Senior Speaker Oliver Demers’ Speech

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Students. Parents. Faculty. Grounds Crew. Security. Dining Hall Services. That one photographer we hired for the weekend. Pigeons. Squirrels. Assorted insects amongst the grass. Easthampton late-morning joggers. Good morning. Well seniors, we did it. We graduated high school. Now we can finally claim our bets from our freshman year advisors. I mean this is fantastic, these diplomas are truly invaluable and are gonna come in handy for all sorts of things: job opportunities, college verification, swatting flies, origami, paper airplanes, fire starter for when those job opportunities didn’t turn out so great.

You know maybe it’s not these diplomas that matter so much. Because when it comes down to it our Williston journey was always working toward one unparalleled item that no other high school could come close to achieving…these really fancy plastic cases AROUND the diploma – I mean what kind of leather is this, walrus? That would be sick. Sick as in both very interesting, and immoral.

Regardless of what leather wraps our diplomas, we should feel incredibly privileged to have received an education at this fantastic institution we get to now call our alma mater. This is a place that has given us the tools to prosper and the desire to good well. And I would like to personally thank you all for nominating and voting me to speak before all of you today. It is not simply an honor because of my printed name in the program, or the sheer amount of people I get to speak before today, or even the fact that I got to make a walrus leather joke on stage. It is a privilege to speak before you all today because of the divine character this community has – as individuals – and as a collective family.

That’s right, I used the F – word. I mean when you think about it, as a school we really are one big happy family. I know Ben Sarat has been both a brother, and a weird uncle to me throughout the entire year. And that is both a comforting and unsettling thought. Kind of like graduating high school. Did I just compare Ben Sarat to graduating high school and make it work? You tell me Williston – psyyych. I’m gonna tell myself, because Williston has instilled me with the confidence and humility to be both self-critical and proud. Moving on.

Graduating Class of 2014. Something that makes us so GOSH darn unique and different from everybody else in the world, the is individual background each of us comes from. So if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to share mine.

See I was raised in the cold hard dirt roads of Putney, Vermont. Specifically on The Putney School campus, where my lovely mother worked as a nurse. There was a barn on that campus and by gosh, it was intense. You chuckle but it was a gnarly childhood. I mean you don’t know beauty until you’ve seen a newborn calf emerge into this world and open its eyes for the very first time. You don’t know tranquility until you’ve become content with getting lost in the lush spring woods of Vermont and realizing the simple beauty and enlightenment in nature. You don’t know enjoyment until your 6th grade friend Kyle bikes up the dirt road to come and hang out with you by the pond and you let fish nibble at your fingertips and you giggle each time because it kind of looks like they’re kissing you. And you don’t know fear until you find out your parents want you to apply to a place called Williston.

Oh it was scary. See while I knew the literal ins and outs of cow birth, I did not know the first thing about geography. Or biology. Or punctuation. I mean I could draw a mean period but let’s just say my commas were still in the works. Regardless of my academic struggle, I went along with my application promising myself I would not apply more effort than barely necessary through the process.

Needless to say, when I applied here for seventh grade, I almost didn’t get in.

It was an hour before my entry exam and I was meeting with my dad and my step mom. They were giving me a bunch of encouraging and constructive advice and yet the only piece of advice I could, and wanted, to remember was to “skip any question you don’t feel comfortable answering.” I loved that piece of advice. It was both encouraging and relaxing. Like a football coach who sings you lullabies.

So I go into the middle school and sit down at one of the many tables set up, to take the test. They hand out a single yellow sheet and say “begin”. It was the essay question. I read it and there were one or two big words that I didn’t understand like “incomprehensible” and “irony” so I thought to myself “Oh well this is fine, I’ll just skip it.” So I sat there. For the entire 25 minute time period. And I skipped it. And I had a really nice time. The carpet was this radiant indigo peppered with assorted geometric structures along its plane, with a texture that was both cushioned and rugged – like Chuck Norris if he really let himself go. And the quotes on the walls were all so inspiring like “You can do it!” and “Don’t give up!” And there was this guy next to me who was profusely sweating and looked very uncomfortable with answering the question. So I wanted to tell him: “Dude, just skip it.” But I figured he probably was not as smart as I was.

So I finished the essay – or rather I sat there quietly while the evaluator collected my nearly blank page. And don’t worry – I know what you’re thinking – I did write my name on it!

I then finished my exam and headed on home. When my parents got word of my completely unintentional strike on standardized testing, they were very disappointed in me. But luckily I was given a second chance and I got in. If it hadn’t been for that second chance, I wouldn’t be before you today. And I wouldn’t have the incredible friendships that are sitting in this audience.

Writing this speech, I was thinking a lot about friendships. The close bonds and relationships we have formed here may very well waver in their relevancy as we move forward with our lives. It is hard to promise that you will keep in touch with everyone you care about at this school. But while our talks with friends may become more infrequent over the years, our friendships will never falter in their love and compassion. Friendships are like memories, we learn from them, we rely on them, and we are propelled forward by them. By that same description, I guess friendships are also like flatulence.

I know that, that is what we’ll all really miss most about Williston: the friendships we’ve made and fostered here. Unless, you know, you’re a really hardcore fan of the dining-hall-food. Writing this speech, I was curious as to how friendships are made, strengthened, broken, and mended. And truth be told, after thinking and writing about it a lot, I’ve come to realize our friendships come as a result of the greatest thing you can ever do for someone: to listen. Listening to someone halves the weight upon their shoulders, it gives them value to what they say, and it silently reminds them they are not alone. To listen is the verb form of friendship.

I realize this a bold, even radical, statement. Some of you may be thinking: “Well in Swanee’s class we all listened to a recording of Hitler’s first speech! Does that mean I’m friends with him now?” Of course you are not. Because there is a stark difference between listening and hearing.

To hear is to encode, and pragmatically respond to or store what you hear. To listen is to find peace through understanding. That is a motto from my summer solace, Camp Becket. There are eight Camp Becket mottos, each with their own moral and philosophical resonance to write a speech about, but I believe the most important one to our age, our generation, and our class is “Peace through Understanding.”

This may sound like just another hippie mantra of mine but I can assure you it is a surefire technique to a better life and a better world. And the greatest advice I can give you all. Here is why:

In this world I think we can all agree there are certain pleasures we strive to maintain: Love, peace, and happiness. We’ll call it LPH for short. I was considering making it an acronym, but LPHHH doesn’t really have that nice commencement ring to it. Also, I want to make sure no one here confuses it with the initialism for Landing Platform Helicopter, which is still, you know, a great thing to strive for in life, but I think my alternate definition works better for the sake of my thesis. This trinity of spiritual hoo-ha I call LPH is given, one of the most cliché things one can talk about in a commencement speech. But a cliché gains its corniness through constant referral and citation from the human race. It is a universally recognized truism. Something I recognize about these three concepts are that they all dispose of something the human race universally acknowledges as bad: hatred. Hatred is a poison. It is a counterproductive emotion to LPH and stands in the way of human connection. Now I know that in the context of international conflict it is true that the fastest way to make an ally is through a common enemy. But in the context of emotional connection, hatred is the antithesis of friendship. And listening is its kryptonite.

When I have a conflict with someone, I try to not simply hear them and respond in a way that seems fit. That will not help you understand them. I step into their shoes and look at it from their perspective. I listen to them.

It is too easy to walk through life without listening. Without that empathetic action life can be a narrow, egocentric pursuit of living that is only beneficial to oneself. Love, Peace, and Happiness all require more than one person to be achieved. It’s not like money. LPH is a collaboration. To clarify however, I am guilty of doing things for my own personal gain. Everybody inside and outside of this tent is guilty of that. We all want to be special and remembered in life – to have our names on as many walls and plaques and trophies as possible. To quote David Foster Wallace, “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” But I would like to pose a question, is it better to be remembered in the future, or loved sincerely in the present?

When we step out into that big, scary, awesome world of independence, we cannot be working, thriving, and achieving for the sake of our own legacy. Because a candle loses no light when lighting others, we must work hard for the sake of our friendships, and in turn LPH…a landing platform helicopter – I mean how sick would that be?! You know what, I have changed my mind folks– THAT is clearly the greatest thing to strive for in life. You could land on like, any platform you wanted to with a helicopter… Regardless of your personal taste in amphibious warfare helicopter carriers, I leave you with my parting words of advice, Williston:

Listen to everyone you face in life, and find peace through understanding. It is not worth knowing if you don’t understand and it is not worth living if you don’t listen.

It has been a pleasure listening to all of you these past years.

Thank you for listening to me. I wish you far more than luck.

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