SENIOR YEAR is supposed to be the highlight of any teenager’s life. You’re finally old enough to do the grown-up things you’ve wanted to do since you were little, like drive and stay out late. You’re still too young, in most cases, to drink or vote; you still obey your parents’ rules while you live under their roofs, get home by curfew, do your chores and say “Yes, please” and “No, thank you.” But you have certain freedoms. You can work part-time and earn your own money. You can hang out with your friends without supervision. You can rent a limousine to take you to prom, and you can still believe that you’re invincible. But you aren’t.
My senior year taught me a lot of lessons. Most, if not all of them, were learned outside of a classroom, beyond the hallways of this institution. The most important thing I learned is that we are not invincible.
“I CAN’T go out there and say this,” I said, shoving the neatly printed cue cards back into my mother’s hands. “This is bullshit. It’s meaningless.”
“You’re the valedictorian,” my mother stressed, pushing the cards back into my hands. “Saying meaningless crap is in the job description!”
My eyes filled with tears involuntarily, as they had been wont to do for days. I leaned back against an empty desk and shook my head. “Things are different this time. They deserve better than this.”
I turned and stalked out of the classroom, ignoring my mother’s stern request that I “come back here, young lady, this instant!” I was sick and tired of reading speeches that my mother had written for me. I wasn’t going to do it anymore.
“You better go take your seat,” I said as she caught up to me, her heels clicking menacingly on the polished linoleum floors. “Dad will be wondering where you are.”
My mother grabbed my hand and put the cue cards into it, forcing my fingers to curl around them with her own. “Just try. Please. For me?”
I pulled away, but I didn’t drop the cards or throw them in her face. I was tempted to, but I didn’t want to look like a child, so I just gritted my teeth and shrugged. She left to return to her place in the auditorium, where by now they were lowering the lights and opening the curtains to reveal the stage—decorated with black crepe paper and fresh flowers instead of streamers and confetti in our school colors.
Pacing backstage alone, I fingered the cards nervously. My mother’s idea of a solemn valedictorian speech was a farce. This whole day was a farce. However, I had no choice but to go along with it, whether I was grinding my teeth to nubs by the end or not.
“You’re on,” someone whispered, and I flinched but hiked up my dress and climbed the stairs anyway. Normally my speech would have been saved for last, but the whole program had been changed. Instead of sauntering confidently onto the stage, diploma in hand and blue dress swishing about my knees, I staggered up the stairs, holding up the black dress I’d had to borrow from my mother; it pooled on the floor when I let it go. A little girl playing dress-up, not a valedictorian.
It felt very different standing at the podium than it had during rehearsal. The bright stage lights were the same, but the crowd of students and parents was not emitting the low hum of conversation that usually accompanied the shadowed, faceless audience. There was no applause when I reached the podium and adjusted the microphone downward toward my mouth.
I have always been small, but at that moment, I felt young, small, and insignificant, which is not much like a valedictorian at all.
“In any other circumstance, today would be a joyous occasion,” I started, reading from the cards my mother had painstakingly written for me. My voice was shaking horribly, and I coughed before I continued. “Today we celebrate the academic achievement of ourselves and our peers, but there is something missing.”
I swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to shake off the chill that had crept into my sternum. “There’s someone missing.”
Someone in the audience coughed, and I flinched but kept speaking. “Three of our own classmates have been—taken from us—” Someone coughed again, and I froze, unable to find my voice again. The tears welled up in my eyes, threatening to spill over. “I can’t do this,” I choked.
“You can!” someone yelled. It was a man’s voice, roughened by age. Someone’s grandfather in the back row, I guessed.
“I can’t,” I repeated, dropping the cards onto the podium. “I can’t read the speech I wrote four months ago, and I can’t read the speech my mother wrote last night to replace it.” I tried to blink away the tears but only succeeded in pushing them over the edge to spill over my cheeks. “I cannot, in good conscience, deliver either of those well-written, eloquent addresses. And this is why.”