About a month ago, I had an email from my course leader for the MA Writing for Young People, Julia Green. She told me that I had been selected as valedictorian, and asked if I would be able to make it back across the Pond for graduation. I had composed a very gracious reply that basically said I couldn’t possibly afford it, but before I hit send I walked downstairs to tell my mom, figuring she would probably be pretty excited.
Me: I had an email from Julia Green.
Mom: [on phone texting] Mhm.
Me: She said I’m valedictorian.
Mom: [on phone texting] Mhm.
Me: But I probably can’t go because it’d be a lot, after just being there in May.
Mom: [looks up from phone] WAIT SAY WHAT YOU SAID AGAIN.
Me: [repeats] Mom: AHHHHHHH YOU HAVE TO GO!
I appealed to my dad, sure that his tight wallet would talk sense into everyone. But even he refused to let me consider not going. With his approval, my concerns gave way and I flew into preparations.
So I made an Indiegogo campaign and began to beg. My cousin, Lincoln, stepped up with mileage for the airplane tickets. Between his awesome gift, other donations from friends and family, and my own freelance work, I was able to cover the costs and come!
What I hadn’t realized when I received the email was that I wasn’t chosen as valedictorian for my master’s course (which is admittedly rather tiny). I’d been chosen out of everyone graduating during this ceremony, which included everything from BAs in Creative Writing through the PhD programs. So that’s exciting!
The graduation ceremony happened at Bath Abbey, which is one of my favorite places possibly on earth (and, legend has it, the location where the first king of England was crowned). As I sat inside waiting for the ceremony to start, I started thinking about that rainy day almost seven years ago when I stepped foot inside Bath the first time.
It was my eighteenth birthday and I was traveling with my mentor and friend, Nicole Pool. She had woken me up that morning in London with a hotel room full of balloons and a scarf present from my parents. Once we arrived in the city, I floated in a haze of delight through the Roman Baths and lunch at the Pump rooms. Finally, we wandered around the abbey and looked at some special exhibits, and spent some time in front of the stained glass window depicting the crowned king.
There was no way I could have possibly foreseen that only a few years later, I would be giving a speech here! It was bewildering and humbling to ponder.
Leading up to my speech, I felt surprisingly calm and collected. Even the event people who walked me through beforehand commented on my chill demeanor. It took me by surprise as much as anyone!
The microphones were a bit finicky throughout the ceremony, so I promised a few people I’d post my speech online. You can find it below. I managed to get through with (I’m told) much composure.
Afterward a bunch of us went on to a pub to chat, and I got to spend a few hours reconnecting with my beloved tutors and reminiscing about the course (and picking their brains about a possible PhD). Overall, the day has been surreal and wonderful
My Valedictorian Speech
First, I want to thank my family, and particularly my parents, for enthusiastically supporting my work through many horrifying drafts. Thank you to all the tutors and staff on the MA Writing for Young People—it was a joy to work with you, especially Lucy Christopher with her sparkly stickers.
I thought about taking advantage of my American-ness and simply reciting a few country songs, with no one the wiser. Because I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. But since I am a collector of stories, I decided instead to share one with you.
Recently, a fellow student and I were at Iford Gardens. We’d climbed out on a boulder to the center of the Japanese pond. Soon we realized literally hundreds of newts covered the pool’s floor.
A little boy ran up and stared into the water. Then he whispered to his sister, “Look! It’s a kingdom of water lizards!”
I turned to my friend Annie and said, “This is why I write for young people.”
During my year of study, the course gave me many moments of magic like this one. I’m sure all of us have similar memories, across our studies—where the world went sharp and lovely, and we knew we’d chosen right.
Sometimes it got hard to see, when we had to get out of bed at 5AM to write before our jobs, or arrived at Corsham with a turn-in and only two hours of sleep. But I have stored up these glimpses of joy to remind myself that all the work—and it is a lot of work—is worth it.
As co-editor for the Writing for Young People anthology, since the course’s end I’ve watched my classmates fly on to the next stages of their writing careers. Some have signed with agents. Some have publishers knocking on their doors.
All of us, regardless of subject, regardless of degree, are standing on a threshold. We have accomplished great things, and now we begin to see what the real world holds.
Like the children and young people my course mates write for, it is in our nature as artists to create kingdoms out of lizards, and to uncover the enchanted in the ordinary. Study, jobs and bills can conspire against us to turn the magic mundane again.
But remember the times that illuminated you. The time we heard the bells of Venice singing to each other. Or the time when we rode three meter waves in search of the whales. Or the time when we walked through fairy woods and dipped our hands in fresh red earth.
Hold tight to your wonder, labor hard, and always be a joy to work with.