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Ariana Silvan-Grau   |   June 21, 2012    9:15 AM ET

Ariana was the elected student speaker of the senior class of 2012 at The Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City. This is the speech she gave to her peers and the school community on her graduation day.

Thank you Ms. Hutcheson, Mr. Burke, Ms. Köprülü, and Ms. Huffington and welcome faculty, staff, parents, family and fellow students.

The class of 2012 can be described as many things: loud, enthusiastic, funny, strong-willed... but I think what sets us apart and defines us is our ability to smile and laugh together and at each other. I am big a smile-er. I make a point to smile at least once a day, and when I'm not smiling, I'm laughing. My laugh is high-pitched and it carries, which can be really embarrassing. And, on top of that, I often find myself crying while I laugh, which makes it even harder to stop.

Some people's laughter is contagious, like Emily's. She giggles like a four-year-old and you can't help but giggle along with her. Francesca is the queen of silent, gut-wrenching laughter, mouth hanging open and full-on body shakes. Christina's guffaws are shallow and low and they come out of nowhere as those around her stare in absolute awe. Arame laughs slowly, Katie Murphy chuckles slyly, and Lydia has a slight donkey twang. It is a very rare day when you don't hear Aarati's laugh from all the way across the lunchroom or through the door of a classroom.

Lauren and Kira are often heard cheering demonically, a laughter that occurs after they chuck a large piece of wood at your head "for fun" from across the room. Millicent cackles as she tackles a screeching Katherine outside Ms. duNoy's office, and Sophie's bright titter follows close behind. Anna Model squawks loudly as Hannah turns red and becomes incomprehensible through her equally loud sobs. Kate Levien's whoops break through silence and Dani's light chortle eases an otherwise tense situation. Melissa snickers eagerly and Katie Lin can often be seen erupting in fits of adorable, uncontrollable giggles as she fidgets with the end of her ponytail. Kate Krauss wrinkles her face and beams from ear to ear as she rejoices with quick and excited hehe's, cheeks burning red. Sarah Mcgowan's delighted grin lights the room as a joke pulls her away from her New York Times crossword puzzle. Stephanie teehee's and haha's with elegance and poise, an art that we all have yet to master. Yvonne whoops, doubled over holding her stomach and Caroline flings her head back in delight, her laugh banging through the air. Caitlin's occasional snorts are often a catalyst for Lucy, who lets out one loud HA, snorts herself and then drools a little. Diana Chen sits on the floor giggling so much you can see every single one of her dimples and Issy laughs loudly in an Australian accent, obviously. Juliet's laugh is bold and powerful, as she bats her eyelashes and flashes her teeth, and Sarah Van der Elst giggles nervously turning bright red as she frantically covers her face with her long regal fingers.

Diana has her hair tied in a bun perched neatly on top of her head. She laughs lightly, raising her hands to her clavicle saying, "That's ahh-mazing." Anna Sinreich is writhing on the floor, throwing a hysterical fit screeching and sighing as tears stream down her face. Allie Wilson laughs harshly at her side. Jenny, a true artist, focused on her surroundings, laughs looking through her camera lens, her nostrils flaring ever so slightly, and Annabel who has previously been sitting quietly, breaks into an uncontrollable silent giggle, eyes shut tight, face full of mirth. Kathryn Daly and Liza howl dryly and Katie Harris chimes in with her toothy, paint-smeared smile. Finally, Ali Gale laughs soothingly, a soft chuckle and satisfied sigh and Morgan, who is not easily amused, allows an enthusiastic and authentic chortle to permeate her lips.

It has been scientifically proven that laughter is one of the best medicines, and I strongly believe that if you go into a situation with a positive attitude and a smile on your face, the chances of that situation going awry are pretty slim. It is also proven that if you smile at least once a day, not only do you look younger, but you look prettier -- because I know the thought running through your heads as we all walked in was "How is it that every single one of them is stunning?" Well, now you know.

So, I want you to think about the last time you smiled. Who were you with? What about the last time you laughed? A full-bellied laugh, one that made you cry or even stop breathing, momentarily of course. Who were you with? Do you have it? I do. I was with members of the class of 2012, at field day, Rye Playland, Vermont, or even just in the lounge. I was with the 40 girls who planned Nightingale Prom, who set the tone, the vibrant and exciting tone, for the upper school all year. Each of these girls sitting before you is brilliant and charismatic individually, but together our class is indestructible, unbelievable and unbeatable, and it all comes from our ability to make each other smile and laugh every day. It is these 40 girls that make every day a little more interesting and a little bit brighter.

A smile can mean anything -- excitement, gratitude, forgiveness and fear, and just because this chapter of our lives is ending does not mean the new one will not bring just as many smiles. To our parents, teachers, family, and friends, thank you for making us smile, and remember that just because we are leaving doesn't mean you can't smile while we are gone. And to the class of 2012, as we step into our new lives make sure to carry your laughter with you wherever you go. Thank you.

Knowledge is Power

Joel Schocker   |   June 20, 2012    9:25 AM ET

Joel is the valedictorian of the senior class of 2012 at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania. This is the speech he gave to his peers and the school community on his graduation day.

Arianna To Graduates: 'Failure Is Not The Opposite Of Success'

Carolyn Gregoire   |   June 20, 2012    9:18 AM ET

Last week, Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, addressed the senior class of 2012 at The Nightingale School, an all-girls educational institution in Manhattan. Below is the speech she gave to the graduating class, their friends and family, and the school community.

Ms. Hutcheson, Mr. Burke, Ms. Köprülü, members of the Class of 2012: It is a great pleasure and an honor to be here with you today. And I know it doesn’t matter, and it’s not as important as everything else, but you look amazing! So, you made it –- from those of you who have been here four years to those who have been here 13 years: the survivors. Congratulations.

Ever since you invited me to be your speaker here today, I have been on a mini journey of my own, getting to know you, the class of 2012. And you are a pretty amazing group. I love your class Facebook page, “World Domination.” I love that when your debate team went to Harvard last year for a tournament, the judge told the boys’ team you were debating to “go easy” on you. And as Francesca said, “It was nice to wipe the floor with them.” And I love that during your recent class trip to Vermont, you had the choice of taking a hike through the woods or milking a cow. And the entrepreneurs among you wanted to sell the milk to those who were thirsty from the hike.

And I loved getting to know some of you personally when you came to lunch at the HuffPost newsroom. The editors you met there were trying to convince you to skip college and come work with us. Don’t tell your parents.

I already feel very protective of you, and of the spirit of optimism and adventure that you embody. And I want to make sure that nothing ever vanquishes it. Looking back at my own life, there are the things that can trip us up and dampen that spirit. The first thing is failure -- or even the fear of failure. So let me tell you about some of my own.

When I was 25 I wrote a book that was rejected by 37 publishers. By about rejection 25, you would have thought I might have said, "Hey, you know, there's something wrong here. Maybe I should be looking at a different career."

Instead, I remember running out of money and walking, depressed, down St. James Street in London and seeing a Barclays Bank. I walked in and, armed with nothing but a lot of Greek chutzpah, I asked to speak to the manager and asked him for a loan. Even though I didn't have any assets, the banker -- whose name was Ian Bell -- gave me a loan. It changed my life, because it meant I could keep things together for another 13 rejections. 

And then I got an acceptance. In fairy tales there are helpful animals that come out of nowhere to help the hero or heroine through a dark and difficult time, often helping them find a way out of the forest. Well, in life too, there are helpful animals disguised as human beings -- like Ian Bell, to whom I still send a holiday card every year. So, very often, the difference between success and failure is perseverance.

At Nightingale, you've been encouraged to "take risks, to try out new ways of thinking, to test intellectual limits, and to find a unique voice." So you have a tremendous head start. But remember, life always consists of ups and downs, successes and failures. Seven years ago, I co-founded the Huffington Post. And I watched it come alive to negative reviews, including one reviewer who called the site, and I quote, "the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar, and Heaven's Gate rolled into one." She called the site a "failure that is simply unsurvivable."

That’s when trusting ourselves and our own vision comes in so handy. You don’t have to buy into the negative reviews. And in fact, that’s about the time when you can use your famous laughter and sense of humor to get you through. And carry with you at all times the other Ariana’s speech about laughter. I’m so glad that the pressure if off me because there's already been one great speech by an Ariana here today. My mother also would have loved it, because one of the things she used to say to me is "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly" -- the one that's proved most useful in my life is the understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it's an integral part of success. It is, quite possibly, the key component.

The other thing that can dampen our spirits is when things go wrong in our personal lives. And as somebody on this side of 18, let me tell you -- they often do. And things -- especially the biggest heartbreaks -- often only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them.

I remember, for example, in my 20s, when I fell in love with a man I'd never actually met. I fell in love with his writing. His name was Bernard Levin, and he was writing for the London Times. I would literally cut out his columns, underline them, and learn them by heart. When I finally met him, I was petrified and tongue-tied. Nevertheless, he invited me to dinner, and I prepped for the date not by going to the hair dresser but by reading everything he was writing. I read every detail about Northern Ireland. Of course, Northern Ireland never came up on the date and we ended up being together for seven years. Then I hit 30 and I desperately wanted to have children. He wanted to have cats. So I did something that I was terrified to do: I left the man I deeply loved. So basically everything that's happened in my life -- my children, my books, the Huffington Post, the fact that I'm here speaking in front of you today -- is because a man wouldn't marry me.

Remember that, okay? In life, the things that go wrong are often the very things that lead to other things going right.

Understanding this means not letting negative experiences get in our way. And not letting that voice of doubt, which I call the obnoxious roommate living in our heads, have the last word. I realize that some of you will soon have to contend with actual obnoxious roommates, so this makes it even more important for you to silence the metaphorical one. Because that's the one that can do you the most damage. Your actual obnoxious college roommate will just borrow your favorite cocktail dress without asking and then spill red wine on it and then not even tell you, and then you're like, "Did you really think I wasn't going to notice?" But the one in your head -- she'll keep you from living out your dreams for the rest of your life. Because, as Montaigne said, "There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened."

You’re about to enter a time in life that will be filled with plenty of late nights, and endless demands for your time and attention, from both devices and people. The notion of unplugging and recharging is even more important because we are living in a hyper, hyper-connected world. And that’s why I love that your head of school, Ms. Hutcheson, who was a religion major in college, is unplugging from her job and recharging by taking courses at the Union Theological Seminary, reconnecting with one of her lifelong passions.

Take it from someone who is running a 24/7 Internet company. As the technology author Nicholas Carr wrote, "There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden." So, create that garden in your life. Do not miss your life by multitasking. The easiest way to unplug and recharge is something that you are always trying to avoid: sleep. There is nothing that negatively affects my productivity and efficiency more than lack of sleep. After years of burning the candle on both ends, my eyes have been opened to the value of getting some serious shut-eye. And women have to lead the way here.

Because lack of sleep has become a sort of virility symbol for men. I was once out to dinner with guy who kept bragging about how he only needed four hours of sleep a night. I wanted to tell him that he'd be much more interesting if he'd gotten five.

When we reconnect with our selves, we rediscover our connection with others. You already know this, from your experience raising money to build a school in Cambodia, $2 at a time, through bake sales and school dances. An amazing example of the kind of small-scale engagement that has the power to bring about big, lasting change. And if you think you are too small to be effective, then you haven't spent a night in bed with a mosquito.

And the Nightingale Fair, which began in the early 1930s and is still going strong, with the goal of serving others -- from local food banks to less-fortunate schools to writing letters to overseas soldiers.

Service is in the zeitgeist. Now, "zeitgeist" is a German word almost untranslatable in English, but it does exist. And the evidence is all around us.

And I know from my daughters -- who also attended all-girls schools -- that whenever they were going through difficult times in their own lives, they found strength, connection and meaning by helping others. Years ago, for example, one of my daughters went through an eating disorder. When she started volunteering at A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles that helps take care of at-risk teenagers and younger children, it began to change her own sense of her problems, of how she saw herself, of her own difficulties. There’s nothing like putting your own problems in perspective.

In the 1990s I wrote a book called The Fourth Instinct, which explored the instinct that takes us beyond our first three -- our impulses for survival, sex, and power -- and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring to include our communities and the world around us. That instinct is just as vital as the other three, but we rarely give it the same kind of attention.

Just to remind you, if you’ve forgotten physics 101: To a physicist, a critical mass is the amount of radioactive material that must be present for a nuclear reaction to become self-sustaining. For the service movement a critical mass is when the habit hits enough people so that it can begin to spread spontaneously around the country and the world. Think of it as an outbreak of a positive infection. And everyone here is a carrier, so please go out, carry this positive infection, and let’s all together reach critical mass. And you are invited to write about it on HuffPost, so that others can read about it and be inspired.

Remember your school's principles: truth, friendship, and loyalty -- including to yourself.

This moment in history demands that we stop waiting on others to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times. So as you are leaving your beautiful school behind, please don’t wait for leaders on a white horse to save us. Instead, turn to the leader in the mirror. Tap into your own leadership potential, because the world desperately needs you. And that means daring to take risks and to fail, as many times as it takes, along the way to success -- and, more important, to re-making the world. And to do it all with more balance, more joy, more sleep, and more gratitude. Thank you so much.

Never Stop Learning

Alex Torres   |   June 13, 2012    9:25 AM ET

Alex is the valedictorian of the senior class of 2012 at Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Florida. This is the speech he gave to his peers and the school community on his graduation day.

I stand here today because of a number: my class rank. A mere number that only signifies one thing: I fit a system better than anybody else, but not a whole lot more. And because of that simple fact, I call upon each and every one of you to look ahead and work for the future. Just like everything else in our lives, the future will hold what we reap from it. In order to get all that we can out of our respective futures, we need to do two things: Recognize the constants in our lives, and not be afraid to leave.

Recognize, and more importantly appreciate, the people that have remained consistent in your lives, whoever that may be. For me, the most important of these constants has always been my mom. I'd like to take this moment, in front of thousands of people, to acknowledge the incredible job this woman has done for me and all of those around her. She has been my rock from day one and I don't know where I would be without her undying love and support. So go ahead, do the same with your constants and show them the love they deserve.

In addition, I want to encourage everybody to leave without guilt. Those constants I mentioned will always be in our lives no matter where we end up. Only a few of us will find that our perfect niche is in Central Florida. High school will quickly become part of the distant past, so let's not be afraid to get out, explore and discover what fits us best in the world. More than likely, that process will lead us away from here, and that's perfectly okay. It isn't about leaving what's behind us, but rather, looking forward to what's ahead of us.

I want to reiterate that the high school system fit me particularly well, but by no means does it measure who we will be 10 years down the road or even define who we are now. The world does not abide by any one system and there is success out there for each and every one of us. By keeping those constants close to us and taking risks, you can break free from restraint and be an incredible success -- all while maintaining a support system that has the potential to help you grow. My best piece of advice is to recognize that, as human beings, we will never stop growing and never stop learning.

Everything You Do, Do it Big

Brian Xu   |   June 12, 2012    9:25 AM ET

Brian is the valedictorian of the senior class of 2012 at Starkville High School in Mississippi. This is the speech he gave to his peers and the school community on his graduation day.

Whassupp. So, I am just going to be honest. After discovering that I was entrusted with the honor of giving this speech, I had absolutely no clue what to say and how I was supposed to come up with some profound insights about our graduating class. Of course, I did what anybody searching for answers would do, and used the magical website called Google to garner some ideas. As I scrolled through dozens of speeches, I noticed that many began or ended with a meaningful quote that defined their high school journeys. How was I supposed to find a suitable quote that would accurately describe four years, approximately 22.2 percent, of our lives? I had not read anything meaningful in years, since SHS teachers never require students to read thick, gargantuan textbooks or Freiler or dozens of novels of literary merit. Naturally, I went to ponder my predicament at my favorite restaurant, Taco Bell, and my quote miraculously appeared as I squeezed some sauce onto my burrito. "Will you scratch my back?" read the Fire Taco Bell sauce packet. Using that, I proceeded to use my AP Lit skills to analyze and find meaning that was not necessarily apparent in that simple question.

Unknowingly, we have all scratched each other's back throughout high school, figuratively -- not literally of course. What is so inspiring about this class, and our entire school actually is that there is a feeling that... we actually like each other. Starkville High School fosters an environment where students genuinely care for their peers and are motivated to provide assistance and guidance to anyone in any endeavor and under any circumstance. Because of this altruistic attitude, we are able to stand side by side and not only reach the high expectations set for us, but achieve beyond them.

This group mentality and tremendous team effort has propelled us all forward together during our high school years. Let's just be real here -- we are good at everything. Every athletic team at SHS except one advanced to the state playoffs this year. In addition to a state championship in Boy's Soccer, we had five other sports that finished as one of the top four teams in the state. Those accomplishments do not even include the mountain of individual awards won this year and the numerous senior athletes who received scholarships to play in college. A very large part of our success is thanks to the coaches at SHS, and Dr. Miller, who know how to set high expectations for us and motivate us while being invaluable role models and mentors. We thank you.

Amazingly, our plethora of athletic recognitions is well-balanced by the immense and continually growing collection of trophies and medals from our music, theatre, arts and journalism departments. An All-Superior Marching Band; All-Superior Choir; awards at MTA State Festival; internationally, nationally, and state-recognized artists; and 31 journalism state awards -- 10 first place -- are not too shabby.

Perhaps the most meaningful successes are our academic accomplishments. We have a Presidential Scholar Semifinalist, two National Merit Finalists, one Semifinalist, 49 Mississippi Scholars, 21 Honors Graduates, nine Superintendent Distinguished Seniors, five Highest Honors Graduates, and $2.6 million offered to the SHS Class of 2012. We have been accepted to high-caliber colleges and universities, with a large handful of us who will spread out across the nation next year to further our education and represent the Jacket Nation. However, these achievements pale in comparison to the senior class actually winning the Point of Pride competition based on GPA and a dress code-free day. I can feel many eyes rolling in their sockets now, especially those of the juniors, who we have formed a bit of a rivalry with this year. Class of 2013, we have been hearing constantly about how our graduating class is "terrible" and "has no spirit" and how it was one of the rare years that the seniors lost the Homecoming Week Spirit Competition. Many forget that we had zero points in the spirit competition a year before as juniors, so I think we should at least get the Most Improved Award. However, what we lack in spirit, we make up for in sheer number of accomplishments. I, and the entire Class of 2012, want to challenge any of the lower classes at SHS to even come close to matching what we have accomplished.

In my Google searches, I also noticed that many valedictorians created elaborate metaphors to compare their high school years to something significant. If I could compare the class of 2012's journey through high school, I would not compare it to a hair-raising adventure or inspiring journey or fun ride on a merry-go-round. No, I would compare it to a big, long shower. When we entered high school as freshmen, we were little kids who were covered in the dirt and mud of our own ignorance and immaturity. Thankfully, we had teachers, coaches, and administrators to help us clean up, grow up and become more responsible young adults, while being caring enough to scratch our backs, sometimes gently and other times not so much, whenever it itched. Again, figuratively, not literally.

Mr. Fennell, thank you for repeating the daily routine expectations and procedures over and over and over and over and over again, and that the dress code is black, white, gray, or yellur with black or khaki pants NOT of the cargo nature! I'm sorry, yellur is not a color. It is the name of a dog in a movie. Thank you for reminding us of our senior skip day, and amusing us with your Hitler haircut at prom. But in all seriousness, you provided one of the most vital characteristics that an exemplary principal should posses: consistency. We always knew what to expect from you, because you repeated it over and over again, and we also knew what you expected of us, which was to achieve to the very best of our abilities.

Shout out to the seldom-recognized freshman teachers who are often overlooked by graduating seniors. You are such a jolly character, Coach Fischer, always present in the hallway with your coffee mug, spouting your jokes often at my expense and presenting your misled views of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to innocent freshmen. Mrs. Goodman, thank you for being so passionate about teaching and showing us your deadly skills with a spear. If a poor mammoth were to walk down south wing, there would be no hope for its survival with you there. There were so many things at SHS that could brighten up even the worst of days, like Mrs. Brenda Jackson's humor or cheesy chicken over rice served by the amazing, wonderful, majestic, graceful Ms. Mary and Ms. Janice. Lunch ladies, words cannot express my gratitude for your smiles and warmth over the years. Jeremiah and Danny, you two are prime examples of selfless devotion to the athletic department. The whole city of Starkville cheers for you two at games, I can assure you.

Finally, awards have been acknowledged, thank-you's have been said, and now it is time to walk across this stage. Please keep in mind three things as you receive your precious diploma. First, don't trip because I promise I will not be able to contain myself if you do. Second, cherish all of your teachers, coaches and classmates who have scratched your back, making an impact on you and transforming you into the older young person you are today. Especially cherish those we have lost, and remember how it was a privilege to know Breanna Hampton and Devin Mitchell. They both inspired us by how joyfully they lived their lives. Lastly, represent where you came from and what you were a part of after you have left -- 603 Yellowjacket Drive, across from the fancy Dirt Cheap. I believe that a concluding quote by this acclaimed musician is very fitting. Wiz Khalifa said: "Yeah, uh huh, you know what it is. Everything I do, I do it big. Black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow."

Thank you, God Bless.


Savannah T. Reed   |   June 11, 2012    8:30 AM ET

Savannah is the valedictorian of the senior class of 2012 at Rockport High School in Massachusetts. This is the speech she gave to her peers and the school community on her graduation day.

True happiness. The one thing that I wish for everyone in this room, country and world is that -- true happiness. Generally, we derive true happiness from two things: activities that produce endorphins and the feeling of importance. And easily enough, we can guarantee ourselves endorphins with sex, chocolate, spicy foods, exercise and meditation. But throughout life, unaware of exactly how we do it, we build up our feeling of importance. For some of us, the importance is stable, and for others, it is not. Importance comes from the attitude we have toward ourselves, and in turn, from our confidence and self-esteem. Though lasting importance entails the more trying and challenging means, it is far more fulfilling than the ephemeral.

Too often, we compare ourselves to other people and build a false self-esteem; we build ego. We are not truly happy with ourselves, but happy to be better than others. This is being prideful. You are proud because of a comparison with yourself and others. You are richer than your friends; you are smarter than your coworkers; you are more attractive than the other men or women in your age group. You are proud because you have qualities that someone else does not. Some of these qualities are uncontrollable, and some of them you were born into without effort. Can you be proud of something over which you have no control, and in which you take no active part to make so? Can you be proud of being the best when you did not try your best? Where is the accomplishment in being if that state of being simply came to you? Furthermore, if you were no longer better than others, if you no longer received compliments, would you feel confident? This is the hole in pride's glory; with nothing to boast about, you lose confidence. When there is no way to feel better about yourself through superiority, you lose your foundation for self-respect and self-belief. Without strong self-belief, you cannot be truly happy.

True self-esteem does not originate in pride supported by the comparative inferiority of others. Rather, we generate it within ourselves, of ourselves. We build self-esteem through self-directed activities, success, accomplishments and recognition of those accomplishments even in the absence of praise from others. And we build self-esteem by being happy with ourselves. Rather than pride yourself on being smarter than your coworker, recognize the value of your thinking ability, and how you have made an effort to further your ability to ponder, comprehend, and explore new ideas. In being happy about your progress and accomplishments, your only standard is yourself. You win the freedom to be wrong, to be worse than others, but to still improve yourself and explore without guilt or self-deprecation.

This method of self-evaluation will help us through the rest of our lives, but especially at this time of pronounced growth and change. Many of us going to university or new towns will feel lost, unsure of ourselves. We will not be established in these new places as who we previously were. Our reputations and our familiarity with others will be gone. My dear friend and Rockport alumnus Margo Balboni shared with me her reflection on identity after a similar experience in college. She confided in me that "the answer is not to give... external indicators so much power over your view of yourself. You've got to develop an inner core of conviction in the person you know yourself to be, regardless of others' judgements, and draw your self-respect and self-esteem from that." Sure and firm self-esteem will keep us steady and confident when we emerge into a new world. Never lost, we will always know who we are, wherever we are; we will have come to be happy with who we know ourselves to be.

Pride feeds on the compliments and inferiority of others; its source is external, unreliable, and apt to change and regress. Rather than relying on others, be happy about your accomplishments by comparing your progress now with that of the past. Building from yourself is the only way to be comfortable with and trusting of yourself. Maintaining self-esteem is the only way to be truly happy. Pride leads to ego and dependence, but recognition of self-worth leads you to independence and life-long happiness.

Seek and You Shall Find, Graduates

McKenzy Seifert   |   June 8, 2012    8:50 AM ET

McKenzy is one of the valedictorians of the senior class of 2012 at Lebanon High School. This is the speech she gave to her peers and the school community on her graduation day.

J.R.R. Tolkien writes in his book The Hobbit, "There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something."

We have all looked for things we want over the past four years. For some of us, it has meant working hard in school and at jobs to pay for phones, cars, college and all the other things my mom -- I mean, our parents -- said we needed to save up for ourselves. A lot of us discovered that looking is very easy. In fact, my close personal friend Google helps me do a lot of looking. But the finding part was not always as simple. Luckily, we had help. Mr. Helland helped us find "x," Mr. Wong helped us find notes, and Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dykes helped us find... Well actually, I don't know what they helped us find. They just really wanted to make it into this speech. Anyway, most of us eventually found what we were looking for, but sometimes, what we found was a surprise. Mr. Tolkien ended the quote I began with by saying:

"You certainly usually find something if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after."

In the end, there are lots of things we are going to want in our lives, but they won't all come to us. I hope that this Class of 2012 keeps looking. There's no telling what we'll find!

Be the Change

Umar Umaru Abare   |   June 5, 2012   11:19 AM ET

Umar is the nominated speaker for the senior class of 2012 at Newark Collegiate Academy. This is the speech he gave to his peers and the school community on graduation day.

Eight years ago, before I came to TEAM, school was a term I hated. School meant a place where you were verbally or even physically abused by your peers. I have a ton of bad memories from that experience, but now when I think of it, all I can do is smile -- to think I was once misguided enough to hate school. Everything back then was so negative until, one day, my younger brother made a friend, little Jah-raquan Farmer. That started me on the journey that has put me here tonight.

Jah-raqaun lived in our neighborhood so we started carpooling with his grandma. That summer, our mother told us that she wanted to start driving all of us to school in the fall.

We told her that unfortunately, Jah-raquan was transferring to some school we had never heard of named TEAM Academy. Little did we know, Jah-raquan's transfer would turn out to be very fortunate for us. For some reason, as soon as my mother heard where Jah-raquan was going, she jumped out her chair and headed over to his house.

Next thing we knew, we applied to TEAM and were placed on a waiting list. A few weeks later, my mother got a call, and in the blink of an eye, my mother, brother and I were in front of an old rundown church on Custer Avenue. I remember thinking, "What in the world did Jah-raquan get us into?"

Inside TEAM Academy, we found out that my brother had been accepted into the fifth grade. You see all, charter schools accept students by lottery. Therefore, enrollment is basically the luck of the draw.

I got accepted too, but if you come to TEAM after fifth grade, there is a test to see if you're ready for the next grade or if you need to repeat. Unfortunately, I found out I wasn't ready.

I decided to repeat the sixth grade so I could be closer to my brother and just have a place where I belonged.

Not long after, I began to regret that choice. Mr. Reagans told my mother I had to go to school from 7:25 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. -- and in August and also on Saturdays! That's when I made a different decision: "I'm not going, and that's final!"

But my mother thought otherwise. Her explanation for every situation is "It's my roof, I pay the bills and if you don't like it, there's the door!" Well... As you can see, she won THAT argument... Love you, Mom!

As a new student at TEAM, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed with the teaching methods -- methods like the chants we practiced proved to be very helpful. I still use some to this day to help me remember things, for example...


... and so on, but I digress.

I have attended public school, private school and even a school in Ghana, but at TEAM, I actually started to feel like I was a genius.

There was really a moment during homework when I paused one day and realized, "Yo... I'm really smart!!!"

I learned to start reading independently. I still remember Crash, Holes, Walk Two Moons and many of those books to this day. I'd had bad grades since I was a little kid. I didn't remember the last time I had good grades. All of a sudden, at TEAM, I made it onto the high honor role. HIGH HONOR ROLE!

I was also introduced to new opportunities, like learning different martial arts on Saturdays, camping out in Utah and even horseback riding in Puerto Rico. For all these things, I thank my TEAM and family.

My family plays a big part in my life. My family is made up of blood relatives, classmates, teachers, and overall, the people that I love and care about. Today, whenever I'm around my family, I always feel the sense of pride they have in me. That feeling is great now, but it wasn't always this way.

My transition from TEAM middle school into our high school, Newark Collegiate Academy, proved to be much more difficult than I expected. The high school provided more freedom, and I wasn't ready. Even though I had progressed academically at TEAM, my maturity level was low. In ninth grade, my grades were horrible and so was my behavior.

At Newark Collegiate, we have performance reviews so that our parents can see our progress as scholars and maturing young adults. It's like one you would have in a professional environment. But during freshman year, my first performance review was more like a trial in front of a tribunal of angry parents and guardians. My mom, dad, two uncles and my advisor were in front of me.

They were ALL disappointed in me. My uncle Ali was the one that stood out the most. The disappointed look on his face haunts me to this day.

I never want to see that look on his face ever again. My uncle Ali is like a second father to me. He told me, "It takes a lot of time and hard work to build a structure with a strong foundation... But destroying it can be done easily, and in little to no time."

He wanted me to realize that to reach my goals in life, I needed to work hard, always strive for success and avoid sabotaging myself. Those words led to my own ground-breaking.

Ever since then I've been building my own legacy, and even though there can be a few minor set-backs along the way, I know I have one of the best blueprints because my TEAM and family are the base of this project.

And so I stand here tonight with this message for the younger members of my TEAM and family -- the 1,500 younger students throughout TEAM Schools:

First, you must want success as much as you want air. Unless you believe that you need success to survive, you will be far less than what you have the potential to be.

Second, never lose who you are. Be yourself, but strive to be the best possible version of yourself.

To the older portion off my TEAM and family, thank you for everything you have done for us. Whether it is through teaching us, donating or being a caring parent, you all help us grow into maturing young adults destined for success.

Thinking back seven years ago when I made my first step through the doors of TEAM Academy, I realize that I came in as a feeble-minded boy who knew nothing of the opportunities that awaited him.

Today, I'm a mentor to a number of freshmen and vice-president of the student body. I am graduating as a member of the National Honors Society and I've been accepted to over 10 colleges and universities across the nation.

I've been making the changes that I want to see in my life so that I can soon become the change that I want to see in the world. The day after graduation, I'll begin my new journey as a member of Seton Hall University's pre-med program and the class of 2016.