My High School Speech

breathtaking view of faces carved on rocky cliffs
breathtaking view of faces carved on rocky cliffs
Photo by Hakeem James Hausley on

<<Years later, don’t want to say how many, I was invited to my high school to deliver a talk as part of a panel, on what to do with your life, and how to be. Four people on the panel, including me. I had notes on cue cards, six points that I wanted to get across. Had the cards folded in my pocket, kept worrying that I’d lost them. Wouldn’t that have been a thing… the other three panelists went first, Tina and Chris and Andy. I won’t use their last names, but one is pretty famous. After they were done, I was up. Someone taped the session, and it’s possible to find it online if you look really hard. I transcribed it, word for word. Took out the ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, but the rest is original>>

“Well, I don’t know how to follow my fellow panelists. I went to high school with two of them, in the same year. The other one started a year before me. It’s good to see them again, but I don’t know how to follow them.

I had a talk figured out, but listening to the other panelists, it’s pretty clear that I’m not nearly as successful as them. I don’t have my own business, I definitely haven’t retired already, and I’m sure not a celebrity. It’s ridiculous to follow them up with someone like me. I’m sorry, but I don’t know why I’m standing here talking to the eighty or ninety of you that are going to graduate in June. I really don’t.

How do you follow up people like this, when you’re just you?

Fact is, I was a fucking loser in high school. I was fat, a minority, didn’t drink, didn’t dress well. Couldn’t even do my hair properly. I was a mess, and irrelevant. That’s right, I was an irrelevant human being, and people like the other panelists would have ignored me completely. They did ignore me completely. And that really hurt. It just burned. Back then, it was hopeless, but when I got out of this high school, it gnawed at me. Made me angry, and I’ll tell you, I used every bit of that anger to push me forward. There are so many things I can trace in my life to how much of a nobody I was in high school.

Unpopular in University? Fuck it, I will nudge my way into the cool circles. Hate getting up and talking in front of people? Forget it, I’ll take that challenge and go at it. Your past is like fuel. It keeps you going, still keeps me going, even though I’m not nearly as successful as the other panelists.

I can’t change now. This thing that I was in high school, this ignored, stupid creature… it’s always going to be driving me. I’ll never get away from it, and as much as it’s pushed me forward, trying to prove myself all the time, it’s not healthy. No, it’s bullshit. My motivation in life is anger and rage, and that’s just horseshit. I’m sorry I’m talking to you like this, but I want to be honest. None of this is any good, and I really hope that not a single one of you end up like me. Because some of you are fucking losers just the way I was, and you’re probably feeling the same nothingness that I did, and I’ll tell you: that nothingness becomes rage pretty quickly, and it’ll consume you the rest of your life.

Wish I could start again, but I can’t. If I could, I’d let it go. I’d be proud of who I am. And I sure as hell would look to connect with other people. Do you have any idea how much better the world would be if we just connected? Can you imagine if the rich kids, the popular kids, just took ten fucking seconds out of their life to talk to the losers, and vice versa? What’s stopping you from doing that?

God I’m so negative. Being here, in this place, in the shadow of my fellow panelists, it’s like being a fucking loser all over again, all the same hurts, the same pain, the same questions: why aren’t I better, why was I born in this way, not some other? I knew I wasn’t worthless back then, but that’s how I felt anyway. Looking back, I just want to scream. I want to scream right now, at all of you teenagers, and at these panelists, too.

But I don’t want to be negative. I want to say something helpful. So here it goes. Don’t end up like my fellow panelists. Don’t end up serious, corporate, and hungry for some money-based version of success. Don’t be so well-dressed and dour. And for God’s sake, don’t end up like me, either. I have no motivation really, other than some asshole I used to be. That’s no way to live.

Try to be better than us. We need that.

Go outside in the hallway after this wonderful motivational speech, and talk to someone you’ve never talked to before. Doesn’t matter why you didn’t talk to them before, just do it now. Sit down next to someone at lunch and have a conversation, figure out who they are. Bring one bit of kindness to them. Just one. That can make all the difference. Think about people, and how to be good to them. Hell, think about this planet and how to be good to it. And when people tell you that money makes all the difference, run away. We live in the western world. We are beyond privileged. With a little bit of effort, we’ll all be okay. We’re going to be fine, so don’t worry so much about money. And for God’s sake, if someone looks different than you, just please don’t let it be a big deal. If they’re fat, hairy, smell bad, have a different skin color, stutter like crazy, walk with a limp, have moles all over their face, have English as a second language, have mental health issues, have developmental issues, or are just weird. You know? Just weird people, wired that way for no reason anyone can say, there are lots and lots of those, why treat them any different? Just be fair to them. Just let them in.

That’s all I have to say. I’m so sorry for talking like this. I don’t know how else to do this. I hate that we’re like this. I hate that I’m back here, trying to tell you all how to live your lives, when honestly, you should all probably be telling us how we should have lived ours. So go back at it. Try to be good. Try to be human. Remember that what you do has an impact, and so does everything you don’t do. Thank you. And sorry again.”

<<the aftermath was silence. Two of the panelists left the room immediately. I would have loved to connect with them, maybe apologize for… something. I don’t know. I just stood there, staring at everyone. When the kids started cheering, it lasted for like ten minutes. That almost broke me. People asked me questions after that, came over to talk to me, and don’t you know that it was just the most meaningful thing I’ve been through in years, like a type of warmth I always knew existed, but hadn’t really come across like that. And maybe all that meant was, it’s not just rage and anger that pushes me along. Maybe there is something else, too, and maybe there always has been>>

Dream hard, rage hard.

27 thoughts on “My High School Speech

    1. I sucked hard, Jones. I was weird. And I wrote. And didn’t know what that meant, and hid it, so I was even weirder than I was letting on. And looking back, it was sort of wonderful. Even while it sucked. If you’d been in my high school, that would have been a thing. That would have been awesome.

  1. As I read this, I imagined being in the audience and hearing you speak these words. I think I would’ve been stunned by the straightfowardness and honesty. The humanness without dressing it up in cliches such as “follow your dreams!” I was reminded by David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water” at Kenyon College. I tear up when I listen that speech on YouTube. Like yours, the encouragement to think of other people, be human. A lesson far more valuable than algebra. Thank you for being someone to offer this message.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I hate my honest side. It’s inelegant and boorish, like an embarrassment of some kind, but it’s also the most real part of me, and I can’t shy away from that, right?

    2. I have to listen to that speech, Dave. I’m not familiar with it. Anyone who overtly expresses desire to be really human is so important to me. In my day job, everyone is a corporate type. Every person, inside the company or not, is a number. Everyone is evaluated on how much money they can make us. That feels horrible to me. There is room to do so much better.

  2. Isn’t this why you write? To give voice to those who people don’t connect to, those who are shunned, those who are minimized by those other three panelists? That’s why you need to keep writing and doing so in your voice and in your way.

    1. I think that’s a big part of it, but I started writing long before I realized that I was basically a loser. Maybe I always knew that, but it never occurred to me until high school. I started writing when I was seven, for no reason that I can no name, for no angst that I could recognize. I was just a relatively happy, if poor, kid. A pen and a piece of paper was like magic. Still is (via keyboard, anyway). In my work world, I definitely think I’ve been driven to do well based on how I was perceived (or let myself be perceived in high school), but my writing life feels different. It feels like a different person. As you know, Mark, this isn’t even my real name, so maybe it all is a completely different person, who grew up in a different way, finds themselves in a different place.

  3. Captain! My Captain! How absolutely unique to actually tell these kids the raw, honest truth. Telling them to be (not just act like) real human beings and to be better than those that came before. Obviously they not only appreciated it but they needed to hear it and know someone was telling them the truth. I will stand on my desk any day for you , Trent. (You know I am crying)

    1. You’re the sweetest person, Michelle. I appreciate that, and that you were moved by this silliness on my part. Let there be more silliness, I say! And more truth, and acceptance of people, whoever they are, wherever they come from.

  4. I hate reading about your self-loathing and repeated title of loser and even more, that feeling that you didn’t belong as a speaker. You were chosen for a reason. You are a successful and useful person in society.

    I applaud your honesty to the graduates, though. Don’t hate your honesty! I am positive you reached the ones who felt as you did. And you finished with a beautiful and positive request. I like to think that all 80 or 90 of them did just that: talked to someone they didn’t know.

    As for the two panelists who left immediately? Methnks you might have hit a nerve with them and there is no need to apologise, as far as I am concerned.

    And maybe, next time you visit Montreal, you’ll save me a half an hour of your time 😉

    1. Dale, one day, one day! Thank you for this. I don’t know if it was self-loathing, but it was awareness, hammered in over five years of high school, that I just wasn’t much of anything. Funny how easily that slips into you, until you believe it. I don’t believe it anymore. And I really don’t want others to believe, no matter what the reason for them feeling out of place. That feels like a mission to me: accept them, be kind, bring more love into this awkward, confused world.

      1. Yes! You keep plugging away.
        It saddens me so much that you felt “less than” (for lack of a better word). And I am beyond happy to hear you no longer believe it, I love that you are on this mission. Kindness goes such a long way.

  5. Trent! This was wonderful. I think most of us felt the same way when we were in high school. It took me years to get over it. I think there should be ptsd therapy for everyone upon graduation.

    1. Heya Linda! Thank you! I would love to gather the high school losers and do a get-together, and have a good time as a group. That would be epic. Really great hearing from you! Hope you’re doing well.

  6. I never graduated, never went to uni. I am 87 now. I sometimes wonder, what might have become of me, if I had graduated and gone to uni. It just was not to be. The strange thing is, I was the privileged one in our family. I was the first born one. Never mind, that I was a girl, my two brothers never were thought to be bright enough to make it to university. I was meant to be the one to go on to university, not my brothers. I thought, this was somehow not fair. So, everyone thought, I was smarter than my brothers. But I did not feel smarter. On the contrary!
    My parents were divorced, and we were poor. Absolutely poor. These were the postwar years in Germany. Before Germany prospered again. A lot of people were unemployed. So, when I had the chance to be employed, I grabbed that chance rather than persevering with high-school, where I was made to take subjects, I felt totally unsuited for. I felt, for sure, I would have failed in all these hated subjects. Being able to start work at the bottom as a typist/stenographer opened a new world for me!

    1. Top, bottom: distinctions that are so awful. At the ‘top’, inhuman monsters who lose their souls and become dried up husks. The rest of us struggle, and strive. I grew up in poverty. I’ll never escape that experience, no matter what. I’ll always be that person, and that’s okay. I’m sure that you became who you are honestly, and who you are is who you should be. There is no better version of you, university or not. I don’t know you, but the way you talk, I’m sure of that.

      1. In any case, Trent. I am glad that because of WordPress I met so many interesting people, a lot of them highly educated, people that I would never have been able to meet, if it hadn’t been for WordPress.
        That I can relate to people at the “top” so to speak, does not surprise me, for my father had a doctorate, and he never treated me as though my opinion didn’t count. He was always willing to have a proper discussion with me. I try to write as clearly as possible. But I have a lot of problems, in remembering words that should really be part of my vocabulary, and this goes for German as well as English I think. I feel deprived, in that I don’t know things that I should have learned when I was younger. That does not mean, I feel inferior overall, just that I am always aware that I do have some significant gaps in education. I don’t know if this would have been different, had I grown up in more ‘normal’ times.

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