Last year, Gallup polled a few thousand randomly selected Americans asking them what kind of community they would live in if they could move anywhere they wished. Their No. 1 choice? Small towns.
According to The New York Times, while roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, rural life was by a significant margin the most wished for. Their dream was to have what we have. For being able to live your life the way that so many people around this country want to live, you can thank your parents who were born here and stayed here or who found their way here.
There is a reason why so many leaders throughout American history come from places like this one—small towns where their voice, their effort and their ideas can have a real impact. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all have one thing in common: being brought up in communities like this. It’s because towns like ours are a proving ground for small people with big dreams.
While all of us head our separate ways and go out into the real world—whether you are headed to a new country, state, city or situation—take with you the optimism and confidence that comes with having grown up here. In a place where your ambition is abounding, opportunity is unlimited and your sphere of influence is immeasurable.
Some of you may have heard of the concept called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, more—or maybe less—affectionately known as Bacon’s Law. It is the concept that every actor is no more than six people separated from the prolific actor Kevin Bacon. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio possesses a Bacon Number of 2, starring in “The Departed” alongside Mark Wahlberg, who was in “Patriots Day” with the amazing Mr. Bacon.
I fancy myself a glass-half-full type, but, more importantly, a realist. What strikes me about this relatively trivial application of the simplest path algorithm is its implication for all of us, as new graduates of Wood River High School, as people going out into the world brimming with purpose.
If we want something, it is within our reach. Look at the youth-led movements spreading across America. From the gun violence prevention campaign given new life by Parkland students in 2018 to the young climate activists galvanizing millions of adolescents around the world to advocate for climate and, correspondingly, socio-political justice, young people are recognizing and capitalizing on their power to create real progress. I see it in our class too, from Amy Aranda’s, Melissa Gonzales’, Peter de la Cruz’s, Tia Vontver’s and other students’ achievements with Nosotros United to Sofia Peller’s work as youth representative on the Hailey Climate Action Committee and as one of the main organizers of the climate change rally, and Anabelle Rust’s experience as a teen intern for the Advocates’ ETC program, helping to teach people how to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.
The progress driven by youth both around the country and in this community highlights a fundamental truth about our generation: When you believe that you have access, and that you have the ability, the sky is truly the limit. Accessibility paves the way for achievement, and I hope you all feel the same way. But, frankly, regardless of whether you believe this to be true of yourselves, what I hope you all intend to do and what I intend to do is make others feel like that. To give a voice, to give hope and to give access to those who too often get left behind. To show them that they can make a difference, that they can effect change.
So when we move on from this stage, from this field, this school, this community, how do we perpetuate the model that this place has laid out for us? As each of you march forward into this next chapter of your lives, and as we as a class approach this strange time, one of beginnings and endings, commemoration and continuation, hellos and goodbyes, make it your priority to listen and learn from those around you.
I’ve been asked how I have accomplished what I have and I’ve been told that it was because I worked so hard. And yeah, I did. But that isn’t what I attribute to what I have done, who I am or what I am going to do.
I’ve come to understand from my seniors on the debate team, involvement with local political campaigns, attending the Writers Conference, talking with Mr. Foster, Mr. Zellers and Mrs. McGraw on the bus to Model UN conferences and sitting in classes with people who know far more than I do that listening—quietly, attentively, compassionately—is the most valuable thing that we can do. There’s an order to our interactions that makes them valuable, and it is this: Listen, think and then speak. One of my favorite quotes is from Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Cain said, “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”
That is why it is my hope that each of us find it within ourselves, within one another, within shared experiences and memories and moments, to really, truly hear one another and then implement that knowledge that comes from our understanding and our relationships, both now and wherever we may go.
As I look back on my first time walking into Wood River High School four years ago in August of 2016, and as I stand here, now, thinking about what this place has given me, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of appreciation. Maybe it is the graduation goggles, but I am confusingly nostalgic for my days as a Wolverine and overjoyed for these next four years as a Tiger. Whatever this next chapter brings to each of you, I hope you learn, laugh and live even more than your time here. Here’s to hoping none of us peaked in high school.
Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2020.
Wood River High School 2020 valedictorian Zoe Simon gave an extended version of this speech at graduation on June 20.