By Benji Elkins:
East River High Commencement Speech
During the last six weeks of school I noticed that the subject matter of my bathroom conversations had dramatically changed. What had previously been a joyous watering hole filled with vibrant and merry dialogue had morphed into a much more somber location made up of longing glances and emotional head nods between friends and classmates while peeing in the urinals. The thing that was all on our mind, besides using the bathroom, was the fact that school was ending.
There was a complex mix of emotions. Though I was excited for the future, a much larger part of me was nervous and sad. I spent four years of my life growing up in this building. Four formative years. East River High’s motto encourages us to “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” Well, the maxim turned true. In the fall of 2017, I entered this high school to learn, and now in 2021, I go forth to serve. Specifically serve fajitas at Los Tapas where I hope to work as a waiter over the summer. But in all seriousness, I do believe that this school has fostered an environment where I was able to grow, not only physically in my height, but also in my personality as well. And so at that moment, I really didn’t want to leave.
Last year, our experience of high school normalcy was abruptly halted. When we went virtual, I realized that I took things for granted. Permanently and without warning, school amenities had been stripped from me and I could no longer custom order my sandwich in the deli line. I was completely distraught. So this year, I attempted to make the most out of every opportunity I had. I cherished conversations with classmates I don’t see often, admired the bustle of the hallway in between periods, ran my fingers along my classroom desks (but like not in a weird or creepy way), and visited my locker which I had forgotten the combination to freshman year. Actually, it’s very possible that it wasn’t even my locker. Regardless, it was still nice to look at.
They say that high school is just a chapter in the book we call “life.” Actually, I say that. That’s a quote by me; I made it up. But, right now, it’s hard to see high school as just a singular chapter. For me, it’s really all I know. Next year all of us are embarking on a journey where we’ll be thrust into the unknown. For some of us, our lives will be drastically different and challenging in unique ways. And though East River has taught me how to overcome obstacles and face difficulties, growing up is still scary.
As time unfolds, we’ll find ourselves all on different paths. We’ll be mathematicians, mechanics, scientists, artists, corporate shills siphoning money from the poor and giving to the rich, whatever it may be. Some of us will even be so bold to go against the grain and demand that our occupation does not define us. To that I say, “slow down hippies.” But regardless of the occupation we pursue, the life we live, the people we continue to become, we still share our foundation of East River High. And though not all of us are friends with everyone here, and truthfully, some of us don’t even know everyone here, we all have been affected by this school in a unique and powerful way. Together. And that we have in common.
During my last conversation standing at the urinal, I was sad. Next to me was a good friend of mine, and I wondered about our futures. Would we keep in touch? Would we achieve our goals? Would we expand positively as human beings? At that moment I had no idea. But as I looked over at my friend, a smile crept across his face so big I could see it under his mask, and another smile crept across mine. And then I knew.
At the end of the film Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa say they will “always have Paris.” Well, we don’t have Paris, per se. But perhaps we have something better. We are now high school alumni, graduating from a place that has encouraged us as students, leaders, and friends. And ultimately no matter our path in life, no matter where we go, or who we meet, or what we do, we will always have East River. Okay, it’s definitely not Paris. But still, it’s something special. Congratulations to the class of 2021.