Class of 2016 Valedictorian: Speech by Dan Jekel

Written by Dan Jekel on June 20th, 2016

Mrs. Young looked more grave than usual. It was right about the beginning of the year, and in those days rhetoric always seemed overcast. We weren’t used to waking up and thinking about school first thing in the morning, and while we were excited to be starting our senior year, we were unnerved to be starting our senior theses. We had yet to spread our academic wings. So when Mrs. Young said we had to talk about something serious, it was a little worrisome.

That morning, she gave a lecture that she gives to every senior class: a brief warning against plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious violation of academic integrity; plagiarism is lying and stealing. If you commit plagiarism in your senior thesis, even if you didn’t mean to, you will get a zero, and you will be unable to graduate.

You can guess by the fact that we’re all sitting up here that nobody tried to cheat their way through their final year. But at the time, that anti-plagiarism warning generated introspection and fear. We reflected how scary it would be to do all your work but then mess up your sources somehow — then we remembered that rhetoric was scary anyway — then we sighed a collective sigh, hoping that we’d make it through the year alive.

And we have. Every single one of us survived. The whole year is on the books. The only thing left is the congratulations and the thank you’s, the works cited ceremony at the end of our academic venture, where we give credit to whom it’s due.

For me, as for everyone else, that means my parents, my teachers, my peers. I’m grateful to my mother for supporting me, for teaching me by example what it means to work tirelessly, to labor in love. I’m grateful to my dad, for his ability to challenge me while building my confidence. I’m grateful to Dave, my oldest brother, for being the Latin-speaking, poetry-writing, swing-dancing, math genius we all need in our lives, to Paul, my younger brother, for playing basketball, watching birds, and destroying me in word games. I’m grateful to all our teachers for teaching, and to Coach Hyink for leading debate.

And of course, I’m grateful to my class. There’s no group for whom I feel a greater admiration. Admiration, in the words of Rosenstock-Huessy, is an underrated virtue. Our culture often admires from a distance — idolizing celebrities or cheering for sports players. But real admiration means admiring up close — where flaws are as visible as virtues. Actually seeing the best in somebody else, imitating others as they imitate Christ, can be hard. It can be hard spending day after day with the same group of people. Admiration is an underrated virtue; it isn’t always easy.

But, in the case of my class, it totally was. There is simply so much to admire about each of them:

Kyle, who was born to act and entertain; Kat, who insists that she is not super-humanly nice, though the rest of us know better; Judah, who is bold and self-reliant; Matthew, who is funny, kind, and loyal; Hailey, whose leadership lies in her genuine care for others; Nate, who never wore his khaki socks but never forgot his sense of humor; Michael, whose competitiveness is simultaneously intimidating and inspiring; Robby, who proves that humility, though quiet, is charming; Katie, whose hard work, maturity, and depth of character always impress me; Evan, who is always honest and easy to talk to; Wesley, whose brilliance and integrity make me proud to be his friend.

I wish there was a story I could tell, that would illustrate in one fell swoop all these qualities, the virtues of each individual. The truth is that there has not been, for me, a definitive instant in which I got to know the class. There was only a series of moments, study halls with pretzels and energy drinks, games of baseball or volleyball, class trips and class movies, period after period with my peers.

As we read in Fahrenheit 451: “We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”

In a series of moments, sooner or later, we have found friendship. I have seen the virtues of my friends, not in dramatic displays, but as they percolate through the daily routine of our school existence. They made that routine bearable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like school, as a general rule. We got an excellent education here. If that was ever in doubt, seeing my classmates nail their senior theses made it more than obvious. But it’s just as obvious that none of us are here strictly of our own free will. Left to our own devices, we would not have chosen the Providence regimen. We wouldn’t have done physics problems or read Moby Dick or memorized fifteen minute papers if all our time were free time. In school you get assignments, assigned by somebody else.

The question of education, then, was whether we would make those assignments our own, whether we would be led away from the path of least resistance. We have all learned — or, forgotten — Latin; and so we see that the word educate — “e ducere” — means “to lead out.” We must be led out of our own narrowness if we want to learn anything new.

So on a personal level, the prerequisite of learning is the ability to look outside ourselves and towards others. And this is why I say my class made school bearable: because without their example to look towards, I don’t believe I could have learned. I remember going to a debate tournament that none of our other teams could make, and suddenly this intellectual competition that usually gave me so much pleasure seemed to drag on endlessly. An interesting education depends on a community: to give the necessary breaks from learning, as well as the motivation to learn.

Speaking of motivation, I suppose should stop looking backwards and give some inspiration. Here it goes: God has a plan for us. Of course this is horribly cliché, but I think we can miss some of the point: In Bible class we always talked about God’s decrees, how he does all things for his own glory, works all things according to the council of will. But God loves us, as the Spirit revealed to Jeremiah, “That they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory.” God does all things for His glory, but we are His glory. We are His plan. It’s not that we must figure things out on our own, and if we miss the purpose, we’re done for. No. Our various personalities and gifts simply are used by God. They are stones in the building of the kingdom, threads in the God’s royal robe. God is white light, and we are refracted colors: we owe Him both our unity and our uniqueness. We will shine as long as He shines on us. And while every person on earth bears the image of the Creator, I think in a special way, this class that has painted that picture for me.

If there is one lesson it has given me, it is the lesson of admiration — look to learn from the beauty of others. If there is one feeling, it is gratitude — delight in what we have received. In the same way we would have failed our papers if we never gave credit, we will have failed our education if we do not leave it grateful. We owe the fine-tuning of our minds to others; for the rest of our lives thinking and thanking belong together. This is our commencement, but it’s not ours exclusively or originally. It is ours as an inheritance, a gift of grace, a work of love. “For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.” Amen.

Dan Jekel, Class of 2016 Valedictorian