The speeches that didn't make it, Class of 2013: Part III

Allison Cowie, Author

The Paly Voice acquired the following speeches from their authors, with their authors’ consent to publish. The authors wrote the speeches with the intention of delivering them at graduation, but were not selected. Each speech went through an evaluation process on May 21 by a panel of staff members. The views stated in these speeches do not necessarily reflect the views of The Paly Voice, nor those of its staff.

Graduation Speech

by Spencer Carlson


It is no secret that Palo Alto High School is a public high school to rival private ones. People will uproot their lives to secure their children a spot as a student here. People will even lie about where they live to attend our school. It is clear that Paly is a special place, but I think we often forget just how special.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, Paly is the nation’s 152nd best public high school. In the United States, there are about 25,000 public high schools. That means that Paly provides a top half-of-percent level education to its students. In STEM subjects especially, Paly excels. It provides a top nine hundredths of a percent level education in STEM fields. Paly offers essentially the best high school education possible, if you choose to take advantage of it.

But somehow, I think it has become part of our nature at this highly competitive school to get so caught up in the race to the top that we lose perspective. We, as a community, forget that we have it better than 99.5% of the public high schools in the United States, and we focus on the 151 that are better than Paly. This is a mistake.

In order to explain why I think so, I need to tell of something that happened to me about a year ago now, when I was attempting to write my Common App Personal Statement. The prompts essentially ask what makes the applicant special. I attempted to answer this question several times, citing various extracurricular activities, but I found that I was coming across as disingenuous. So my final personal statement included the following words.

I’m not a genius. I don’t have super powers. What’s so special about me? I grew up a privileged child.
What distinguishes me is not what I have done, but what I have been given. This realization can be inspiring for those who can admit the same thing about themselves. It pushes me to prove my worth. It makes me feel that I owe my accomplishments to the many who haven’t had the kind of privilege that I have.

My biological parents both came from small Kansas towns with tightly knit communities. Neither of them enjoyed a childhood of particular luxury. But they studied hard and they climbed the socioeconomic ladder. They became doctors and they moved to California. When I was three years old, we moved to Palo Alto.

Now, not everyone here will agree with my next statement. But in my mind, Palo Alto is a beautiful, idyllic place to be a child. As a child here, I was offered Math Academy, children’s theatre, all kinds of tutoring, and various other after school programming, all to ensure my successful development.

These kinds of opportunities are actually rare in other places, especially combined. But they’re just the start. After all, this is the world of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. You’d be a fool to suggest that there isn’t something special — even abnormal — about Palo Alto.

Yet as a young person, you don’t always realize the overwhelming peculiarity of the situation you’re in. It does not occur to you that other people have different experiences, perhaps less happy ones. It does not occur to you to compare what you have with what others have at all. And all of this was as true for me as it is for anyone else. Eventually, though, I began to notice inconsistencies between my lifestyle and those of others.

In fact, one such inconsistency — and a key one — was the relationship I have had with my schooling. Like many of you, I have always sincerely appreciated my teachers and the education I have received. Not everyone has the privilege of access to a well-funded school district full of consistently dedicated teachers, but that has certainly been my experience. This school — my teachers — have taught me to ask questions and test boundaries, to evaluate and elucidate problems in the community. This pedagogy has driven me to think critically, think constantly, and ask intelligent questions, frequently.

And this was a tremendous gift. Without the support I received from teachers, administrators, counselors and parents, I would not be where I am today.

And this gift — the ability to think critically — it led me to acknowledge that to grow up in a place like Palo Alto is very rare. My opportunities make me incredibly lucky. The idea that “we are privileged because we are special” seems to prevail in Palo Alto, but I know that the opposite is true. We are special because we are privileged.

I also came to accept that I am part of the problem. I’m no more responsible for their misfortune than my own privilege, but while I have opportunity, countless other children of my generation live without. For me, this understanding comes with a sense of responsibility. I must ensure that what they have been robbed of is not squandered on me.

So I choose to pursue higher education, because the opportunity to do so has been given to me and not to others. In the extracurricular sense, too, I attempt to make the most of what I have been given. I consider the opportunity I have undeservedly received as an investment by society, in the hopes that I may succeed in adding something of value to the world.

So I do think it is a mistake for us, the Paly community, to focus so much on the 151 public schools who are better than us. Because in doing so, we are forgetting that we are no underdog. We have each received an education that places us in a better position than any other 99 randomly chosen high school graduates of the nation’s class of 2013. We are incredibly lucky. And I feel that we have a certain responsibility.

I am not suggesting that we, the class of 2013, all run off and join the Peace Corps, decrying our worldly possessions to live humble, guiltless lives.
All I ask is that we remember what we have been given. That we remember the other 99.5% of public school students who did not have what we had, and that no matter what we do with our lives, we don’t leave anything on the table.

Let’s make the fullest use of every opportunity that comes our way that we possibly can. Because if we do not, it has been wasted on us. If we allow mild ambitions, a poor work ethic, or apathy to inhibit our success, then we should feel guilty. We should feel guilty, because we will know that only a few people get what we have gotten. And if we don’t make the most of our individual opportunities, they won’t be recycled, or passed down the rungs of the ladder. They will simply be lost.

Click here to find Part I, Part II, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII.