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Aspen valedictorian: May good fortune await us

Kelcie Gerson

Editor’s note: Kelcie Gerson is the valedictorian of the Aspen High School class of 2014. She will be attending Columbia University, where she also will compete on the school’s Division I swim team. The following is her graduation-ceremony speech, which was delivered Saturday.

Good afternoon. Thank you, faculty, families, community members and, of course, the class of 2014 for being here today. Last Friday, I thought I was done with all of my academic requirements, but then I was given the honor of preparing this speech for all of you. I viewed this speech as the culminating assignment of my high school career. And it truly is. The valedictory address tests my ability to write in a coherent fashion as well as my ability to speak publicly. Unfortunately for me, both of these things are my weaknesses, so I was more nervous than excited. As a result, I procrastinated, like my friend Sophie did, in writing this speech, despite being known as the nerd who completes all of my homework on the night it’s assigned.

Having said that, I did spend days searching through the deepest recesses of my brain, trying to think of something witty and profound to share. After many days of unsuccessful brainstorming, I did what any kid of my generation would do: I Googled “how to write a valedictorian speech.” I read more than one About.com or Wikihow.com page about how to craft a funny speech, a memorable speech or any-other-adjective-you-can-possibly-think-of speech. I even watched a dozen or so valedictorian addresses on YouTube. Though the majority of these videos were in fact as noteworthy or humorous as their titles would suggest, they all lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Alas, I continued to be as clueless as I was during the first quantum physics lecture.

After my preliminary Google research resulted in a dead end, I decided to conduct some first-hand research. I recently went to my sister’s college graduation at the University of Virginia; I spent approximately five hours over the course of two days listening to speech after speech after speech. My favorite of the innumerable speeches was of course that of Peyton Manning. After all, he is Colorado’s hero despite this year’s underwhelming Super Bowl performance. Peyton’s speech achieved the unachievable: It was the perfect combination of humor, wisdom and originality. So, I decided I was going to incorporate aspects of his speech into my own, especially the part where he threw footballs into the crowd. When doing so, Peyton first singled out a couple of graduating students in the audience to be the receivers. I was going to just throw the footballs into the stands, but I was afraid that I would hit somebody’s grandma in the head. So instead, I’d like to call up Ben Belinski and Ryan Scheidt to be my receivers. Peyton then threw a signed football to each of the students. I brought with me two Nerf footballs with my own signature on them. So let’s give this a try. Ben, you’re up. You better have a good catch so that I look good in front of the crowd. Wow! My throwing technique is most definitely subpar. In all fairness, though, this is the first time I have attempted a sport besides swimming in the last four years. Perhaps if I wear a Manning jersey, some sort of voodoo will magically transfer his skills to me. I can only hope that this next pass is less embarrassing than the last.

It really worked! Thank you, voodoo gods, for making me, the swimmer, appear as if I have some hand-eye coordination.

Well, now that I have sufficiently made a fool of myself in front of all of you, I suppose it would be appropriate to begin the quote-unquote “meaningful” part of this speech.

For the last few weeks, countless numbers of students, parents and faculty members have told me that they expect an inspirational and moving speech out of me. Though I know they all had the best of intentions when saying this, it was making me quite nervous and stressed. As valedictorian, I’m expected to know the secret formula for success, and I’m expected to fill your ears for approximately 10 minutes with profound advice on how to become better people, how to reach your potential and how to carry out a worthy life. But what in the world makes me qualified to do that? I’m merely 18 years old. I barely know how to use the washing machine, I’ve never had a boyfriend, and my grandma still packs me lunches. To expect some sort of superior wisdom from me is so absurd that it is downright foolish. I haven’t lived long enough or experienced enough of the world to gain such insight. That kind of advice can only be acquired in three ways: through living, through learning from your elders and through fortune cookies.

So, to solve this great dilemma of what advice to give you, I brought a handful of fortune cookies with me today. I first got the idea of reading fortune cookies as I was finishing a lovely meal at Asie. The epiphany I had been waiting for finally arrived. Each fortune cookie I will read today contains a snippet of advice or a prediction of the future. But before I begin, I would like everyone in this tent who has ever eaten a fortune cookie to raise your hand. I can guarantee that very few of you have ever bothered to spend a significant amount of time thinking about what these fortune cookies are really trying to tell you. Lucky for you, I am a weird kid, so I have. For the next few minutes of your life, consider me as your fortune-cookie connoisseur, your guide into the elusive world of fortune-telling and advice-giving.

This first fortune cookie tells us that “You may lose the small ones but win the big ones.” This fortune may seem contradictory at first. I mean, don’t they always tell us that the small wins add up to make the big wins? Can you really have a big win without any small wins to substantiate it? According to this fortune cookie, yes — you absolutely can. It is what you learn from the small losses that ultimately contributes to the big wins. I know this all too well. I have been swimming competitively since I was 7 years old. Like all aspects of life, there are many ups and downs that I have experienced in the sport. There were days, weeks and even months where I wouldn’t improve. Races would be lost, times would stay the same, and motivation levels would plummet. To be completely honest, I have had more than one urge and opportunity to quit, but I never did, because, one, I love swimming, and two, I would never have accomplished that big win of swimming in college. Beating the odds, learning from failures and overcoming challenges is the true test of character. This fortune is telling you that you won’t win all of the time. Accept that, because aside from Beyonce, nobody is flawless. But, by persevering, you will succeed when it matters the most. No matter what challenges you may face in school, in work, in relationships or anywhere else, never give in, and never give up.

This next fortune states that “Good luck is a hop, skip and jump away. Hop to it.” What this fortune is trying to tell you is that luck isn’t really luck at all; what we often perceive as luck is simply the result of initiative and hard work. Sure, winning the lottery is in fact pure luck, with a hint of probability. Most of success, however, stems not from luck but from dedication and motivation. Don’t be the kind of people who wait for life to come to them — be the people who go out, grab life by the horns and seize all opportunities. I can guarantee you that Steve Jobs didn’t wait for the world to magically hand him the first Apple computer. He took initiative, pursued an opportunity and made himself a success. Thomas Edison never sat around waiting for that light-bulb moment to strike him — wink, wink. Light-bulb moment. Instead, he continually experimented, used his resources and took advantage of the opportunities in his life. Having grown up in Aspen, we are blessed with a multitude of opportunities. As your life continues, never forget where you came from, because this wonderful place has provided us with unthinkable connections and experiences that can help pave the path to success.

The third fortune says that “You will live a long life and eat many fortune cookies.” First of all, this is the most brilliant marketing plan I have ever seen. Whoever wrote this fortune definitely deserves a raise. Now, many of you may be wondering how I will possibly come up with meaning for this seemingly arbitrary and useless fortune. I will tell you exactly how: IB English. Thank you, Cerena, for teaching me how to find the obscure truth in words that were most definitely not intended to have profound implications. So what does “You will live a long life and eat many fortune cookies” really mean? It means enjoy the little things in life. I know you are all probably mind-blown by this revelation, so let me explain. We, as mankind, undervalue the fortune cookies in our lives. We are so caught up in the latest drama or schoolwork or sports that we forget to take a moment to eat a fortune cookie. But just remember what they always say: A fortune cookie a day keeps the doctors away. I know the saying is actually an apple a day, but a fortune cookie just seems so much more delicious. So, make an effort to eat your fortune cookies, laugh a little and smile a lot. If you do this, you will live a long life because you will be happy. Not to mention, fortune cookies are low-fat foods, so that’s an added plus in terms of increasing longevity.

And the final fortune for the day reads, “There is a prospect of a thrilling time ahead for you.” The meaning of this fortune is, or at least will be, in the palm of your hands — literally. Once we hold our diplomas, we will have officially closed one era of our lives. But with the closing of one door comes the opening of many others. We have the rest of our lives ahead of us. We have already lived for approximately 6,570 days, but think of how many we have left. We each have the capability to make each and every one of our remaining days exactly how we want it to be. The idea of possessing so much power and potential is thrilling. These next few months will be full of many changes. We will go to college, meet new people and live on our own for the first time. As we depart this tent today, begin to embrace the changes, and be optimistic.

None of today would be possible without those who have supported us in this 18-year journey. I’d like to thank Peking Noodle Co., Asie and La Choy Inc. for giving us all the inspiration we could possibly need as we begin the next chapter of our lives. I’d like to thank all of the godparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins and fourth cousins twice removed for coming here today. I know many of you have traveled from all over the country, and maybe even the world, to be here, and on behalf of my classmates, I would like to express our gratitude and appreciation.

Thank you to the siblings who are here today. To my older sister Kaitlin: You are my true motivation in this world. Ever since I could talk, I have wanted to do what you do and be just like you. I know I was, and still can be, that pesky little sister, but I hope you know that it is only out of love and complete admiration.

To the parents, we thank you for the unconditional love and support you have given us over the years. Not a single one of us would be sitting up here without you. Of course I would like to recognize my own parents. I spend way more time with you two than anyone my age probably should spend with their parents, but that is because you are the two most intelligent, funny and caring people I know. Although your occasional reminders to clean up my messes, to stop watching Netflix for hours on end or to actually get my driver’s license are often disregarded, I am so grateful to be able to call you my parents.

Next, I’d like to thank the faculty. Within the classes you have taught us and on the ex-ed programs you have led us on, we have grown as students, leaders and thinkers. We attribute much of our progress and our success in these last four years to you. Our desire to continue to learn and pursue our dreams has stemmed from the walls of your classrooms and the halls of Aspen High. We are so grateful for your dedication to education and your passion for teaching.

And finally, I would like to thank the class of 2014. It seems like just yesterday that we were sheepishly walking through the halls of Aspen High School for the first time. We were often lost searching for classrooms, the teachers seemed much scarier than they actually are, our fashion choices were far more questionable (at least mine were), and I know that we were all convinced that the cookies contained some sort of addictive substance. As the past four years have gone by, we have grown together, transitioning into the diverse group of kids sitting on this stage. We mastered the perfect ratio of hot sauce to ranch for the breakfast bagels, though there is much dispute over who actually had the best. We have discovered that the Bono everybody had been referring to was not in fact the frontman for U2 but rather an ex-CIA agent who now teaches business. Will I get in trouble for revealing his true identity? Mmmm, I guess we will have to wait and see. We have learned that Karen’s bio jingles, such as “the organelle is in the cell,” are in fact the best ways to study. We have yet to solve the mystery of where Karen Green disappears to in the middle of class. We have experienced senioritis to its full extent this past semester and all of Marc Whitley’s motivational speeches that come with it. But most importantly, we learned that the class of 2014 is athletic, intelligent, talented, spontaneous and, of course, one of a kind. Though I won’t see many of you in the future, we will always be connected by our past, by this school.

So, as we leave today and begin the rest of our lives, I ask only two things of you as my friends, peers and classmates: First, follow your dreams. Nobody can hold you back except for yourselves. Overcome whatever fears or obstacles prevent you from determining your own future. As we sit here in our last moments as high school students, I want you to close your eyes. Take a few seconds to picture our high school reunion in 10, 20 years. Whoever you envision yourself being, go out into the world and become that person, because, to quote “Mean Girls,” “the limit does not exist.” And finally, remember to enjoy those fortune cookies. Congrats to the class of 2014!


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