Wellesley High School Class of 2016 President, Valedictorian and Senior Cup winner Teddy Sevilla shared these words with classmates and other attendees of the WHS commencement ceremony on Friday, June 3. Sevilla will attend Harvard University in the fall.
Superintendent Lussier, Principal Chisum, Assistant Principals, Faculty, Classmates, Parents and Friends, thank you for your work over the past four years and your support today at graduation.
When I first heard that I was going to give a graduation speech, I looked for inspiration but initially felt a little bit lost. However, after plenty of searching, I realized that many of the greatest life lessons that I’ve learned, and that I want to share, came to me during childhood experiences.
For example, as a young kid with working parents, I had a lot of babysitters. However, unlike most young families, my parents exclusively hired babysitters from the Wellesley College basketball team. First there was Erin, the near seven foot tall pre-med student; then there was Kelly, a member of the thousand point club. Because of them, I spent my pre-kindergarten years surrounded by college women who towered over me and could easily squash me if I stepped out of line.
I’m not really sure why my parents chose such a specific hiring base for their babysitters. Maybe they wanted me to be a basketball player? Clearly that didn’t work. I can still remember Erin dunking on me on the basketball courts outside of Bates Elementary School. From those babysitters I learned two things: one, that I wasn’t very tall, and two, that I wasn’t very athletic. Indeed, within the childhood memories that each of us hold rest many valuable lessons.
So, as I was brainstorming for this speech a little more, I went to the site of some of the most formative moments in a young boy’s life: summer day camp. From ages 8-15, after one school year ended and before the next began, I was a devout attendee of Camp Nonesuch, a day camp in Weston. It was the ideal summer camp, at least on days when the health department didn’t close the pond for being a hazardous place to swim. My favorite activity at Camp Nonesuch, though, was not swimming or fishing or kayaking in those waters blooming with algae; rather it was the low ropes course activity known as “Adventure Games.” In Adventure Games, we would spend endless hours swinging on ropes, walking across wires, and lifting other campers through gigantic spider webs.
The most important part of the Adventure Games experience, though, was the counselor. A good counselor, which to a 10 year old meant one who lets you do whatever you want, could make the activity life-changing. But, a bad and bossy counselor – who actually made you do things – could ruin all the fun for an entire session. So, at the age of 10, I was full of anticipation as I approached the cabin in the woods where Adventure Games would first meet, only to find an unfamiliar person sporting a bright green counselor’s t-shirt. Within days, I became well acquainted with this brand-new counselor.
His name was Paul, and he was a strange species to my 10-year old eyes, since he was a Wellesley High School student. Very quickly, Paul established himself as a disciplinarian and an authority figure. Whether he was saying “Let’s all go down to the lower field,” or “Don’t try to push each other into the ravine” or “Hey, stop eating pinecones,” he always had advice in mind to try to keep our wild group of campers under control.
After experiencing years of lenient counselors who had given up on taming our unruly collective of campers, Paul’s authoritative approach both intimidated me and frustrated me. So, along with the other campers I resorted to calling him “Luap” (that’s Paul backwards) to try and undermine his authority. It didn’t really work, and we continued at odds with “Luap” until one fated day.
That day was “Trust Fall Day,” which was commonly known as one of the most boring days in the entire summer of Adventure Games. Usually Trust Fall Day entailed standing at ground level and trying wimpy trust falls in which you willingly let yourself fall into your best friend’s arms. Of course, there was no chance of getting dropped. After your fall, you would trade places and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, ad nauseum.
Paul had other plans in mind. I watched as he stacked wooden boxes and pallets until they were about the height of my shoulder, and climbed atop them, standing like a beacon in his blindingly neon green counselor uniform. He instructed us young campers to form a zipper out of our arms, basically making a large cradle, and then told us that we would be doing our trust falls off of that 3 foot tall platform. As if that wasn’t overwhelming enough for my 10-year-old mind, he then told us he would fall first to show us that nobody would get dropped, since if the counselor could do it then we all could too. Normally, I would be skeptical, but despite my distaste for Paul, his authoritative rule and experienced green shirt told me that he was right and that we would indeed catch him safely.
So, I lined up with the other campers and watched as he launched himself from that great tower in the blazing heat of the summer sun. I was confident. But as his giant high schooler’s body hit our tiny arms, I heard a slapping noise and felt my arms fall rapidly. In a split second, Paul ate more dirt than he had in his previous 17 years on earth. The thud as he hit the ground shook the camp, and I watched as his pristine neon green shirt was tarnished by dust and dirt.
That day, I learned about the fallibility of authority. For the majority of our lives, as seniors in high school we have been constantly presented with authority figures and people to follow. Whether they are conventional ones of society, like policemen, teachers, or camp counselors, or social ones like popular students at school, there are always those who set standards of behavior and are preserved in our minds as models of conduct.
Like Paul though, these role models are ultimately more vulnerable than we perceive them to be. Years ago, I learned that even Wellesley College women’s basketball players couldn’t beat me at free throws on my Fisher Price basketball hoop. Today we know that counselors can fall during trust falls. We know that priests can sin, and we know that policemen can commit crimes.
Four years ago, Mr. McCullough stood upon this stage and told a graduating Wellesley High School class that they weren’t special. Well, with all due respect, neither is he, and neither am I, and neither is any speech giver speaking to you today. So given that, you may ask, why should I listen to what you’re saying? Or what even is the point of what you’re telling me?
Today, I stand upon a platform like my counselor Paul. Just as that platform was precariously constructed of mismatched wooden pieces and boxes, my foundations as an 18-year-old acting like he has something figured out about the world are equally unsteady. Given my current position, today, you all are in positions of power like the campers in that trust fall. You have the power to listen to and validate my words, or ignore them and deny them any significance. The beauty of recognizing the human vulnerability of my “authority” or that of anyone else, is that you can then realize how much power and freedom you have–as a listener, as a student, or as a graduate.
Ultimately, authority rests upon illusions of legitimacy. Please don’t take that assertion of mine to mean that you should take to the streets, destroy institutions, or embrace anarchy. Rather, find strength in the illusion of authority. As we move out of high school and into college, the military, or the work force, I ask that you be dauntless in the face of authority.
If you embrace that legitimacy rests upon shaky human foundations, then you cannot ever be out of place in a challenging class. You will never be unqualified for your dreams. You will never be incapable of success. You are just as powerful and just as weak in your humanity as your doctor or the President or the seven-foot tall babysitter telling you that it’s bedtime, and that is a beautiful thing.
Class of 2016, the legitimacy and authority of the world rests in your strong yet shaky human hands. Just don’t drop it.