SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 19, 2014

St. John's Prep Class of 2014 valedictorian speaks to peers

Transcript of Alec McNiff's speech at the 'Prep


The Salem News

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Someone once told me this would be the last time I see all of my graduating class in the same room. I wish there was some way I could remember this moment forever. That being said, I’ll move onto my speech, but first, let me take a selfie. Thanks, I'll toss that up on Instagram later. It's alec_mcniff. I repeat, alec_mcniff. Anyway, a picture is worth a thousand words. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines commencement as the time when something begins. This is not the end. Although today marks the end of our high school careers, it is also the beginning of the rest of our lives. High school is over. Rather than mourn on our last day as high school students, let us celebrate these past four years and all of our success. As we embark on this new chapter, we now have a responsibility to use our education and talents for the good of society. The future is in your hands. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. Always take the road less traveled by and don’t be afraid of change. There is no predicting our many future accomplishments.

If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, you may have noticed that so far, this speech has just been one big cliché, including the selfie. No one likes an overused cliché; however, during the writing process of this speech, the idea of clichés stuck in my head.

About two weeks into my freshman year, flooded with free time and growing tired of endlessly playing hacky-sack with my boys Chase, Kaneb, and Vinny-La, I decided to join chorus. You can imagine my surprise when, on my first day in Mr. Hamill’s Ryken classroom, I looked directly to my right and saw Pat Connaughton. Everyone knew that Pat was the best athlete at the Prep, a Notre Dame commit who had received attention from some of the best baseball and basketball programs in the country. What people didn’t know was that not only was Pat the best athlete on the field, but he was also the loudest singer in the auditorium. Pat was the epitome of originality and uniqueness at the Prep, the antithesis of cliché.

What about our class? The Class of 2014. Well, Taylor Brock-Fisher captains the fencing team AND was nationally recognized for his Rubik’s Cube solving abilities by freshman year. Johnny Thomas runs on the football field like Bo Jackson AND can work the keys of the piano like Mozart. Liam Keneally took a hiatus from getting after it in the weight room and on the lacrosse field to audition for one of our school’s many drama productions, “The Laramie Project”. Not to mention he and Chris Casey have to be two of the shortest and thickest people I’ve ever seen. Sawyer Billings was elected president of the National Honor Society, served as a voluntary college councilor to everyone on campus whether he wanted it or not, AND got into Bowdoin, in case you didn’t know. Ian Robertson’s vines and Max Massaro’s tweets reek of originality. Christian Concessi…well I won’t go into all of the things that make him unique, you’ll just have to take my word for it. These are just some of our peers: the very same, everyday students we may hear in the caf discussing the recent Yoon test, their new bench press maxes, or maybe their latest confrontation with Mr. Richards regarding their overgrown hair (I’m speaking directly to you Kevin Coppinger). Clearly, these aren’t the cliché jocks, nerds, and artsy kids we may have anticipated in high school.

And we can’t forget the individuals who have helped foster this originality throughout campus: the faculty, teachers, and staff of St. John’s Prep. Our teachers love their students. Mr. Dupre. Do you know anyone like Mr. Dupre? Somehow, he keeps biology interesting while also magically creating snow days with his snow attractor and maintaining an uncontested command over his class with a little tool known as the randomizer. Mr. Hennessey left a successful career in finance to teach economics and coach hockey at the prep while encouraging his students to never sell themselves short, to always keep their ties tied until they get home, and even to start saving right out of college. Ms. Olson somehow manages to prevent a school of nearly 1,200 boys from rioting while also leading Student Council, keeping us on task, and showing us what a true leader looks like. Mr. Boutin worked in Tanzania for a few years and once carried a young boy with a cancerous foot across the countryside to the nearest hospital. He now teaches his students to overpower anger with gratitude. Señor Orlando recently earned his masters in Hispanic Literature and Culture for the benefit of his students, supervises several clubs on campus, AND can put up 315 for 3 on the bench (so he says). And I’m pretty sure Brother Arcadius has done everything. Clearly, these aren’t the stereotypical, cliché teachers I once thought I would meet in high school. These are people whom students, including myself, can just talk to, people who lend us money when we forget on dress down day, who congratulate us on our college acceptances and console us on our denials. Or maybe these are the people who call you “Alex” no matter how many times you remind them it's “Alec”. And, these are people who you can trust. Our teachers do not simply teach the required material, give us a grade, and go home. Our teachers tirelessly invest themselves in our education and growth as individuals. We cannot successfully achieve originality without the guidance and mentorship of these teachers.

Up to 80 percent of rising college freshman admit that they are uncertain of what they want to major in and by the time they graduate over 50 percent of them change their major. Who knows, the star athlete majoring in business may switch to a theatre major. If you asked me what I’m going to do next year in college, I would probably say I’m thinking about economics, but I’m also interested in government and statistics. Maybe I’ll try to join the crew team or even write for the school newspaper. I’ve never studied Arabic, and I’ve never tried acting. To be honest, I don’t know. And that’s the beauty of it. If I’ve learned anything at the Prep, it’s that life doesn’t require an outline, and, honestly, never really presents one on its own. Rather than plan to follow the expected path, the safe cliché set of choices, let’s be cautious, even suspicious, of planning, at least for now.

So, Class of 2014, let us not be cookie-cutter clichés. Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician and physicist once said, “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality”. Albert Einstein couldn’t speak fluently until he was 12 years old. No one expected him to be a genius. Larry Bird dropped out of Indiana and became a construction worker for about a year before returning to college basketball. Arnold Schwarzenegger left his body building career to become an actor. He then left his acting career to become governor of California. Then went back to acting. Or at least tried. The point is, the originality and innovation that we all seek will not come easily, but it will come, eventually.

Finally, one cliché that we can’t avoid today is gratitude. We could not have earned these caps and gowns without the help of others. I’d like to personally thank the people that got me through high school: my loving parents, my supportive siblings, my incredible peers and friends, my challenging teachers and mentors, and most importantly, whey protein.

Congratulations to the St. John’s Prep Class of 2014. I’ll miss you boys. Thank you.

Alec McNiff is the valedictorian of the Class of 2014 at St. John's Preparatory School. McNiff and his classmates graduated yesterday, May 18, on the Danvers campus.