The 10 Grad Commandments: My Reverse Salutatorian Speech

I’ve attended the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Technologies for the last four years of my life, among 41, then 40, then 39 other individuals. For most of those individuals, I was but a blip in their narrative, and for some I was a more active participant in their lives. However, for 38 of those individuals, I was academically subordinate; in an administrative error, our school, which does not formally recognize class rank, accidentally printed said ranks on our transcript, and mine said “39/40”. While at first deeply troubling, then somewhat relieving (I mean at least I wasn’t 40/40, right?), then wholly irrelevant to me, this metric was a poignant symbol of the fact that I did not have a traditional Academy experience; my hard work never “paid off”, so to speak, because it was never invested. I forewent many of the late-night study sessions that a valedictorian, salutatorian, or class president would have frequented, and while many of my classmates were at least plausible candidates for top colleges, I barely qualified to get accepted to my state school.

However, I would like to think that I don’t exactly keep in line with the characteristics of someone whose class rank is in the bottom 5%; what I missed in academic prowess, I heavily made up for with extracurricular involvement, spending 280 hours over 3 years at several hackathons, organizing one of my own with NASA’s Office of Innovation, and being editor of the school newspaper and founding a club that helped students with a passion for technology and entrepreneurship learn about those things and start their own ventures. In my freshman year I was elected to my class council, and in my junior and senior years I was active in my school’s Model United Nations chapter, going to two national conferences despite my lack of experience. Even when it came down do it, I scored a 2240 on my SAT, a number that while low compared to those of my peers, was in the 99th percentile of all test takers and a very competitive score for many competitive schools.

At any high school in the world, someone in my position, second to last in class rank, a “reverse salutatorian”, would never be asked to give a speech at their graduation — my school was no different. However, I believe that the nature of my Academy experience, and how radically different it was from most, if not all of my peers, gives me a very unique perspective, and I would like you to indulge me in sharing it. I have put together my 10 Commandments for making it through the Academy, from someone who barely did it himself. The list goes as follows:

#1: The Challenge.

The Academy is very academically rigorous, but the true challenge of being an Academy student isn’t getting good grades — in fact, that bit is quite easy (or so I’ve been told, I never did it myself.) The true difficulty of attending the Academy is putting yourself in a position in which you can get accepted to whatever college you want to go to the most, the one that you were likely told would be far easier to get into from the Academy as opposed to your district high school. Unfortunately, colleges didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to just accept Academy kids (sorry, Dr. Russo), so you’re gonna have to figure out what that position is for yourself and situate yourself there. For this, I strongly recommend talking to an upperclassman — preferably a senior to a junior. Understanding that a specific combination of grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities is key to acceptance to a top college early on will help you maximize output while minimizing input. Understanding how to make the most out of extracurricular involvement, how GPAs are calculated, and how to study for standardized tests are all invaluable and will save you a lot of time and guesswork.

#2. Grab a friend, that’s your second.

The Academy is impossible to get through without friends. Like, literally impossible. Your friends are going to be the people you start clubs with, go to conferences with, study for tests with (and then cheat with when that doesn’t work out.) Your friends will edit your essays for English class, then edit your college essays. Your friends will be the one thing that keeps you afloat in a sea of a million things that are trying to kill you. In the middle of my freshman year to the end of my sophomore year, I felt quite alone. I felt like I didn’t really have any friends (in hindsight that was definitely not true), and in the wake of my academic underperformance and feelings of inadequacy, feeling like I didn’t have someone to lean on when I needed one definitely did not do good things for my mental health and put me in a very bad place. Feeling like I had friends in junior and senior year made my time at the Academy not just tolerable, but enjoyable.

#3. Negotiate a peace…or negotiate a time and place.

Your Academy career will be filled with several conflicts with several people; classmates, teachers, and far more often than normal in the case of my class and even me personally, the administration. One of the best things about the Academy is how it tends to lead to conflicts getting resolved one way or another; with only 40 kids in your entire grade, you learn to get along with everyone you can and have minimal interactions with those you can’t. There is always some way to resolve a conflict, whether it be by having a civilized conversation with the other person, swallowing your pride and apologizing, or just having a gentlemen’s agreement to both stop caring about the situation and moving on while holding onto whatever notion led to you having this disagreement to begin with. High school is four years, and you decided to make them harder by going to the Academy. Don’t make them even harder by having beef with everyone.

#4. Turn around so you can have deniability.

At any given instance in the Academy, somebody is gonna be doing something wrong. From squirting each other with distilled water bottles in APES to going into Civil exams with notes on our calculators and many, many, many, many more, you never want to find yourself culpable in any of this. The Academy loves its witch-hunts in order to give off a “no-nonsense” aura to a bunch of kids that are scared witless of getting in trouble. Most of the time, these pursuits are wholly nonsensical in nature (I once got in trouble for something that someone from another high school in another school district commented on a photo of me tagged at the Academy). However, sometimes, these pursuits are wholly malicious in nature, like framing students that the administration did not like for an instance of bullying they weren’t involved in. Stay out of these situations. If you’re innocent, no one will blame you for keeping your head down. Sometimes you can get through the Academy without ever sitting across from anyone in the administration after doing some things that your classmates will never forget. Just do that.

#5. Draw before the sun is in the sky.

Time management is so valuable at this school; this relates to Commandment #1 in that understanding what you need to get into a good school allows you to put in just enough time to do that, and allocate more time to do other things that you enjoy/other things you need to get into a good school. Some of the best college essays I’ve ever read were about hobbies and side hustles that a lot of people would have called wastes of time. Going through the list of the most accomplished people I know personally, absolutely none of them were career students who only put all their time into school work. Having a good work-life balance is key to success not only in high school, but in college as well and until the day that you die. The excuse “I don’t have enough time” is easily mitigated by making time; wake up one hour earlier. Sleep one hour later. Doing what you love and taking a break from the things that you absolutely have to do to do the things you love will never be not worth it.

#6. Leave a note for your next of kin.

In Hamilton: An American Musical, in his dying moments, Alexander Hamilton says “Legacy? What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Make sure to leave a legacy behind. For me personally, my legacy is that I was that guy who complained about anything and everything, started an entrepreneurship society at our school, and did that one thing with NASA one time. For me, one of the only things that kept me going throughout the Academy was feeling like I was doing stuff that would make a change not only in my life, but in the lives of those around me. It’s an amazing feeling, and I hope that the things I started continue to be successful and that they continue to be helpful.

#7. Confess your sins.

Hold yourself accountable. For the longest time, I didn’t do this; “Dr. Ricketts doesn’t teach, how was I supposed to pass that test?” or “Dr. Weinstein’s grading system for the senior project is complete bullshit!” were common complaints of mine. However, the sooner you realize that other people don’t particularly have anything to gain from seeing you succeed and that certain people will take that as an excuse to not do the work they are expected to do, the sooner you can just get whatever work you need done while cursing their names under your breath. There’s really no two ways about this; no one is going to do the work for you, and if you don’t do it then whatever happens is on you.

#8. The last chance to negotiate.

Towards the tail-end of your Academy career, you’ll start feeling like you’re running out of time, and that there are so many people you realized you’ve never spoken to or that you will realize in hindsight that the gripes you had with them are pointless and petty. Before graduating, try to set the record straight with everyone. Have a clean slate, make new friends before leaving the school, and make sure to be at peace with yourself with how you interacted with others. Very few people will slap away a hand extended in peace — being on good terms with everyone will never be a bad thing, and in my case, some of the people I’m fondest of are people I only started speaking to six months before graduating.

#9. Summon all the courage you require.

Do things that scare you. Do things that are difficult. Do things that feel like terrible decisions when you think about them but give you a good gut feeling. Go see that movie instead of studying for that test. Instead of banging on the door or your friend’s car when they lock you out of it, climb in through the sunroof. Go on that overnight trip, ask that person out, do whatever it is that gives you that “I know I shouldn’t, but…” feeling. Those are likely the decisions you will appreciate the most when all is said and done.

#10. Paces, fire.

Just do it. High school is 4 years of your life when you are the most energetic, driven, and have the least time commitments. Do something great. Do something awesome. Do something epic. Or just do something.

Good luck.