An Updated Graduation Speech


Graduation, 2003

In 2003, I gave a speech at my high school graduation. Instead of asking the valedictorian, my high school allowed all students to try out their speeches, and then chose their favorite three. Which was lucky for me, because I just so happened to be a much better writer than I was a student.

Now that it’s 2013 and 10 years later, I wanted to write a new graduation speech. What would I say to my graduating class in 2003 if I knew everything I knew now?

I kept trying to write something epic. Something that would speak to every 18 year-old out there. I would start and stop and abandon every idea I had. If this were olden times (aka 15 years ago), you’d see me with pencils sticking out of my hair, balled-up paper strewn haphazardly around a small wastebasket. But instead, you’ll just find a folder on my desktop called “Blog”, filled with abandoned attempts and halfhearted outlines. One day, I realized something: if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 20s it’s that I was never as alone as I thought I was. So I’ve decided that I don’t need to speak to every graduate out there; I just need to speak to myself—my 18 year-old self—in hopes that I’m right, and it wasn’t just me learning these lessons…it was all of us.

Dear Graduating Emily,

I’m writing you this note 10 years in the future. I may fool myself into thinking I am a totally different person now than I was at your age, but we’ve lived the same 18 years. Which means you actually know me better than anyone else, I bet. And I know you better than anyone else, that one’s for sure.

So what? What can I tell you, ten years into the future?

Hmm. September 11th already happened for you, so I can’t warn you about that. That was crazy though, right? Christ. People still talk about it now, don’t worry. We didn’t forget. I recently rewatched the Daily Show episode from right after 9/11 and it brought me to tears like I was a Junior all over again, watching it in that room in the library. What was that room called? Anyway, in 10 years you’ll forget the names of a lot of rooms. But you won’t forget that day.

Good TV will come in waves. You’ll get really into Sex in the City after it ends and decide you are a Miranda with a little Charlotte (sarcastic with innocent tendencies). Eventually you’ll be able to apply Friends to your life. That will be super weird for you–especially the Gandalf episode, remember? Anyway.

You’re going to go through a lot of stuff with Travis. I’d tell you all about it here, but I think it’s better if you live it, because it really does make you a better person. And a better girlfriend to the boys who come after him (spoiler alert).

More than one guy who looks like Matt Damon will hit on you. Which is weird, since you’ve always been a Ben Affleck girl.

Remember how you and Michelle would plot out your lives and declare all the things you’d have by the time you were 28? The picket fence, the husband, the kids…all those things are nice to have. But you don’t have them by 28. And it’s okay, because eventually you kind of realize that when things last forever (like marriages and kids and mortgages), you don’t have to hurry to make them fit the life you have. Plus, the life you have is great anyway.

I know it seems right now like college students know everything. They absolutely do not. They just have more light beer and hoodies than you.

Eventually you’re going to figure out how to eat better and exercise. It’s not going to be easy. Ever. And the learning process will involve tears and adult temper tantrums with Mom and Dad (one involving the size of the fruit Dad bought for you. Yikes. You aren’t at your best moment there.) But you kind of work your way into it.

Take off your makeup at night. Last night’s eyeliner does not count as Second Makeup the next day. Wrinkles are a thing.

You don’t end up famous. Not that it’s your plan at 18, I know, but it’s in the back of your mind. That one day you’ll be beautiful and skinny and perfect and you’ll be discovered in a grocery store or just somehow you’ll magically get in with the right crowd and be whisked away to Hollywood. I want you to know it doesn’t happen, because I think it might allow you to make different choices. Your life is not likely to involve a lot of glamour. But it will definitely involve a lot of cheese and laughing with friends, and it turns out? That’s much more your style anyway.

You will try wearing thongs. You will give up on thongs. This probably summarizes what it’s like to go through your twenties.

Eventually you’ll figure this out on your own, but I’m going to throw this out there right now anyway and maybe you’ll figure it out sooner—sometimes you have to make things happen for yourself. Which I know sounds like something for a poster with a kitten on it, but it’s true. To quote Phoebe, “YOU are the boss of you.” (oh yeah, you still quote Phoebe in ten years. That woman is timeless.) Mom and Dad, your teachers, your bosses—none of them can get you a job or know that you need a new apartment or a doctor’s appointment. You have to start figuring all that stuff out on your own and then making it happen by asking for the things you want. And if you find you aren’t happy, you’re the one that has to change it. Not your friends, and DEFINITELY not a boy. Emily. I’m serious. Look at me, Emily. Not a boy. You hear me?

Ugh, you will never really figure out your hair. Sorry. It’s unfigureoutable. So just enjoy it now before the grey settles in, because then it REALLY becomes annoying. Not trying to be a downer, I just want you to enjoy what you’ve got. That goes for the rest of you: your eyelashes, your stomach, your butt, your boobs. Quit waiting for the day when you’ll magically be perfect and enjoy the stuff you’ve got going on. Because you have a lot of stuff going on. I remember, I was there.

Oh, except your boobs—that you can change by boycotting Victoria’s Secret forever and getting your bras from Nordstrom. Do that IMMEDIATELY. Do not wait for Laura to tell you about it in four years. I don’t care if I change the course of history by telling you this. Time waits for no Victoria’s Secret boycott.

You will stop going out all the time, and that’s okay. Even though you currently find that prospect really lame. Eventually you learn to appreciate nights spent in with a movie, some wine, and a cat.

You get a cat. She’s hilarious and yes OBVIOUSLY she has her own voice and personality. She is not the cat you expected to find, but she’s actually perfect for you. This also might summarize what it’s like to go through your twenties.

You have not yet learned to play the bass guitar, but it’s still a dream. I’m 28, dammit, not 82. You’re still allowed to dream at 28.

Take a Women’s Studies class in college. I don’t know why I didn’t take one, so I’m telling you to do it now. You make pretty good class choices, otherwise, probably because for once you bother listening to yourself.

Try to listen to yourself more.

You will learn about heartbreak. You will break up. You will be broken up with. You will listen to very sad songs (and not just NSYNC ones) on repeat for days. You will forget how to eat for a little while. People will tell you that it gets easier, and you won’t believe them because you don’t see how that’s possible. It gets easier.

You will learn about romance. You will have more first kisses. Some will be forgettable, but some you’ll remember for years. There was one…nevermind, I’ll let you live it. Oh man. It’s coming. I’m so excited for you.

I’m only 28, I’m not really in a position to be handing out life wisdom yet. Let other people do that. Ask for advice. Find out what Mom and Dad would do. I only have ten years on you, so I don’t know what will happen for the other 60 or so (God willing). One of the most important things I’ve learned in the last 10 years is to accept that I actually don’t know much yet. You have a slightly longer way to go, but it’s okay, we’re in this together. We’re doing pretty well so far.