For my students:

On July 2nd, 2014, around 9pm, after 1092 miles of driving, my now husband and I received a call. Our landlord, Lynn, was calling us to let us know that that there was a tornado warning in the area — and to be especially careful driving if we had a hitched on u-haul because sometimes they flip over in the wind.

I was the one driving.

I looked back at our hitched on u-haul, looked up at the sky that was starting to turn from grey to blackish green, and debated turning back towards the Comfort Inn we had passed in Macon. But we were so close, we were only 28 miles from our destination, and I just wanted to get there. So ever the stubborn, and naive New Yorker that I was, I squeezed Dan’s hand, took it easy on the accelerator, gripped the steering wheel, and kept on driving.

To this day, moving here to rural Missouri from New York City is the scariest thing I have ever done. And driving into a massive storm, in that moment, at the end of that decision, with corn fields violently swaying in the wind, didn’t exactly make me feel more at ease.

I think today, though an incredible and well-deserved celebration of 13 years of school, can feel a bit like that moment, when my landlord called me to tell me to be careful driving while a storm loomed near a place I knew nothing about.

Class of 2017, For 13 years, you’ve had bells telling you where to go and when. You’ve had staff like Ali serve you meals you’ve memorized the flavors of. You’ve had principals like Mr. Hostetter reminding you to take off your hats inside, and teachers like me giving you assignments like perfect paragraphs that become routine.

And after today, those familiarities, those things that you may not have always loved, but at least knew to expect in your day, are done. I know that this may initially feel like a huge sigh of relief, but it might soon start to feel quite scary and overwhelming.

So, what do you do? To me, there are three ways you can react when things start to get scary.

You can run away, you can stay and hide, or you can run towards it.

Today I urge you to run towards your fears.

It’s counterintuitive, and honestly not what most people do… which is I decided to take this opportunity to tell you to do it.

If you go to college and you have a class that is really hard, or your major is overwhelming, or you aren’t sure about the decision you made to go to school — running towards your fears looks like asking for help from a student that is doing well, going to the library to get tutored, or calling your former teacher for moral support.

If you start working and a job is not paying enough to support your needs — running towards your fears looks like seeing if there are ways to get more training, working hard to get promoted, or learning a new trade that will earn you what you need.

If you join the military and you get deployed and are far from your family — running towards your fears looks like seeing it as an opportunity to not just defend our country, but to learn about a different part of the world.

If next fall, you find yourself lonely and missing your high school friends, running towards your fears looks like talking to someone new, joining a club or a sport, or inviting a neighbor over for dinner.

And if you find yourself someday, with the opportunity to move far from everything you know, to a place perhaps like New York City that is completely different than where you grew up, running towards your fears looks like not just saying yes, but embracing the new place, and really giving it a try.

Coming to Milan was me running towards my fears full force and bursting out of my comfort zone.

As silly it may sound to you all, doing things like riding a tractor around the town square with Kameron, or shooting a gun for the first time at age 27, or even having conversations with people that thought completely differently than me politically, was me running towards my fears.

And if I had run away from them or if I had stayed and hid in what was already comfortable, I would have missed out on so much.

I would never have even known about a town called Milan in Northeast Missouri. I would have never learned how delicious a walking taco is at a football game. I would have missed out on those two years together where we read To Kill a Mockingbird and Perks of Being a Wallflower, where we learned about the world through Articles of the Week, where we gave persuasive speeches, wrote grant proposals to improve our community, analyzed anything, and learned how to have tough and thoughtful conversations.

But most importantly, if I had not run towards my fears, like I urge you all to do today, I would have missed out on meeting you.

Moving here was not just the scariest decision I have ever made, it was the best decision I have ever made, because this place and your class in particular, transformed my life. You all made me a better person. In fact, you made me the best version of myself to date.

There is a saying I love, that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. I have seen time and time again that the greatest growth experiences come from doing things that feel hard, overwhelming and terrifying. Just like that drive felt to me, up highway 63.

Get to that edge of your comfort zone.

And then do it again. I promise it will be worth it every single time.

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