Graduation Speeches During The COVID-19 Pandemic NPR spoke with a few student leaders about their graduations speeches and how a not-so-typical senior year inspired their words for the class of 2020.

Reflections On A Lost Senior Year With Hope For The Future

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's a tradition as old as high school. A top student, valedictorian or salutatorian, makes a speech at graduation trying to sum up this pivotal moment in any young person's life. This year, doing that virtually on video, it's not quite the same. Still, these outstanding students have important things to say. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny with some leaders of the graduating class of 2020.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When Emma Cockrum started riding her bike during the quarantine, she wasn't expecting to learn anything. The coronavirus pandemic had abruptly ended her senior year at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, La. And she was looking for a way to spend the time. But as she pedaled out her anxieties, Cockrum gained a new perspective.

EMMA COCKRUM: I was able to sit back and really take in the situation and realize that, again, it's no one's fault. There's no one to be mad at.

NADWORNY: Weeks later when she sat down to write her valedictorian speech, she drew inspiration from the lessons she learned on the bike.

COCKRUM: Instead of feeling buried by our situation, we must realize that the pain and heartache that has been piled upon us is not meant to bury but to plant us in a way that will allow us to grow and prosper into who we are meant to be.

NADWORNY: This year's high school graduation speeches offer words of perseverance and new beginnings, messages that resonate at any age, especially during this uncertain time. Of course, this year, many valedictorians and salutatorians won't be addressing their fellow graduating seniors in person. Instead, they're giving their speeches virtually and in pretaped videos.

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RYAN CHUA: By the way, Mom, I know you're taking pictures of me right now. This is a prerecorded video, so you don't really need to do that, but I won't stop you.

NADWORNY: That's Ryan Chua's pretaped graduation speech. He's the salutatorian of Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Ky. His speech offers his classmates a bit of inspiration and a little candy.

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CHUA: Life is like a fistful of Sour Patch Kids.

NADWORNY: Ryan's borrowing from Forrest Gump's line life is like a box of chocolates. He's made the slight alteration because he's severely allergic to chocolate.

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CHUA: Right now, things are sour, but eventually, they will turn sweet.

NADWORNY: Chua's speech has cheeky humor and some great advice.

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CHUA: Just make life spicy. Make life something you want to reminisce on. The second lesson is simple - just be nice to people. Trust sows the seeds of freedom, and a little respect truly does go a long way. It could even solve a few of the world's problems.

NADWORNY: In Kimani Ross' graduation speech delivered in Lake City, S.C., she focuses on an important message - believe in yourself. That's what she did when people doubted her and told her she wouldn't succeed.

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KIMANI ROSS: But look at where I am now. I'm glad that I didn't stop. I'm glad that I didn't let them get to me.

NADWORNY: She's the valedictorian of Lake City High School, and she's proud she can be a role model for the young girls in her community.

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ROSS: And I want those little girls to know that they can do it. If no one else believes in them, I will always believe in them.

NADWORNY: Kimani spent four years as a Panthers cheerleader, and she couldn't help but sneak in a cheer into her speech.

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ROSS: As one of the cheers that our squad did during the season said, we just stay ready. I know that we'll stay ready to overcome any obstacles that come our way.

NADWORNY: For Lindley Andrew's speech, her main focus was all of those memories.

LINDLEY ANDREW: There's no better way to, like, pull on the heartstrings make people emotional then a trip down memory lane where everyone can be nostalgic.

NADWORNY: Andrew is the salutatorian of Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C. She told our producer Diane Adame that she got her fellow classmates involved in the speech writing process.

ANDREW: I texted our senior group chat and asked all of the seniors to send in memories or things from the year that stood out to them.

NADWORNY: In her speech, she puts together a senior year timeline, leaving national news with more local stories like leaving school early because of a tornado warning.

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ANDREW: Do you guys remember that? We all ran to our cars in the pouring rain and got soaked. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy every second of it. Sometimes it's the small, seemingly pointless experiences that leave the most lasting and impactful memories.

NADWORNY: So to all of those high school seniors, it's time to turn your tassel, hang onto those memories and, as Ryan Chua put it, step into the unknown.

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CHUA: Congratulations graduates of 2020 on completing the first step in this choose your own adventure that we'd like to call adulthood. Stay sweet, guys.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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