Duraiswamy ’20 Delivers Valedictory Address
I’d like to begin the speech by saying “Hi, everyone.” Now, if this were a two word speech, I’d almost be content to stop there. I never realized how much I missed saying hi to you all until I sat down, started writing the speech, and realized I had to say goodbye instead. Under ordinary circumstances, this is the moment when I gaze out at all your faces and wonder how many of you would be asleep by the time I’ve finished the speech. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about that. You’re all free to turn the next seven to eight minutes into a well-earned nap, and I’ll be none the wiser. To those of you who choose to stick with me though, let me take you back to March 13th, the last day to travel to the U.S. from mainland Europe. I was traveling—Let’s ignore my lack of foresight for now.
We were taxiing to the terminal, wedged between passengers who kept dousing their tray tables with hand sanitizer and glancing around furtively every time somebody sneezed. That was when my dad read Headmaster Murray’s email and told me we would not be coming back to Lawrenceville in the spring. I don’t know where you were when you heard that, or how you felt. I hardly knew how I felt. I just remember thinking: This couldn’t happen.
We often talk about Lawrenceville as a bubble, but I have always thought of Lawrenceville as a fortress. The world could bang on our iron-clad front doors, and we could choose what we wanted to let in. We’d let in what we could deal with, and keep out what we couldn’t. Despite everything I knew about what was going on, I still knew our campus would be there, waiting for us when we came back in the spring.
As you know, things didn’t quite work out that way. Spring Term came and found me sitting in this room, staring at the Zoom link for my first virtual class. I had no idea what to expect. Considering the number of times I managed to accidentally mute myself over the next three hours, my fears were somewhat justified. In all seriousness though, I couldn’t help wondering, “Is this really Lawrenceville?” To me, Lawrenceville was the Circle, the Crescent, the classrooms, the walkways, the greens of the grass and the reds of the buildings, the lamp posts that glowed in the dark and lit your way back to the House. If there’s one thing harder than saying goodbye, it’s not getting the chance to say goodbye. If I had to guess, I’d say you probably miss our campus every bit as much as I do.
I wish I could point to a moment in the next three weeks and say, “And that’s when I had an epiphany!” But that’s not how it worked. It was just morning after morning of watching many of your faces pop up on my screen. Morning after morning of thinking “This wouldn’t work,” but watching you make it work anyways. You’ve shown me that every organization, every company, every government, and every school is just people—a group of people, and everything they’re brilliant and daring enough to create. This seems obvious, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d forgotten that.
I wonder how many of you remember the blizzard that paid us a visit in the fall of 2018. Given that it made me 20 minutes late to my chemistry final, I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry. As I dashed out of my car, my mom told me to breathe. I thought this was unnecessary advice until I skidded to a halt in front of the exam room, which had been about as ridiculously difficult to find as all the rooms in the Math and Science building, and started to hyperventilate. I could see Ms. Calvert staring at me from inside the exam room. I hyperventilated some more, and then she came out to me. I explained what had happened, and with one of the gentlest expressions I’ve ever seen, she told me to calm down. It was all right, she said. She would give me time to catch my breath. She would give me the full two hours to take the exam. Since then, no final has managed to scare me quite as much, because I know there’s a person on the other side of that test—a person who has taught me, a person who knows me, a person who would rather see me succeed than fail.
Lawrenceville works. Not just because it’s a group of people who share a purpose, but because it’s a group of people who want to see each other succeed. I’ve known people who cheer so loudly at games that they routinely lose their voices. People who whisper “Break a leg!” as they slip past each other backstage. I’ve seen an entire IBES class converge around Jeffrey Tao’s desk when he agreed to show us his sketchbook. I watched Reid Mario hold doors open for hordes of students making a beeline for Irwin. At risk of embarrassing more people, I better stop there. Still, I will say this to my wonderful Class of 2020: Each and every one of you has my heartfelt admiration and congratulations, not just because you’ve made it to this point, but because you’ve brought the rest of us along with you. I’m willing to bet that there’s at least one other person graduating today whose time at Lawrenceville would have felt empty without you in it.
Now you may be thinking, “Where’s that list of thank you’s that invariably accompanies these speeches? Don’t worry, what I’m saying doesn’t just apply to the Class of 2020. If you’re watching this, you have all the thanks I can send you through a prerecorded video. Thank you faculty, staff, Housemasters, duty masters, advisors, coaches, directors, counselors, mentors, shoulders to cry on. If you’re thinking this sounds redundant, it’s only because you’ve played so many roles in our lives, more than I can list here. Thank you freshmen. Thank you sophomores. Thank you juniors. And of course, thank you parents and family. In a way, you’re every bit the Lawrentians we are. Because Lawrenceville—it’s not a fortress, or even just a campus. It’s a group of people who believe in each other and in the School more than we believe in ourselves.
Now, I labor under no delusions that you’ll remember the speech four years down the road. I doubt I will remember how to recite the speech four years down the road. No, this speech is for right now. It’s for a moment when you might be feeling like you’re just one person sitting in a house, staring at a screen. So if you’re feeling cut off right now, just remember what Mr. Brownlow once said to Oliver Twist: “You will not be friendless while I live.” Members of the Class of 2020, we will never, even in our most melodramatic moments, be able to honestly call ourselves friendless. Because somewhere, there will be a teacher, coach, friend, someone you kept in touch with, someone you didn’t, who—if they knew what you were going through—would want you to succeed, would tell you that you can succeed. And would know that invariably, you will.