Now I don’t even remember what the Valedictorian said at my graduation… me and my family are still laughing at the ridiculous thing said at my sister’s… and for the most part any others I’ve ever heard are a mix of the same overused anecdotes and cheesy lines that you really get nothing out of them… but this one here had me in tears and it made me so proud that not only did it come from my own hometown… but actually the tiny tot my sister used to babysit… and when the parents were feeling crazy, I even babysat… sometimes people tend to get frozen in that image of a cute little girl running around doing the silly things kids do… but after reading this I know for sure she’s grown up to become an amazing woman and I’m happy to have been even a tiny part of her life… she is definitely somebody…
Cecilia’s graduation speech/address to Wilkes County.
“Thursday, June 20, 2013.
On that day, I walked onto a Delta airplane at Reagan International Airport convinced that after spending a wonderfully mind-blowing week at the nation’s capital, this flight back to Atlanta could give me nothing more than a heavy heart and stale cookies. Yet, sitting by the window next to my seat was a middle-aged stranger with a suit, a briefcase, and vital words I never knew I needed to hear. Despite first appearances, I discovered that this businessman, flying home to an Atlantan suburb, had actually came from a small town in North Dakota, and so, of all passengers, I had found in him a kindred spirit.
He asked about my own small town experience, where I wanted to go to college, who I wanted to be. And, as I had said for quite some time until that flight, I wanted more, I wanted bigger, and I wanted out of small town life. My week in D.C. had only confirmed that. He smiled and said, “I know that feeling all too well.” He talked of his own town, his travels for his job, his 4 kids all in college on Zell scholarships. But, he told me something that’s haunted me since that plane touched down.
“A big town teaches you how to be a part of everybody. A small town teaches you how to be somebody.”
But what exactly is somebody? Without the chance to ever ask, I picked up my baggage but still searched for an answer. I had always labeled somebody’s, as I’m sure you all have, as the images on our televisions or the voices on our radios or our representatives in Congress. And, yet as many examples as I could draw, I stumbled for the words that divided the somebody’s from the everybody’s. What constitutes this somebody-ness? A certain IQ score? A good last name? A college degree? An Olympic Medal? A certain income bracket? A corner office? A Time magazine cover?
I don’t find my answer in any self-help books. I don’t find my answer from any Nobel Prize winner. Being a more visual learner, I never actually found my answer; I saw it. No, I didn’t see it in a museum and I didn’t see it in an art gallery. I see it here. I see it in Washington-Wilkes.
As a child, I never understood it, but I saw somebody in Mr. Marshall Sherrer behind the register of the non-descript store that is the literal heart of the End of the World. I see it in Mr. Don Nunnally, the mailman who can be counted on rain or shine to deliver to each home a warm smile and sincere compassion as real as the letters he carries. I see it in Ms. Hillary Lindsey who, through the ink and notes of her work, has ever so discreetly composed an era of America’s favorite music. I see it in Mr. Mercer Harris, whose camera strap I swear is forever fused into his neck as he crouches and stoops behind the camera because not too many people can say that their greatest love is there everyday job. I see it in Mr. Nicholas, the owner of La Cabana, the restaurant that he runs like a tight ship as host for the county’s excuses to celebrate everything from birthdays with whip crème in the face to post-football victory feasts, seven days a week. I see it in the members of the McClendon family and their funeral home, who for years has accomplished the task of shedding rays of light and peace into some of a family’s darkest moments. I see it in J&J Cleaners who reliably and meticulously have cleaned rather than aired out the dirty laundry of generations of a small town.
I see it in the daughters of the late Mrs. Amy Howard of Tena’s Jewelry, businesswomen of steel that have supplied the cherished gold and silver of the very jewelry you wear today for almost 40 years. I see it in Mr. Ashley Andrews each and every time I drop off my car in the crowded parking lot of his new facility of Andrew’s Quick Lube, a Main Street business that boomed in a time when many Wall Street businesses went under. I see it in Mr. Andrew Jackson a man who transcended societal precept through education to return to Wilkes county schools to uplift more generations to do the same. I see it in the bench in front of the courthouse in memory of the late Philip Scarborough with the heavy knowledge that no amount of granite or marble can ever repay what our servicemen and women sacrifice for our freedom.
And, I see it in even the legendary farmer that is my cousin Page Walker who for unexplainable reasons brings a light of recognition and a smirk every time his name is mentioned; no matter where I have gone the most unlikely people ask me, “Now are you related to Page Walker?”
It is these people and so many more of Washington-Wilkes that have taught me the meaning of a somebody. Despite what media may portray, it is not the size of your home or the height of your truck or even this diploma the class of 2015 is about to receive that defines who you become or what value you possess. A Somebody is a person that finds their greatest love, their greatest passion, or a great problem they passionately want to make right, and whole heartedly dedicates themselves to their cause with a determination and a vigor that makes no obstacle as strong as their purpose no matter what it may be. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So, whether that purpose be in photography, education, law, mechanics, business, or agriculture, know that you are somebody and you are brilliant. With great heart and great work in your purpose, make that somebody within shine through and the world will open up to you.
Now, of course, I’m not here to belittle the somebody’s the rest of the world is familiar with because they are truly inspiring, gifted, and talented people in all areas like Nelson Mandela, Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Ellen Degeneres, Herschel Walker, Gucci Mane, Ronald Reagan, Miranda Lambert, or Rosa Parks. Yet, ironically, every one of the people I just listed also came from a small town. The man from the DC plane trip made a point I had been oblivious to in my desire to find bigger. A small town teaches you how to be somebody because a small town stays alive not by its big skyscrapers or metro lines but instead it thrives on the small number of people whose souls have room to grow bigger than any city I could have dreamed of. It may take a village to raise a child but it takes a small town to forge a leader. Because, at such a microscopic level of human nature, we will understand the joys and pains, trophies and skeletons, successes and failures of more people than someone from a city or suburb, who may only know but a handful of their friends a bit closer than a colleague’s distance. Understanding others is the key to understanding ourselves because your greatest obstacle to being somebody will be you and how far you let your purpose take you.
To the class of 2015 and to the people of Wilkes County, I believe in you and I thank you because without you all, I wouldn’t be somebody tonight.”