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2006 Commencement Speech by Kasey Hoey • Minnesota
About the author
Editors Note: I first heard Kasey read a story at a poetry slam in 2004 at the local high school. I was impressed with her dry delivery, her use of the language, her obvious intelligence and her allegorical tale. While Kasey is too humble to mention it, she was a Board Scholar and awarded a Merit Scholarship at Macalaster College where she will begin her studies in the fall. I wish her all the best.
I'm 18, recent high school grad, off to college in a few weeks, studying to be a doctor. I live in Minnesota. I love classic rock and the '70s punk rebellion - music with expression and power. I love reading - there's nothing better than delving into a good story, being there with the characters for a little while. I've been making up ridiculous tales for as long as I can remember, and I started writing some of them down at around age 10.
Once upon a time, there lived a very awkward, pimply teenager named Douglas. Douglas knew he was not, in the common vernacular, 'smooth'. But, he reasoned, he was an amicable young fellow with interesting things to say. For instance, he liked to tell people that only one small chromosome was keeping his from being the opposite gender. Many people did not like Douglas to say this, but Douglas knew that that was what made it interesting. It wouldn't be too hard to make friends. So, Douglas started high school with a positive attitude. On the first day, he walked in with a bright smile and plopped into an empty seat next to a friendly looking young gentleman. Douglas greeted his fellow classmate with a cheery "Hello! I'm Douglas! What's your name?"
His classmate turned slowly to look at Douglas. "Fred," he said slowly, with an assessing look. Fred carefully looked at Douglas, tried to count his pimples, gave up, and finally settled for sneering at Douglas' wardrobe. Douglas was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt that day. "Iron Maiden," said Fred, "is stupid."
Naturally, Douglas was offended. But he decided to let that one go. He tried again. "So who do you like then, if you don't like Iron Maiden?"
While Douglas was speaking, Fred had turned around to talk to a friend. Douglas waited patiently for Fred to answer his question, but Fred never turned around. Then Douglas tried talking to other people. Unfortunately for Douglas, Fred was quite popular, and had obviously decided that Douglas wasn't worth talking to, so everyone else decided to just leave Douglas alone.
Eventually, Douglas gave up trying. His self-confidence had taken a major blow. So he moved to the back of the classroom, never talked to anyone, and spent most of high school as a miserable outcast, though he did enjoy many an anonymous derogatory statement made about Fred on bathroom walls.
Despite outward appearances, Douglas was still the same guy who'd walked into class that first day, albeit much more bitter. While some people wanted to talk to him, Douglas just shrugged them off, deciding that it wasn't worth it. One day, a very determined lab partner forced Douglas into conversation, and the two became quick friends. Fred and his hatred of Iron Maiden became a distant memory.
There's a Beatles lyric that has stuck with me for a long time. "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." In other words, you get what you give. The story of Douglas is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people named Douglas who like Iron Maiden is completely coincidental. But this story shows just how much of an impact one person can have on another.
As teenagers, especially as American teenagers, we don't really think about the long-term consequences of even the simplest of our actions. Our brains are hard-wired for self-absorption. We have such a sense of entitlement, one we get from society. Youth is practically worshipped in this country. America's number one enemy isn't bin Laden, it's the wrinkle. Consequently, teenagers and young adults tend to assume that they can do no wrong. With a modern education, a fresh outlook on life, and the support of a nation, the youth has everything. After all, the children are the future, right?
Here's the thing, though. We teenagers may have an entire future ahead of us, and it might be bright and shining as the sun. But that doesn't mean we're experienced, that we're not still horribly naïve. Some of the simplest truths in life are still foreign to us.
One of those truths is that we have the capacity to shape each other so much, without even realizing it. Just a single action - a word of kindness, a whispered insult, a flagrant humiliation or a subtle act of support - things that mean very little to us personally can be monumental for someone else. We think we're just saying that Iron Maiden is a crappy band, but in reality, we're saying so much more.
This society highly values self-determination. Americans don't like the idea of other people pushing them in one direction or another. We tend to threaten people with war if they try it. But when we think about who we are, we also have to think about the people in our lives. We have to think about who we would be without this person or that person -- without our "Fred". I know that I undoubtedly would not be standing here today if not for Hannah ZumMallen. It was her example, her influence that helped bring me out of my shell. She was part of the reason I joined speech, and that was the gateway to me joining other activities and becoming more outgoing and comfortable with myself. Her death gave me an appreciation and respect for the time we're allowed with our friends, and made me realize that we have to make the time for the people we care for, because we don't have forever. Without Hannah, and the effect she had on my life, I'd still hate public speaking and I'd have far fewer friends.
When I think back on my high school experience, I don't think about the assignments or the tests. I think about the people. Whether they meant to or not, many of the people in this class have had an immense effect on each other. Just by being ourselves, we can make someone else's life profoundly better or worse. So, as we become adults, with the world at our feet and the power for change, let's keep in mind just how much influence we have.
©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers