Editor’s Note: WNIJ and our podcast Teachers’ Lounge are giving a platform for you to hear some of those valedictorian speeches. If you want your school to be a part of our special edition show, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks!
A few weeks ago, Xavior Hutsell’s mom called and woke him up at 10 in the morning. She was crying. That’s usually not a good sign, but, this time, it was. She was calling to congratulate him on being named valedictorian of his class at Roosevelt Community Education Center in Rockford.
“I was rubbing my eyes and I was like, ‘Wait, what's going on? And like, are you sure, like me?’” said Hutsell.
It was surprising because Xavior wasn’t sure if he was even going to graduate on time, let alone at the very top of the class.
The road to graduation was not easy for Xavior, and that’s something he wanted to get across in his valedictorian speech.
“The things that I have been through, it has definitely been, it's put a permanent humbleness in me,” he said.
And, Hutsell said, what you say and what you do, whether it be bullying or discrimination, has an effect -- and not just in the moment.
“I want people to know that what we do now does impact what happens in the future. And I don't think my generation realizes that yet,” he said.
Jada Cox is the valedictorian at Jefferson High School in Rockford. In her speech, Jada wants her fellow classmates to know that if they still don’t know what they’re going to do after graduation -- don’t worry about it.
“We don't have to be hard on ourselves, and we don't have to have everything figured out right now," she said. “The next few years are supposed to be about change and growth and trying to improve ourselves and find out where we stand.”
A recent survey showed 27% of students have changed their post-grad plans due to COVID-19. And many are concerned with how the pandemic will impact their ability to pay for school.
Neither Jada nor Xavior feel like they needed to talk about the elephant in the virtual room too much in their speech. Jada says she acknowledged the virus but tried not to dwell on it.
“My opening line was ‘We stand here today or, more likely, sit in this very unconventional situation on the precipice of the future.’ And that's like, really the only time that I directly mentioned it,” said Jada Cox.
Jada is the type of person who’s been thinking about where she wants to go to college since before she was in high school. She’s going to be attending College of William & Mary in Virginia.
Moving across the country can be stressful, especially in the midst of a public health crisis. And she’s less than thrilled at the prospect of taking online classes once she gets there.
“I am scared,” she said. “I did not work this hard for four years to be like, ‘Ope, online school.’ I don't like online school!”
As for his future, Xavior is still looking at colleges. That fall classes at many universities may still be online has changed his perspective, as well.
“It's very iffy for me like having a dorm room there or something,” he said.
Xavior didn’t have to do much e-learning. He’s thankful for that. He’s more of a hands-on learner. Jada agrees. As she said, she doesn’t like online classes.
Plus, Jada says, the e-learning workload at Jefferson varied dramatically between her different classes.
“My AP econ teacher and my AP English lit teacher or like very much like homework almost every day like Google meetings once a week to like, come check-in if you need help and that kind of stuff,” said Cox.
Even though online classes couldn’t hurt her chances to be valedictorian, she still wasn’t positive it was going to be her.
“I got a B last semester because math is hard,” she said.
But even with their academic honors, the valedictorians both say it’s hard not to see their senior years as somewhat anticlimactic.
They didn’t really get the chance to say goodbye to teachers and friends. There was no “last day of school” -- though they didn’t know it at the time.
Jada said it was the day before spring break, so it was nothing remarkable.
“I don't even remember my last day of actual school,” she said.
Jada and Xavior may not get to walk across the stage at graduation, let alone shake hands with the principal, as they take their diploma in a gym packed with people.
And they probably won’t get to give their speeches the way they’d envisioned. But they’ll still get to give them -- just with a bit less pomp and circumstance.
Both of their schools are holding digital graduation ceremonies. They’ll each give their speech in front of a camera at home.
At least now they can do a few takes to get it right, and get their message across as they sit -- as Jada Cox says -- “on the precipice of the future.”