people that doubted her.
Ross says she’ll attend North Carolina A&T State University in the fall, where she plans to study nursing.
Many people didn’t, and probably still don’t believe that I have worked hard enough to be where I am now. I’ve had people tell me that I don’t deserve to be where I am now, and that really made me contemplate, “Do I really deserve this? Should I just give up and let them win?” But look at where I am now. I’m glad that I didn’t stop. I’m glad that I didn’t let them get to me.
I’m especially glad that I earned this position so that all of the other little girls around Lake City and surrounding areas can look and say that they want to be just like me. I want those little girls to know that they can do it if no one else believes in them, I will always believe in them. Classmates, when we’re out in the real world, don’t get discouraged about the obstacles that will approach you.
As Michelle Obama once said, you should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it is important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.
Salutatorian, Jordan-Matthews High School, Siler City, N.C.
Andrew says her mind flooded with high school memories as she tried to write her speech. This inspired her to get her fellow seniors involved. With the help of her class, she strung together a timeline of national events and local victories.
“Sometimes it’s the small, seemingly pointless experiences that leave the most lasting and impactful memories,” she says.
Some of us lost our senior sports seasons, our chances to be captains and team leaders. Some lost our final chances to compete for clubs that we’ve given our all to for the last four years. Some of us lost our final opportunities to perform or display our art, and all of us lost the chance to have all of the fun and closure that we were promised would come in the last three months of our senior year.
Losing the last third of our senior year to a virus was not what we had planned, but it’s definitely an experience that will affect our lives forever and a memory that we will never, ever forget. We are made up of our experiences and memories. All of the things that we have been through up to this point make us who we are, and the best part is, we’re not done yet. We’ll continue to experience things and make memories every day that mold us here and there and to who we truly are and who we are meant to become.
What kind of experiences will you create for yourself? What kind of memories will you make? When things don’t go quite as planned, like our senior year, how you handle the disappointments and challenges that you face will determine the experience that you have and the memory you walk away with.
Valedictorian, Central Valley High School, Ceres, Calif.
Gonzalez says there were many other events besides the pandemic that helped his class develop their character. In his speech, he highlights the election of President Donald Trump and the prevalence of school shootings. Despite what was happening in the world, he says his class never victimized themselves.
Gonzalez will be attending the University of California, Riverside, where he plans to study biology.
The real test came our senior year with the current pandemic. Although society has developed a higher level of understanding, comprehension and acceptance in years prior, self-victimization has become a common occurrence and is a major impediment in achieving our goals. We expect others to find the solutions to our problems and to provide excessive help, since we truly are powerless in stopping the external factors that impact us constantly, whether it’d be natural disasters, terrorism or disease.
Yet, what many people don’t realize is that the impact these unfortunate events have on our lives can be nullified by the effort we place in improving our condition. Learning this from past experiences, our class did not victimize itself. Studying and mastering new material is difficult enough with the help of our amazing teachers, with the added responsibilities of helping more at the house, working an essential job and other challenges that come with being at home, it seemed impossible to keep up with schoolwork. We had to face a multitude of barriers with our unrelenting will to succeed. Standing here today, despite all of the setbacks and obstacles, because of our drive, our perseverance, our willpower to endure is stronger than any deterrent.
Now, as we step into adulthood and start to reach our goals, there will be harder challenges to overcome. But our willpower has been proven irrevocable. Never forget classmates, that as long as you use your unrelenting well, you’re an unstoppable force.
Valedictorian, South High School, Denver
Barto says when her school closed, she tried ignoring some of the emotions she was processing. “I realized that you need to take the time to acknowledge what we have lost and celebrate how we have grown and how this is going to change us as a class,” she says.
This inspired her to write the speech she felt that she needed to hear.
To be honest with everyone, when I sat down to write this speech, I really wanted to avoid talking about everything we miss as a class. It would be way easier to reminisce about when the homecoming bonfire was in the back parking lot. But when people told me they were sorry that my whole senior year was turned upside down, I shrugged it off and said it’s not a big deal. It’s a hard thing to talk about, and not talking about it seems less painful. But it is a big deal. We missed senior prom and graduation and our barbecue and awards. I would even go back for one more class meeting in the auditorium just to sit in South for one more Thursday. This pandemic was not the defining event for our class. Don’t let it be. We had monumental events occur every year we were at South. We have supported our teachers when they rallied for themselves. They’ve supported us when walking into school was harder than it was any other day. We supported each other through the pains of block day, and air conditioning only working in the winter time, but also shifts in friendships and hard times with family. South brought us all together to teach us something about ourselves that we didn’t know before.
Valedictorian, Bartlett High School, Anchorage, Alaska
Cortez says she feels lucky to still be able to give a message and was inspired by what has been helping her cope.
“One of the things that pushes me through everything is knowing that things will go on and stuff will change,” she says. “I just want to remind everyone that the future is still there and it’s still coming to us.”
Cortez plans on attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the fall, where she wants to study civil engineering.
We all deserve to celebrate and be proud of ourselves. It’s upsetting that we won’t have a traditional graduation ceremony and sadly, we cannot control the circumstances that we face today.
What we can do is choose how we respond to it as we take these next steps in life. It can be hard to imagine what life could look like as time progresses. The only certainty we have is that time goes on and the future will arrive. We can use the pandemic as an excuse for why we can’t move on in life, or we can use it as a motivator to find our purpose. Whether we plan to go to college, trade school, the military or straight into the workforce, there is no denying that society will gain something worthwhile. The situation we are living through shows how valuable everyone in society is. The world is finally realizing the importance of the jobs of janitors, cashiers, teachers, politicians, first responders and more. Whatever we plan on doing after we graduate, it will impact society.
I invite everyone to look to who you can’t thank, and take your time to do so, although the door for high school has abruptly shut for us. I would like to remind everyone that another has opened and we can do with it what we want.