“Over these past four years at Commonwealth I have emerged from my timid shell and now have the confidence to say I don’t think I’ll ever retreat back inside.”
Every year, in lieu of a valedictorian and salutatorian, Commonwealth faculty and staff choose two graduation speakers—after much deliberation, as it is no easy feat! And, every year, they impress with their insight and observation, reflecting on their time at Commonwealth with poise and eloquence far beyond their years; 2021 was no different.
In her graduation speech, Sol Gutiérrez-Lara '21 addressed the importance of speaking up, even—and especially—when it feels hardest. You’re invited to read (and watch!) her thoughtful speech below.
Stop caring about what other people think. If you have something to say, just say it. And if people don’t hear you, say it louder.
It’s taken me a long time to truly internalize these words. My whole life, in fact.
But over these past four years at Commonwealth I have emerged from my timid shell and now have the confidence to say I don’t think I’ll ever retreat back inside.
As a little girl, I loved story time with my family. I also, however, loved big-ideas-in-physics time with my dad. I’ve always been curious. I’ve always loved to learn. And I’ve always loved a challenge. This love of being a student is what brought me to Commonwealth, and what kept me here even during the rougher patches when the work and the stress got really intense. It’s also what has pushed me to think for myself, to form my own opinions, and to voice them.
On the first day of my sophomore year, Mr. Wharton gave the whole school a motivational pep talk. One thing he said really stuck with me: “Education cannot be given. It must be taken.” I have done my best to make this my experience at school every single day, from spending hours with a challenging physics problem, to analyzing cookie ads and commercials for a U.S. History paper. And, of course, mustering up the courage to raise my hand.
But my first years at Commonwealth, speaking up was difficult. Participating meant having to synthesize and articulate my ideas on the spot, with everyone’s eyes turned on me as I did. Raising my hand, keeping a steady tone as my heart raced and my throat went dry, felt like a feat—I still tried my best to do it, but it was hard.
My secret weapon was email. Being able to take my time phrasing things made me much more comfortable expressing ideas or questions I had in class. My junior year, I decided to make full use of this tool—Mr. Barsi and Ms. Haber can attest to this. I became much more familiar with my teachers by “speaking up” in this way. I became less self-conscious. I became less tentative. I became more willing to take “risks”—not just through writing, but in class. In person. On the spot.
During my time here, one of the most valuable things I’ve learned is to be okay with uncertainty. I’ve accepted that I don’t have to have a perfectly polished paragraph of a contribution to share my thoughts in class. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from a teacher regarding participating in discussions is: if you haven’t quite reached a conclusion or formed a solid opinion at the moment, you can instead pose your questions or doubts to the group, and that, too, can help drive forward a discussion. (Thanks, Ms. Brewster.) Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure my previous English teachers told me the same thing (so thank you, Ms. Tyson and Ms. Dale), but this time I was finally ready to let it sink in.
I’ve also continued to see the importance of not being too quick to draw a conclusion. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to read something through and really try to understand it before you tear it to shreds with pointed questions. And I’ve found that my own arguments are stronger if I have a handle not just on what I think, but on what the author wants me to think, and what the author thinks, and why the author thinks it. And it’s okay if I don’t always have some final verdict to drop by the end of class. It’s okay if sometimes I have nothing to say.
But, very often, I do have things to say, and I do have opinions and conclusions to share.
We all have a moral compass. We have instinct. We have ideas and opinions, some reasoned, some half-reasoned, and some vaguely existing in our minds without our really knowing where they came from. But there’s a next step: to voice our opinions and to do so in such a way that really manages to convey what we mean to people, and to be able to defend what we think. To articulate why we think it, how something works. Also to give enough context to make our point understood. And, when necessary, to give solid evidence.
I think of classes like Reasons for Writing with Ms. Brewster, where we’d practice picking apart what we read to get to the root of our impressions, sometimes dwelling on a single sentence or word for a whole period and where we’d learn how to put that analysis to good use in our own writing. This was one of those classes that made me stand up straighter. Sit up in my chair, tilt my head, raise my eyebrows once in a while. Just like my Reading and Ethics class with Mr. Wharton, in which I was always ready to question, sometimes to push back, and found that the most fruitful conversations necessitated listening closely and really understanding all the different perspectives on the table.
I had plenty to ponder and plenty to ask and plenty to say in both of these classes. It dawned on me that my opinions, polished or not, fully fleshed out or not, deserved to be voiced. Stop caring about what people think. If you have something to say, say it. If people didn’t hear you the first time, say it louder. Loud and clear I had to speak up. And when I did, I began to find that my interactions and relationships with classmates became a lot richer. I find myself constantly surprised and enlightened by their observations; they can turn my interpretation of something on its head, and I think that sometimes, I can do the same for them. I think everyday we remind each other that there is more out there in the world beyond what we’ve been taught to think and see and feel.
And along with an appreciation for and understanding of the thoughts and experiences of others has come a growing confidence in my own thoughts and experiences, my values, my beliefs—a confidence that I, too, have something special to contribute to this community or to my classes.
The kind of thinking and listening I do in school has become part of how I live my day-to-day life, how I watch movies, listen to music, read the news, talk to friends and family. I sometimes hear that it’s unrealistic to keep your thinking cap on all the time, to live life with a critical mind. That sometimes it kills the fun. But, the more I speak up, the more people I get to listen to and share conversations with, and the more I get to live and observe, the more I am convinced that the opposite is true. That we can make thinking a part of our lives we don’t have to “think” twice about. That thinking can enrich an experience, a book, a movie, a conversation. To me, it means enjoying more, having more fun, laughing more.
And here at Commonwealth, I get to live this every day. From writing geometric proofs with Mr. Letarte to chatting about cultural identity and globalization with my advisor (also Mr. Letarte) to identifying a racist knot in a piece on SeaWorld’s marketing to writing an article about news coverage of Mexican politics to conversations about economic systems and human nature with Mr. Wharton, I have always felt encouraged to question and try to understand not just the what but also the why and the how.
I think it falls right in line with the school’s purpose: to help us grow as individual students and human beings, as thinking, feeling, curious, responsible citizens of the world, and people who enjoy life. People who choose to live actively, to engage with each other and the world around us, to take risks, to explore and experience wonder, to follow our passions and find new ones, to work hard, to persevere, and to enjoy the fruits of it all. I look at my classmates, and I see this purpose fulfilled—a legacy our school has every reason to be proud of. And we have every reason to be proud, too.
Today, we are graduating. I’m sure we can all agree—it’s been quite a ride. Rough at times, thrilling at others. Hopefully, rewarding. Now, and in the future.
Today, we are graduating, and let me tell you, I am pretty damn proud. And I hope you are too.