1981 High School Valedictorian Speech
1981 White House
A Difficult Year: 1980-81
I gave this graduation speech May 15, 1981, as one of the two co-valedictorians of Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. The original text is still in my scrapbook, typed on my Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Reading the speech after all these years, I was struck by the number of times I said "responsibility."
If some of the speech seems heavy, keep in mind the context. During our senior year, assassins had made attempts on Pope John Paul II and on President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet Union still existed, as did the Berlin Wall. Economically, our families were still reeling from the inflation of the seventies under Nixon and Ford and the stagflation (high inflation plus high unemployment) of the Carter years. The world was more than a little scary, not unlike the world faced by graduates in 2015.
The Graduation Speech
Mr. Copeland, Mr. Mason, Mr. Carver, teachers, parents, and friends: all our tomorrows start today. I believe the class of 1981 should start tomorrow by asking four questions:
Where are we?
How did we get here?
Where are we going?
How will we get there?
Where are we? This is an important question, because we must know where we are now before we can begin planning for the future. We have reached the time in our lives when major decisions about education, career, and marriage can be put off no longer. Now is the time to choose-to take charge of our own lives. From this day on we will face many decisions, large and small. We will be renting our own apartments, buying our own groceries, and setting our own curfews. We will be deciding when to study, when to get married, and when to put a fresh box of Arm & Hammer baking soda in the refrigerator. We have reached the point where we must be ready to take charge of our lives.
How did we get here? This is the time to remember all the people who have helped us reach this graduation night.
Our parents are here tonight. They are always with us when something important happens. They were there at our bedsides when we awakened from nightmares. They were available when we needed transportation to baseball games, 4-H meetings, and band practice. They were awake at four in the morning when we were "having so much fun that we just forgot to call home." Yes, our parents were there, and they are here now, and they will be there in years to come.
Our teachers are here tonight. Our counselors, coaches, administrators, and class sponsors have come to see us off. We have despised them, and we have admired them. We despised them when they assigned research papers, patrolled the cafeteria, and forbade us to adorn the schoolyard with Wheatley's cow on Senior Activity Day. On the other hand, those despised teachers have many admirable qualities. They have a part of themselves which rejoices with us when we win a football title or a band contest, encourages us when we are twenty points behind, and sponsors our many clubs and activities. We will all remember those special people who took time to help us with financial aid forms, chemical equations, college applications, and study guides.
Obviously, our classmates are here. We've been through a lot together. We've enjoyed the rivalry of senior convention. We've collaborated on take-home math tests. We've struggled together through P.E., U.S. history, Macbeth, Central 9, and government. All these things drew us together and helped us build some strong friendships. As we continue to grow and change, we need to strengthen those friendships and develop new ones as well. I remember a verse from Ecclesiastes 4 in The Living Bible: "If one falls the other picks him up; but if a man falls when he is alone, he's in trouble."
Where are we going? Life is not static. We are always going somewhere, moving, learning, and changing. In today's world, we must always be ready to adjust to change and face new problems. In the years to come, we may own fully computerized automobiles, ride in a space shuttle, or even live in a space station orbiting the earth. We will also have to face inflation, energy problems, and the potential for nuclear war. We will seek cures for cancer and muscular dystrophy. Where are we going? We are entering a future full of challenging problems and exciting new opportunities.
How will we get there? I believe we will get there by accepting our responsibilities, facing them with intelligence, common sense, and maturity. We must be willing to get involved in community projects, vote for the candidates of our choice, and volunteer our time to help the sick, the poor, and the lonely. We must work to build good, solid families. We need to keep in touch with our parents and grandparents, for they have many things to teach us. When we marry, we need to be aware of the responsibilities which accompany a marriage commitment. When we become parents, we must provide our children with an environment full of love, understanding, and encouragement. The key to our future is a willingness to recognize and accept our responsibilities at home, in college, on the job, and in the community.
Friends, the world is big and our responsibilities are great, but our past success should give us hope for the future. The problems and decisions of the future look tough, but the class of 1981 is tougher!
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Central 9 was a vocational school serving 9 counties in Indiana.
Wheatley's was a family-owned butcher shop that rented out a bull statue on wheels for special occasions. The bull is still available for birthday parties, anniversaries and sports playoffs.
The biblical reference was not edited out of my speech--in 1981 we still had freedom of religious speech if we were speaking as a private citizen at a public event. We also had a prayer at our graduation and a baccalaureate service several days beforehand. It was a different world.
Many of my predictions came true--no surprise! We do have computers in our cars, and the space shuttles flew for decades. While the Cold War ended without nuclear war, we are still waiting for cures for many forms of cancer and muscular dystrophy.
Write Your Own Speech
Here are ten tips for writing a graduation speech that will honor your school, class, and family without putting anyone to sleep.
Avoid generalities or overused phrases such as "we are the future." Instead, use concrete illustrations from your own experience or examples from classmates. Pointing out that your class includes three Eagle Scouts, for example, is more interesting than just saying your class is awesome.
Be sure to mention important highlights from freshman year to senior year. Parents and graduates will enjoy hearing you recount the state basketball championship game, the dance-a-thon fundraiser for the children's hospital, and the junior field trip when the bus broke down.
High school graduation is a time to celebrate. You and your classmates wrote papers, did science labs, and now your hard work has paid off. Let the joy be evident in your speech.
While graduation is a time for formality and dignity, it is also a joyous time. Inject some humor in your speech, but only where it is natural. Rather than try to tell a joke, mention the true story of the skunk that wandered onto the football field and caused a panic.
If there was some tragedy that affected your class or school, it is appropriate to mention it. Perhaps a classmate died of cancer, in which case you might express that it was a privilege to have known that person. One school in my community burned to the ground. When students later graduated from that school, there was celebration that they had survived and thrived.
Although you may be the valedictorian, remember that others hearing your graduation speech may be athletes, musicians, or students who had to overcome challenges to graduate. Try to include everyone in some way. Graduation is for your entire class.
Graduation is not the Academy Awards, so do not simply read a long list of names. Do, however, express gratitude to important groups: family, faculty, and support staff. If a longtime staff member is retiring, think of some special words for that person.
Be sure to mention how you and your class grew and changed as you went through high school. It is appropriate and meaningful to recall how frightened you were as freshmen in a large school or how proud you all were when 100% of your class passed the swimming test .
You may want to mention something special about your class. Perhaps you are the first class to graduate from a new building. Perhaps your class had a record number of National Merit Scholars. Your class is special in some way, so use that distinction to make your speech more personal and relevant to your audience.
Naturally, you will want to mention the future. Some of you will have college plans while others will be getting married, looking for jobs, or joining the armed forces. Express your optimism and confidence that your class will contribute to your community and the world. Your speech can end with a mini pep rally, inspiring your class to go forth with boldness.
As you write your speech, keep in mind your dual purposes: to remember and to inspire. Practice your speech out loud before people who will give you honest suggestions and encouragement. Time your speech to be sure you are within your allotted time. Finally, enjoy your speech and your graduation ceremony.