Thank you for that generous introduction, Head Master Murray.
I figure that every big speech starts with some wise quotation that will make no sense initially and then tie everything together perfectly by the end and allude to the meaning of life. I don’t have a quotation, and I can’t promise the meaning of life, but I have a poem:
We are the faces on both sides of the table
Brought nearer by the candlelight.
We give to each that solace which two different notes,
One high, one low, struck together,
Seem to give each other as they combine.
One thing alone is clear:
It is not knowledge
But unity that we desire,
Intimacy itself, which is knowledge.
So if you’re thinking, “that is far too poetic for Sophie to have written it,” you’d be correct; I did not write any of the lines in the poem, I only strung together the words of Woolf, Nietzsche, Marx and Beckett to mimic creativity for Dr. Cunningham’s English final. I used lines that I found in books written by thinkers far greater than myself and threw the lines together on the page, and yet, somehow, their words became mine. Nor did any one of us, the Class of 2016, write the poem of our Lawrenceville lives: we’ve thrown together lines written by our peers, and still, each of our experiences is unique. We’ve risen together, we’ve drawn strength from belonging to this community, we’ve shared joy and struggle.
None of us could have reached this diploma alone. As individuals, we are not responsible for our success here, and I say this not to undermine today’s accomplishment, but to remind us that we do not succeed (or fail) alone. As the poem ends: “It is not knowledge but unity that we desire, intimacy itself, which is knowledge.” We came here for knowledge, but we leave with something infinitely more valuable: companionship, the type that reaches for our hands and tells us that we don’t have to write our poems alone.
As a class, we quite literally raised each other; we made this place our home, these people our family; and parents, don’t be upset, but I think we did a pretty great job. I must confess that, looking back, I needed Lawrenceville to help me grow up. I thought that there was a fixed amount of success and happiness in the world, and if I wanted it, I had to make sure that others couldn’t get it. Since coming here only two years ago, I realized that the opposite is true: if we want success and happiness, we have to put other people up instead of pushing them down. When I describe Lawrenceville to my friends from my old school, I tell them that here it’s cool to compliment other people, to celebrate their strengths, to lift them up - perhaps to those of you who have only ever known this place, that attitude seems natural, but I assure you, it is both unique and powerful.
Robert Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, put it better than I can: “We rise by lifting others.” At Lawrenceville, we have all risen in this way; the senior boys physically lifted each other (and a few chairs) off the ground at the Spring Dance Concert, but I see us lift each other up in small ways every day. Here, it’s cool to be that quiet kid who can also shred electric guitar, or the hockey bro who loves magic tricks; because if you don’t fit some social story, we don’t scorn you. Instead, we talk behind your back and call you a true Renaissance man, we say at dinner tables that we wish we knew you better, or that we should dig up our hidden talents. And when we put others up like that, our friends like us more, too, because however cool magic tricks are, the ability to speak well about others is even cooler.
I used to struggle with this, speaking well about others. I resisted admiring my peers because I didn’t want to ask myself the question: are they better than I am? Lawrenceville has made me less afraid of this question; I have found that I can only grow by finding role models among my peers and leaning into the discomfort that they might be better than I am in many ways.
In the days leading up to this speech, when I felt unable to give words to our impending loss, to process my memories and apprehensions, let alone those of our whole class, I looked to role models: I used Stephens sisters as a think tank by covering our common room in post-its, I went to my faculty mentors when I felt like I had nothing to say, I edited and reedited with friends I see as more qualified to be standing here than I am. It turns out that it’s not nearly as scary to wonder if I’m not the best than to write a speech (or a poem) alone.
And in this moment, as I look out at my housemates, teammates, classmates, teachers, family - the people who have made me someone I can be proud to be - I feel grateful to have found a community where we rise by lifting others. Yet I know that we must leave today. Today, we laugh at old jokes, hoping to explain whole years with a couple of half-forgotten memories, we try to make sense of our time here, try to consolidate our four years into something concrete: a diploma, a photograph, a few tears.
But memory is the recognition of loss. The moment we have remembered something, we must acknowledge that it is over. With memory comes the pain of nostalgia and the realization that we can never go back to the start. Memory is painful, loss is painful, and I’ve struggled to sleep at night because I’m counting down days and wondering how I can face such a loss. In these moments, there are two thoughts that I say over and over in my head to lull myself to sleep.
Here’s my first thought: we can never truly leave Lawrenceville because our influence will always be felt. We have served as role models, older siblings and best friends to the people we will leave behind. I think about that cross country teammate who ran up an actual ski mountain beside me; that housemate who fell asleep mid-sentence on my couch – they sit behind us today, they lift us up with the knowledge that next year they will run up mountains and become the new owners of our couches, they will be the new role models and best friends, they will carry with them the part of us that we left behind. And when the freshman sitting all the way back there take this stage in three years, having affected new freshmen we may never know, our presence will still be felt here. It’s like a lullaby my mom used to sing to me by James Taylor: “I can sing this song, and you can sing this song when I’m gone.” Even if we never step back on campus or if we forget all about Lawrenceville, Lawrenceville can never forget about us, it will sing the lullaby we sang together, and it will never be the same without us. We will always be a part of Lawrenceville.
And as for the second thought that consoles me: Lawrenceville will always be a part of us. We are faced with the conflict between thinking this is the greatest place on earth and knowing that must not be true: so I see Lawrenceville as our first love. In the peak of our emotional connection to our school – on this morning, in the place where it all started four years ago – it’s hard to think that we could ever feel this happy again, that we could ever belong to a community as intensely as we do at this moment. It feels like this love is the most real thing that will ever be.
Now we are facing an inevitable but not an ugly break up; and until this point, I felt like our love was forever. When I was little, I liked to test the passage of time. I would pick a moment in the future - the end of a track race, a family vacation, my high school graduation - and I would see if it came. It always did. We all knew that this bittersweet ending to our first love was coming, but it doesn’t make it easier.
So we break up with Lawrenceville, we cuddle up with our friends and a pint of ice cream to mourn our loss, we comb through memories and warm ourselves with nostalgia, and then we move on. This may be our first love, but it certainly won’t be our last, and probably won’t even be the greatest love we ever know. We are so young; this is not the peak of love in our lives. Yet Lawrenceville will always be our first – the first time we discovered the true meaning of companionship – and in that way we can never forget what it meant to us. We have been with Lawrenceville at the most crucial moments of growth, it knows the failures we don’t want to remember and the vulnerabilities we can’t admit, so we will always be the people that Lawrenceville made us; I will always be the person you all made me. So I wish us new loves full of happiness beyond our imagination, loves more powerful than this one and more unbelievable, but I know our first love here will always be with us.
I want to close with a confession: I journal, a lot. I forced my mom to bring up my past three journals to write this speech because I hoped to find the meaning of life - or a lesser nugget of wisdom - scrawled in a rush some late night over the past two years. It will not surprise you that I did not find the meaning of life in my journals; but what I found instead was a series of love letters to Lawrenceville, particularly to the people who have transformed me with their friendship. So the only truth I can offer today is that the relationships we forged here matter, they shaped us, and they will always be with us. We came here a group of individuals looking for an education and a college acceptance, but we leave a class bound together by common experience and a feeling of belonging. As the poem says, “It is not knowledge, but unity that we desire; intimacy itself, which is knowledge.” We don’t have to write our poems alone – we shouldn’t, and we actually can’t – and I can think of no one I’d rather write my poem with than the Class of 2016. Thank you.