Aspen High School valedictorian: Keep going, no matter what |

Aspen High School valedictorian: Keep going, no matter what

Cole Petersen
Aspen High School Valedictorian
Charismatic valedictorian Cole Petersen delivers an entertaining and heartfelt address during Aspen High School's graduation Saturday at the Benedict Music Tent.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times (mandatory)

Editor’s note: The following speech was written and delivered by Aspen High School valedictorian Cole Petersen, who will attend Harvard University this fall. Petersen delivered his remarks at Saturday’s commencement ceremonies held at Benedict Music Tent.

Good afternoon and welcome once again to the families, faculty, administrators, community members and most importantly, to my fellow graduating seniors in the class of 2019!

I am incredibly honored to be giving this speech today. The basic purpose of a valedictory address is to provide insight into life’s challenges and triumphs while simultaneously instilling wisdom through thoughtful advice. And at the bare minimum, I should reduce every one of you to tears either due to hysterical laughter or a heart-wrenchingly beautiful message. Unfortunately, I am not very funny but this speech may succeed in being such a disaster that you actually cry pity tears. I have no legitimate qualifications (other than this snazzy blue big-boy bib of course), to be giving advice of my own, so I will have to appeal to a higher power: Ellen DeGeneres. Through her stand-up comedy, hilarious talk show, and work in film, she has inspired us to create a kinder more generous world while showing us the power of positivity … and good dance moves.

The first Ellen lesson that I would like to share with you is that we should all find time to procrastinate more. In one of her more famous sketches, Ellen describes the human tendency to work hard now in order to save time for later. She reminds us that we don’t know if we will get a “later” and explains that the only time we have is “here and now.”

In high school, I was overly focused on the future. I spent too much time in the library and at my desk and not enough time with my friends or going on crazy adventures — even more reason why I should be giving a speech about life lessons! I set deadlines for when I could be happy in the future without realizing that happiness happens in the present. We are all extremely busy and while there is undeniable value in setting goals for the future, remember to pause and find time for joy now. To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.” Try not to get caught up in what you will do, and “procrastinate” a little bit more in what you are doing. Essentially, as influential rapper and scholar Sage the Gemini says, “Slow down, grab the wall, wiggle like you’re tryna make yo…fall off. {dancing} “gas pedal, gas pedal, gas pedal, gas pedal”

But I digress. You are all probably aware by now that I am a rather strange kiddo, but I don’t mind. Mostly because I have a microphone and you don’t and I really enjoy this power dynamic but also because I don’t much care if I make a complete and total fool out of myself. This leads me to my next Ellen lesson: don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. Ellen stars in the classic cinematic masterpiece “Finding Nemo” as Dory, a loveable fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. In a way, however, this memory loss is her gift. She’s not afraid to risk embarrassment by being her genuine self because she’ll forget about it in ten seconds. While being yourself might not necessarily mean that you forget everything that happens in 10 seconds, it does mean that you try to see the bigger picture. In the long run, the only one who really cares that you tripped up the stairs or spelled “midday” with a hyphen in the fifth grade spelling bee — which I did — is you. As long as you are trying to be your authentic self, don’t let the fear of embarrassment get in your way.

Additionally, whoever this authentic self of yours is, I implore you to incorporate kindness into that person. Remember that everyone is going through more than you can see and even something as simple as a smile can make a monumental difference. Find your inner Dory and know that what counts is staying true to who you are while acting with kindness and compassion. Let go of how other people choose to see you, embarrass yourself, and no matter what, be unapologetically you.

I can’t talk about Dory without talking about her iconic lesson of perseverance: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimmming swimming swimming, what do we do we swim, swim. HA HA HA HO HO HO I love to s-w-i-i-i-im when you WAAAAANT to swim you want to swim.” Unfortunately for you all I am not an opera singer, but as you can probably tell, I am a swimmer. I dedicated eight years to early morning practices, drylands, meets, and thousands of hours of training. And after giving 100% effort every day for all these years to the sport that I love, I came up short in most if not all of the goals I had set for myself: I won’t be swimming in college, I never qualified for junior nationals, and I often missed time goals by significant margins. At one point I became so frustrated that I wanted nothing more than to quit. I eventually had to take a break and when I came back, I decided to try a new approach. I stopped putting as much emphasis on achieving arbitrary goals, and started trying to appreciate the work that I was putting in. I focused on becoming a mentor and a better teammate rather than on my own individual achievements. I didn’t stop working hard, but I stopped using the outcomes of races as the sole measure of my success as a swimmer. Perseverance is not always about achieving a goal, but embracing an experience despite failure. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again … and who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Remember that whatever challenges you may face in the future, failure is acceptable; complacency is not. I urge you all to dare greatly and, if you fail, just keep swimming.

Although Ellen is a wonderful teacher, we must thank our amazing faculty for devoting their lives to our education. Whether we were cracking up over a hilarious math meme with Megan Noonan, trying to channel Tameira Wilson’s godlike energy before a test, having a nearly existential debate with Mr. Reed over the intricate differences between Alpacas and Llamas, trying to match Jen-Ben’s energy or even being ASADO (ROOOAASTED) by Regi, our teachers were helping us to become compassionate, lifelong learners. And even though we were occasionally told fun little lies like: “you can do it!” in IB physics (thank you Marc Whitley) or “this fictitious book about outer space and a war with mars was meant to be analyzed by high school students for its deeper religious and societal implications” (love you Cerena, Namaste), it all contributed to us becoming critical thinkers equipped to solve problems creatively. Thank you to all of our teachers for your patience and love over these 13 years. I would also like to take a moment to extend our gratitude to Tenille Folk and her unbelievable kitchen staff for feeding us over the years and Jose Solis and the incredible janitorial staff for cleaning up our messes. We are so appreciative your contribution to our schooling.

Next, thank you to all of the families who have come to support us as we finish this chapter in our lives. Parents, although we may not say it enough, we truly appreciate the sacrifices you have made for us along the way. To my own mom and dad, thank you for your unconditional love. You were always your authentic selves and you obviously taught me to be myself. Your kindness, humility, humor, and positivity are inspiring and I hope I turn out to be half as amazing as you are. To my sister Grace, I have never met a more genuinely kind, humble, intelligent, and beautiful person and I am so proud to be your brother. Thank you for all of your support and I love you.

And lastly, to my classmates. I want you to take a moment to be legitimately proud of yourselves. Not only are we celebrating our accomplishments today but also who we have become as individuals and a group. Each of you behind me brings uniquely extraordinary characteristics to our class. You will not meet a sweeter person than Chloe Brettmann who can make anyone’s day just by smiling at them. Charlie Campisi will constantly crack you up and his endlessly positive energy is contagious. Tyler Greene slays on the lacrosse field and never fails to provide a new, insightful perspective on the world that you hadn’t considered. Sierra Reeves will drop everything she’s doing to be there for you in an instant and is one of the most trustworthy people you will ever meet. And Donovan Bronstein is more shredded than any of us both physically and mentally but you wouldn’t know it because he is enduringly humble. There are more wonderful people here than I can possibly talk about in my limited time but please know that I am so grateful to have grown up with such an intelligent, athletic, kind, funny, and truly fantastic class. I will take the lessons that you have taught me wherever I go.

Speaking of which … I would be remiss if I did not write one last cheesy Dr. Seuss inspired poem. This is based on “Oh the places you’ll go.” I’ve creatively entitled my poem, “Oh, the places WE’LL go” and no that’s NOT plagiarism because, as you may notice, I changed one of the words! Here it is:

In the grand scheme of life

There must always be change

And right now, as we move on

It seems rather strange

But do not have fear

For we venture together

All sharing a bond

An unbreakable tether

Yes, the road will be rocky

Paved with mistakes

But we’ll find ways to succeed

No matter what it takes

On the way there’ll be ups

And yes, also downs

But when you find that you’re down

Get up! Look around!

You may very well find

Though it may not seem so

That the lows are the best spots

From which you can grow

So get up when you fall

Choose to grow from the low

Don’t stay stumped, persevere!

Be strong and let it show!

Through the crests and the troughs

Through the dips and the peaks

We will find in ourselves

That which makes us unique.

So use what you find

Use what makes you unique!

Be the friendliest friend

Or the geekiest geek

And don’t waste your time

Trying hard to blend in

Stand out and be great.

Do it proud with a grin!

Measure your life

Not in material wealth,

Measure in joys, loves and friendships

In experience and health

For life is much more

Than the dollars and days

Life is what you make it

In your own special ways

So, go out in the world

Embarrass yourself — have fun

Take with you your childhood

And all you have done

Go wherever you go

And make wherever place better

And wherever you go

Go be a go-getter!

Be true to yourselves

In all that you do

Because from here on out, pals

Your life’s up to you

Let’s soar to our peaks

And not fear the valleys

Let’s march proudly forward

On our trails, roads or alleys

Dr. Seuss said it best

As I find he tends to

And perhaps his advice

Can help both me and you:

“We have brains in our heads,

we have feet in our shoes, we can steer ourselves any directions we chose”

“We’re all off to Great Places!

Today is our day!

Our mountains are waiting.

So Class of 2019…let’s get on our way!”

Thank you


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