Wang ’21 Delivers Valedictory Address

My middle school didn’t hand out failing grades, but I got just about the lowest grade possible in seventh grade science.

My middle school didn’t hand out failing grades, but I got just about the lowest grade possible in seventh grade science. I wish I could blame it on the teacher or say that the concepts simply didn’t click for me. However, the truth is that I was just an awful, awful student. If a lab entailed a dissection, I left the classroom and refused to return. Whenever an experiment involved any vaguely edible substance, I ate it. I actually spent most of class time staring at my teacher’s sweat stains.

Understandably, Lawrenceville placed me on the waitlist when I applied in eighth grade. For a bit, my parents and family friends treated me with an uneasy delicateness, as if a careless word could shatter me in my sensitive state.

They really shouldn’t have. I was totally fine. In fact, I was almost relieved that I didn’t have to go to Lawrenceville, where I would be surrounded by geniuses who actually finished their experiments instead of eating them. Staying in Shanghai for all of high school seemed like the much better and much more manageable option.

In freshman year, I got it together. I was no longer failing science. In fact, I did quite well. At the last minute, I decided to apply to Lawrenceville again, somehow still yearning for the excitement of boarding life.

When I got in, I was excited, but also very, very nervous, as most of us here probably were. I was scared of living half the world away from my family. I was scared of making friends as a new [III Former]. But mostly, I was scared of being “a small fish in a big pond.”

You’ve probably all heard that expression. In an educational context, it means being an unremarkable student among a high-achieving peer group. Straightforward enough.

But I want to get deeper into that ecological metaphor. Our School is a pond, and we are all fish. The metaphor implies that we must all be in competition with each other. In ecological terms, that means we struggle for the same limited resources and stand a lower chance of survival if we don’t win that struggle. But is that really the case here? Are we all so identical that we vie for the exact same thing? And when that is true, how far behind do we really fall when we don’t win?

Lawrenceville is an ecosystem where the answers to all of these questions are “not really.” It’s quite a biodiverse pond, where all the different species of fish occupy unique niches and play different ecological roles. When I arrived, I was struck by not only the extent but also the variety of my peers’ talents. While Gabby [Medina21] is writing a two-hour screenplay for a coming-of-age fantasy, Alper [Canberk21] is running computer simulations of the natural selection of neural networks, whatever that means. I couldn’t possibly compete with Shepard [Jiang ’21] in the pool or with Evelyn [Dugan ’21]on the stage, but I don’t have to. My role is to cheer them on from the bleachers and the audience while I occupy my own niche. And Lawrenceville is a big pond, with more algae and plankton than its fish could possibly consume. When people do share the same interests, they have access to an incredible range of resources to pursue them. If Lawrenceville is a pond, then we are all incredibly lucky fish that don’t need to compete much for survival.

However, competition is not the only kind of ecological relationship, and we do ourselves a disservice in overlooking the others. I want to talk about mutualism: symbiotic relationships that benefit both organisms. Flowers feed bees with nectar, and bees spread their pollen. Sea anemones protect clownfish from predators, while clownfish attract prey for them. When I look back on my life at Lawrenceville, I don’t remember seeing other people as competition to beat out or obstacles to overcome. What I remember is Arata spending his busy afternoons teaching me the bass lines of “Too Young to Die” and “Piano Man.” I remember Zack [Finacchio ’21] making huge study guides, sending them to our entire history class, and saving my grade. I remember Rachelle [Cho ’21] tirelessly putting my duvet back inside its cover every time I did my laundry and rescuing me from my own utter incompetence. I remember Lawrentians unfailingly reaching beyond the boundaries of their duties and taking each other by the hand, every chance they had.

But when I zoom out from the Lawrenceville pond, I find a different world, where human interaction seems to be premised on competition. The education system ranks children by quantitative measures of their academic achievements and teaches them to treat learning like a race. Workers compete for employment, and businesses for profit. Our very way of life has become a competition for wealth, for power, and for status. In every case, there are winners and losers. Some own the equivalent of the GDP of Algeria. Others starve.

I would be idealistic to think that the “real world” is the collaborative ecosystem that Lawrenceville is. But I’m perfectly rational to believe that it can be, for the same reasons that Lawrenceville is.

With each scientific advancement, humans have continuously pushed the planet’s carrying capacity. We’ve migrated, built, and farmed. We’ve developed anesthesia, antibiotics, and vaccines. Our food production has far outpaced our consumption and population expansion. Over and over, we’ve proven that when there isn’t enough to go around, we make enough. We’ve shown that resource scarcity can be overcome. And if the world is an ecosystem in itself, and if scarcity is what necessitates competition, then we can overcome competition itself. Nobody needs to win or lose in the game of life if we have the capacity to provide a good life for everyone.

For all the competition in the world, I also find encouraging examples of mutualism, big and small. In the wake of the Atlanta shooting, the stunning support that I witnessed from non-Asian people, both within our community and beyond, reaffirmed to me humanity’s extraordinary capacity for empathy. As they processed tragedy after tragedy, Black Americans inspired their fellow citizens to vocally strive for justice with their resilience and courage. Strangers take the time to give each other directions, even when they’re in a hurry. On public transportation, people give their seats to pregnant and elderly strangers, not out of obligation but out of kindness. Even within Lawrenceville, I find powerful examples of selfless service to the world. As the pandemic swept through the country, Danica [Bajaj ’21] juggled the local community’s needs alongside her own. With another Lawrenceville alumnus, she founded NJ/PA Helping Hands to help community members with grocery delivery, academic tutoring, and virtual companionship. Competitive constructs may guide our lives, but the human instinct always tends toward mutualism.

For proof of the selfless love that humans give to each other, I need to look no further than my very best friends: [V Formers] Mason [Du], whose hugs have been the cure to my every bout of sadness; Petra [Kovacs], whose dance parties reminded me to be a stupid teenager every now and then; and Christine [Cheng], who contains more love in her body than I knew humans were capable of. And then there’s someone who hates the word “deserve,” but who deserves to be standing here, giving this speech with me, or maybe instead of me. Kylan Tatum [’21], you are the greatest gift that Lawrenceville has given me.

Maybe I was a little fish in a big pond, or maybe I was a big fish after all. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The simple truth is that I was a happy fish in a beautiful pond with more food than I could eat, among a School of compassionate, driven, and brilliant fish who give as much as they take, who have taught me lesson after lesson, who will now swim into the world and continue to love with all their might. Through House and Harkness, Lawrenceville has indeed challenged a diverse community of promising young people to lead lives of learning, integrity, and high purpose. And each of you have inspired the best in me, and no doubt the best in each other, to seek the best for all. Thank you. It’s been an honor.

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