Good evening and thank you for inviting me to share this special event with you. Congratulations to all of the students inducted into the National Honor Society tonight. I am thrilled to be here and honored to serve you and our community in the Vermont Senate.
This morning as I was rushing into a meeting with a group of constituents to discuss a bill I’m planning to introduce next session, I found this bright yellow leaf staring at me from the wet ground. Do any of you know what kind of tree this leaf comes from? That’s right, it’s a leaf from a Ginkgo tree.
Gingko trees are slow-growing, deep-rooted, resistant to disease and insects, and their strong branches are not easily broken by snow or wind. Perhaps most appealing, their waxy fan-shaped leaves turn a gorgeous saffron yellow every autumn. Ginkgos are native to China, but in so many ways they seem made for Vermont. Finding a perfect ginkgo leaf stops me in my tracks, no matter how busy I am, many times each fall. Today was one of those days.
Just about 30 years ago, I was sitting where you are, ready to be inducted into the National Honor Society. I remember dressing up in a white blouse and velour skirt and going to the event with my mother. I remember lighting the candles and sitting in the hard plastic seats in my school’s large lecture room. I remember the red juice in waxy paper cups and store-bought cookies we had in the school library after the ceremony. I remember getting to drive our giant green car home from the high school to our house on Mill Street. I don’t remember, though, what the evening’s guest speaker said, or even who it was. So, I feel a lot of pressure to do better than that person and leave you with some pearls of wisdom, or perhaps the lessons of a ginkgo leaf.
I went to high school in a small town in central New York State called Dryden, which is a lot like Vergennes. And I lived, first on a farm and then closer to the center of the village, in an even smaller town called Freeville, which is similar to Ferrisburgh or Panton or Waltham or Addison.
LIke most of you, as a high schooler, I got involved with everything I could – academics, clubs, student government, sports, drama, activism, community work, and an outside job. Despite this, I couldn’t wait to leave Dryden and Freeville and start my life in the “real” world. I wanted to travel, learn, meet new people, and expand my horizons beyond those small towns that felt isolating and overly familiar. I was smart, dedicated, idealistic, and impatient. I was eager to change the world. And I was sure that I could. I’m guessing that many of you are similar to the girl who I was.
Although I have learned a huge amount through my years of living, schooling, working, parenting, and serving, and I have even helped change the world around me a little bit, I cannot give you a roadmap or a how-to manual for living your life or changing the world in whatever way you most want, because if a generic map or manual exists, I’ve never seen it.
But I believe you might already have a roadmap for yourself. By the time I was lighting an NHS candle, at school I had already run for office, engaged my community, voted in an election, survived ridicule, called out sexism, and spoken up for what I believed in. And with these experiences, and the help of family and friends, I had formed most of the core values that have guided me throughout my life.
You too have already done so much, many of the things I had done at your age, and so much more. I am incredibly impressed with how active and involved people your age are these days. You are leading the way on so many of the most pressing issues of our time. You are raising money for community organizations and holding down jobs to help support your families. You are increasing your voting rate in numbers greater than any other age group. You are creating astounding art and achieving incredible athletic milestones.
You are already changing the world. So, trust yourself. And recognize your core values and hold yourself accountable to live by them.
Throughout my life as I’ve stumbled or succeeded, struggled or thrived, I’ve often checked in with my 17-year-old self to ask her if she is proud of who I am now. She is still idealistic and impatient, and her standards are high, so she is not always proud of me. But she continues to urge me forward and remind me of who I have always wanted to be.
You too will stumble and succeed, struggle and thrive. Trust yourself and ground yourself in the values and experiences you’ve had in your own small towns. Whether you have loved your time in high school or can’t wait to leave. Whether you stay here in Vermont or travel in search of a new place to plant your roots. Whether your list of activities is long and varied or tight and focused. So many of your experiences have already helped you to begin to draw the roadmap or write the manual for how you will change the world.
When I graduated from high school, I wrote my class a farewell speech that was about a tree in my backyard that I climbed to reach a safe and quiet spot for reading and reflection. And today, I bring you the leaf of a ginkgo tree whose deep roots, strong branches, and ability to resist have made it thrive here in Vermont despite its origins in a faraway land. Allow your high school stories and the values you’ve formed here to stay a part of who you are as you plant deep roots, build strong branches, resist negativity, show your beauty, and thrive wherever your roadmap takes you.
I wish you all the best for lives of good work and good fortune. Thank you for including me in this celebration.