There is something victorious about any graduation ceremony. For those honored there, all the toil, sacrifice, and struggle now lie behind, having brought them to a place of accomplishment, recognition, and achievement long striven for.
For the Haddam-Killingworth High School (HKHS) Class of 2021, marching under the sunswept sky of a nearly perfect June afternoon last week, the victory did not feel total or unqualified. Even with families spread out across the grass, congregating mostly maskless and without the huddled fearfulness that permeated most of the last 16 months, there was a weight, something quietly carried by the graduates who took the field to celebrate a new chapter in their lives.
Salutatorian Julian Spector described this feeling of being worn out in his remarks to the community in an emotional, almost plaintive appeal to prioritize happiness rather than fall apart in pursuit of that fleeting, intangible external victory.
“I know that many of you are expecting this speech to be about that ‘drive,’ and how I realized that drive is the ticket to some utopia that we all picture when we hear the word success,” he said. “Sometimes drive causes us to put too much pressure on ourselves and we begin to tear ourselves down, and to tear each other down.”
“This has been a difficult year for all of us,” he added.
Through the stark isolation, constant upheaval, and lurking fears that grew throughout the pandemic, young people have suffered more severely, study after study has shown. Pressures of all kinds, whether from within a family that has lost a loved one, a job, or a house or through academic expectations requiring students to suddenly adapt and thrive despite vastly new circumstances, have left many young people paralyzed with anxiety or withdrawing into depression.
Spector described feeling like he was “drowning” this year.
“I was bailing water out of a boat with too many holes in it,” he said.
As the members of the HKHS Class of 2021 move out into a world very different from the one in which they started high school, they will seemingly have no illusions about what they have gone through, and what they still have to face.
But the steps they take shouldn’t be without hope, Spector said. Things like music, art, and family—things that remained with him through all the struggles—are real paths to happiness, he argued, and everyone can look to the things they love all around them rather than clawing for some kind of external fulfillment.
“We often get lost on the way to happiness, and find ourselves clinging to control or perceived superiority—poor substitutes, I think we can all agree,” Spector said. “But the truth is achievement-based happiness is hollow and addictive.”
Valedictorian Max Cozean was more specific in his focus, though he drew on a similar theme: the pain that can come from prioritizing grades or perceived success over all else.
Cozean said he’d learned that ambition, which “once fostered a sense of wonder, had depreciated into a fanaticism of its most superficial component: the letter ‘A,’” he said. “I played the game, I played it well. It consumed me.”
Cozean blamed “the culture of today” for leaving his generation without defined goals, without a sense of purpose outside of the superficial, though he thanked HKHS for helping him break through some of these negative influences.
“I fear that our potential will be wasted because we are forced to produce without reason, to exploit ourselves and our education without knowing why,” he said.
Cozean did not provide an answer to these fears, though he urged his classmates not to walk out into the world “tired and uninspired” without purpose.
To Spector, the answer was something small, what he described as “the light.”
“The light is life, it’s happiness,” he said.
Bringing your light to others is how you find yourself and each other, Spector said, especially in times that are dark.
Spector told a story of how his younger sibling had been subjected to starkly racist language from a classmate. That behavior was something learned, something ugly, and something that didn’t have to continue.
“Sometimes we go around blowing other people’s lights out because deep down we’re afraid of being the only ones in the dark,” he said. “People are listening now. Let’s give them light instead.”
“Our world needs us now more than ever. Let’s not burn ourselves out before we can fix it,” Cozean said.