How many miles to Babylon?

Words from high school graduation

I want to begin by thanking the people who have made all of this possible, who have brought us this far — to graduation and the beginning of adulthood. Thank you to our parents, for working so hard and valuing us and our education so much; very few people get to grow up in towns like Livingston, surrounded by this wealth of opportunities and activities. Thank you to our teachers, administrators, and staff. And, of course, congratulations and thank you to my classmates — we’ve come so far together.

I’m not going to give any advice today. There are many people here who are more inspiring, more experienced, and more credible than an eighteen-year-old — than this eighteen-year-old. I only want to share a brief realization I made recently.

Two weeks ago, someone truly intimidating confronted me, showing up at my house out of the blue. This was a person I used to be close to, but someone I haven’t seen in a while; we’ve steadily grown apart over the years. I knew he would reappear one day, but I always imagined it would be sometime far off in the future, in the same way we put off summer assignments until September every year. I was frightened by what he would think of me, and by what I would think of myself upon seeing him. Many of you actually knew him, and probably wouldn’t want to deal with him either. His name? Adam Chang — — I am talking about my eighth grade self.

Of course, he didn’t physically appear at my doorstep; what showed up was the letter I wrote to myself at the end of eighth grade, the one many of us wrote. What scared me wasn’t thinking about a cringeworthy, awkward Adam — I still see him in the mirror every day — but rather remembering the hopes, dreams, and expectations I had four years prior.

In this letter, I remember writing a lot of questions. I’ve always asked lots of questions; those of you who’ve taken any class with me — including and especially physical education — know what I’m talking about. But I remember filling that letter with questions; I guess eighth grade Adam really wanted to know how things would turn out. There were initials with question marks. Careers with question marks. TV shows even. And, of course, holy grail questions repeated on every page, like “Who will you become?” and “What does the future hold?”

Imagine our eighth grade selves appearing and asking us those questions today. How do we answer? How does anyone condense four years into a few words? We might respond with platitudes like “you’ll get there” or “what will be will be,” but deep down, we’ll have much more complex answers and feelings. We’ll understand what grandparents feel when their grandchildren ask them about their childhoods, about the past.

Like grandparents reminiscing about the past, we’re likely to relive some happiness when we remember our triumphs and experiences and unforgettable memories. But we’ll also find some sadness when we realize that all of those happy times are in the past. People call today “bittersweet” for a reason.

We’ll also face some regret when we think about the “could have been”s and the things we would have done differently. We’ll give some advice to our thirteen and fourteen-year-old selves: try out for that team, sit at a different lunch table, don’t take everything so seriously.

I didn’t open that letter because I didn’t want to answer those questions, to face those feelings. I didn’t want to be the grandparent longing for the years gone by. And I certainly didn’t want to be the grandparent in a rocking chair, wondering about the friends I stopped talking to, the countries I didn’t go to, and the sports and musical instruments I stopped playing.

What I realized, however, and this is something obvious, but something I — and I imagine many of us — lost track of. What I realized was that we are not the grandparent. We are still the child; we are still the ones asking “What does the future hold?” Four years of high school — even eighteen years of childhood — is nothing compared to what’s still in front of us. Everything that we would’ve changed we still can; all of our dreams we can still act on.

It won’t be easy. Our futures are as foreign to us as this day was to our eighth grade selves, no matter how set we are on a major or career. We’ll walk away from today believing that we can do anything and that we will change the world, but whatever we’re looking for is a long way from here, and on this journey, there won’t be forgiving teachers or politely-worded emails from Mr. Stern. And, inevitably, there will be happiness but also sadness, triumph but also regret.

I opened that letter yesterday. Four years have passed since eighth grade Adam wrote those questions. I began laughing at him, because his questions reflected how young, dumb, and naïve he was — but not because they were overly vague or unrealistically optimistic. I laughed because I don’t imagine any of us finding answers anytime soon.

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