Henry Vencill: Salutatorian Speech from Graduation

2018 graduate Henry Vencill delivered the salutatory speech at the Cedar Shoals High School graduation on May 18, 2018. In the week thereafter, his speech went viral, eventually getting published by Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on her Get Schooled blog.  Vencill will enroll at the University of Georgia this fall.

I’m on this stage today not because I’m an exceptional person or because I’ve made some great contribution to society, but because of a number that was placed on me by our education system.I didn’t achieve any amazing accomplishment or make any world-changing discovery, and while I would like to think that I will someday make a difference in the world, I still have many flaws.

But because I was able to perform well in a hyper-structured system, our society deemed that I deserved to speak on a stage, but who or what is to say that I’m better than any of you? Why should tests I took, worksheets I completed, or assignments I turned in make me any more important?

None of us should be judged by the bubbles we fill in on a Scantron test and the grades that show up on our transcripts. Everyone’s circumstances and environments contribute to those measurables in ways that have no impact on who you are as a person, or what you can do once you leave these walls. Though this is something that I struggle with following myself, I truly believe that everyone should be seen by who they are as people, the intangibles of their character over the tangibles of how they’ve performed in school.

But right now, we can put all the numbers, tests, GPAs, SATs and ACTs behind us, because we’ve made it through. We’re at graduation. Despite anything that anyone has said or judged you by, despite anyone who has tried to put a number on who you are and what you can accomplish, you can finally say to them that you made it.

And now as we enter the much discussed “real world,” we can finally let our creativity, our character, our past accomplishments, and our future goals shine. We can enter a future where we’re more than a number anyone put on us.

But as we leave Cedar Shoals, it is important to reflect back on what our school is, and our experience over the past four years. People talk about Cedar as “the bad school in town” or the school with all the violence, fights, low test scores and high dropout rates. Our accomplishments get less publicity, and our failures always more. Parents pay thousands of dollars to send their children to private school, or avoid school zoning so they don’t have to have their kids go to “The Shoals.”

To those people, I’d like them to meet the students in fronts of me, and hear about some of their accomplishments. Our track team won the state meet last year, and has won region for all four years we’ve been here. Our basketball team played in the state finals last year, and has played in the playoffs every year. Our football team made it to the playoffs for the first time in almost ten years.

Our fine arts program consistently produces professional level artists, dancers, and musicians, and our marching band and concert band earn superior ratings at competitions and send students to Honor bands every year. Our ROTC program prepares students for a future in both military and civilian careers through hard work, core values, and discipline. We have students attending universities and colleges from all across the country, from Colorado to Indiana to right here in Athens. We have clubs and organizations that work every week to making this school the best place possible. We have some of the most amazing teachers in the world, who work early mornings and late nights and devote their entire lives to making the future of society a better place for us.

But some of the things the critics have to say is true. Cedar has had its fair share of struggles during our time here. Over our four years, we’ve had three principals and two superintendents, along with all the different rules and policies that go along with them. Some of our best teachers have retired or left. We’ve had to deal with scandals, threats, and violence. We also lost an incredible teammate, classmate, and friend in Michael Horvat.

But we will not let these things define us. The issues we have had to endure have made us stronger, tougher, and well-rounded students, and have prepared us for anything the world has to throw at us. These experiences brought us closer together as a community of peers and friends, and gave us a greater appreciation for the positive things we’ll seen in life, and a mindset to deal the hardships of every day.

I came into Cedar without any friends, not knowing anything or anyone. I was a shy and awkward kid who had no idea how to make my way in the world. I can honestly say that this school has changed my life. The friends I’ve made, the people I’ve met, the teachers I’ve had, the coaches who have pushed me on, and the experiences I’ve gone through have all played major roles in shaping who I am today, and who I will be in the future. For all the frustration that goes along with Cedar Shoals High School, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.