• Jade Emerson Hebbert

Wonder 10- Reflection

One year ago, on exactly this day I had a near panic attack before I walked up to the stage I would be graduating on. As they lined us up before we entered, my mind was rushing behind my wide eyes with a trembling fear and a building regret. I was about to walk out in front of my class of nearly 500 as well as all of their families and friends to deliver a speech I felt horribly unprepared for.

In the 7th grade, I found out that I was ranked number one in my class. In the following years, my fear of being unprepared led me to daydream what I might say if I was given the chance to give a speech of my own. In the 11th grade, I found out that my class rank dropped. And I was filled with a new fear of dropping even further. So I pushed any plans for any speech out of my mind, too afraid now that if I planned for it, it wouldn't become a reality.

But alas, there I was, about to give a speech I had only read out loud once before. I don't think I breathed at all leading up to the voice calling my name as I walked up to the podium and began.

It was as if all the nerves, tension, and stress from the past 6 years finally seeped out of me as I planted my feet. I could finally let go. And with an otherworldly and unfamiliar peace, I began to speak...


"Hello and welcome to the day we never thought would arrive until we are so suddenly here. If high school has taught me one thing it's that our identity is not a statement, but rather an ever-evolving question: Who am I? As a class, we are the first graduating class of the millennium, the class who has endured. From 9/11, to smartphones, and even the release of the Titanic movie that introduced us all to young Leonardo DiCaprio. We have seen how the world evolves in the face of change. We have seen what it means to be brave.

I am so immensely honored to be speaking to you, but I have to point out the irony in my position. You see, this is the result of numbers and you can ask any of my previous math teachers that numbers aren't really my thing. But nonetheless, this is the accumulation of numbers: gpa, classes taken, studying time, hours slept at night, or more truthfully not slept at night. Maybe your numbers look a little bit different: hours worked each week, dollars earned to make ends meet, hours spent at rehearsal, practice, or tutorials. We are here today, in this sea of blue, as the product of numbers. But don't you want more? Don't we all want more?

This year, I found myself drowning in the weight of these numbers. Believe me when I say I have had enough existential crises to last a lifetime. I was living in cycles of numbers, upon numbers, upon numbers until I had become numb myself. Until I wasn’t really living anymore. I was just existing for I believed that if I did everything right, if I solved this grand equation it would all finally be worth it. I would be worth something. I lived my life in shadow of failure, fearing I would fail to add up. If we live our lives for numbers, we will always fall short.

Life is ours to create equally as it is ours to waste. We can waste years trying to make ourselves into people that we are not just because we are told that is what we should be or what people want. Simple. Clean. Uncomplicated. Predictable. We can chase numbers from income to impact, facing life and ourselves as if they are problems that needs a neat, and tidy numerical solution.

But I don't want to do the smart thing, I want to do the brave thing.

I look out into the faces of all of you and I see bravery embodied. It takes courage to get up every morning and face the world. It takes courage to give even when far too much is taken. It takes courage to begin again. We are what we've survived. But we are not, or ever will be a number.

Mr. Tramel made it very clear that the salutatorian’s speech is a greeting. So let me say welcome to the friends and family who are here to share this moment with us. I know I would not be here without the patient people who have stood by my side, and supported me endlessly and loved me graciously, especially my mother through all those late nights and early mornings. And to the graduates, classmates, friends welcome to the future we will create with our bold, and unapologetic strides. The world needs people who are brave enough to follow their passions in spite of the numbers. People courageous enough to abandon the surety of calculated results. I hope you find the one thing in this world that sets your soul on fire and I hope you let no one extinguish it. I hope you discover that life is meant to be lived and not just tolerated. But most of all, I hope you learn to ask not how many but why not. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I hope you live a life you're proud of. And if you're not I hope you have the courage to start over again.” Good Luck graduates. Let's create something magical."

And the truth was, the girl writing that speech was not someone I was proud of. I had let myself become the sum of the person I felt that the world- colleges, peers, and even myself included- expected me to be. And because of that, I was left as something not quite right for them and something not quite myself.

So then you start over.

When I decided to take a gap year, a friend of mine told me that it was "so unlike me." But honestly it was the most me thing I had done in a very long time. When I let go of everything I felt I had to be, I was left with the terrifying and liberating opportunity to become who I wanted to be. Or really, who I already was but had lost.

This past year I have been to 5 different countries. I've been completely on my own for the first time in my life in a city that I barely speak the language. I've written for an international newspaper. I acted on stage again. For the first time in a long time I've breathed deeply. I've slept deeply. I've loved deeply. And I've lived deeply.

But all the time that I was evolving and growing and shedding away the layers of all the expectations, I still carried with me that girl who wrote that speech. The girl who was absolutely terrified to leave behind everything she had known, depended on, and expected as she dipped her toes into life when you begin to ask why not? When you begin to believe why not me? When you begin to trust that you really are capable, that you really are brave, and you really are more than the expectations.

Our lives are nothing less than an unending beginning.

Every day for the past year I have had the chance to start over. I don't know if I have things any more figured out than I did a year ago. I'm probably just as confused and I may be just as lost.

And the truth is tomorrow I'll start all over again.

But now I know that bravery exists as much in those momentous life changing moments as it does in the quiet courage of waking up every morning and deciding that today you will try.

For what it's worth, I'm proud of the person that you are becoming.


Amsterdam Airport, 5-30-19 | photo by jeh

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