Graduation Speech: Tien Phan '24, It's a Vibe

Close reading has been core to Commonwealth's curriculum for decades—but the practice has never been more lovingly or cleverly unpacked than during Tien Phan's 2024 graduation speech. One of our two speakers (not valedictorian and salutatorian; we do things differently here), Tien shares how his innate habits of observation have deepened over the past four years, shaping his perspective, personality, and vibe. Plus, how each one of his classmates played a part.

Related: Watch the Speech on Commonwealth's YouTube page.

Good morning! I’m Tien Phan, and Commonwealth taught me two things: how to be stupid and how to not be myself. 

Or, to put it more nicely, Commonwealth taught me how to use my ignorance to learn instead of staying ignorant. Throughout all my classes, I've had to identify what I know and don't know in order to move forward with something; I had to figure out what confused me before learning how to solve a problem. Some of the most frustrating ways I practiced this skill were through the Computer Science labs, which were the first times I had to ask specific questions of Mr. Singer in order to make progress in my assignments. And even though it sounds easy, posing questions when you don't know what you don’t know—it is hard! To identify what I know and don’t know, I had to closely analyze what I do know first. I had to practice observing, to notice details, both to ask good questions and to come up with good answers. I practiced this with close reading in English class

I found out that close reading let me learn more about what’s in front of me—and what’s in me. I was able to analyze my inner thoughts. I noticed that after close reading in school, I also read closely outside of school as well. While reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh '98, who I later found out was an alumna, I found so much fun in reading the narrator’s resigned but manic tone describing her attempt at self-tranquilization for a year to revitalize herself. I was proud that I could pick up emotions behind the otherwise blasé style and even articulate why I enjoyed these details. Ever since, I stopped seeing my English classes as overanalyzing random words but learning how to enjoy details of a body of work and express why I enjoyed them.

It turns out, I’ve always been a close reader; I was reading my environment. Commonwealth just helped me put a name to what I was doing. Some people know that I take a picture of every lunch I eat at Commonwealth. This habit started on my first day of school, when I was amazed at the quality of the food here. Ever since then, I have taken a picture of my lunch everyday to show my parents what I ate as a fun conversation starter on how my day went. No matter what went wrong—a bad test, a missing assignment, or a general sleep deficit—at least, according to my camera roll, I ate. Paying attention, remembering what I ate, captured this one moment of what Commonwealth did for me that day. Capturing my moments of satiation remind me how fortunate I am to eat yummy meals, the fun conversations I have in the Cafegymnatorium, and how easy it is to find happiness. 

Commonwealth placed a name on what I’ve been doing all the time; close reading is just paying attention. Paying attention to books revealed what I liked. Paying attention to food captured my gratitude. And paying attention—close reading—my whole education showed me that I am shaped by my world. 

Using my close-reading skills, in true Commonwealth liberal-arts style, I started thinking about what my classes had in common. I found that there was always a concept of something reacting to something else. I realized this while writing my U.S. History paper on Baby Boomers. In their youth, they were known for being “counterculture,” rebelling on past, conformist ideals, like marriage…and haircuts. Then I realized: everything is “countering” something else. Like reactions tending toward equilibrium in chemistry, homeostasis stabilizing with its environment in biology, and Newton’s third law responding with an equal and opposite force in physics. 

Close reading throughout my whole education made me realize I am just like these concepts; I am a reactionary being. I am also responding, communicating, reacting, going back and forth with my surroundings. My interests, my thoughts, everything, goes in some kind of vacillation, a vibration. 

As my contemporaries might say: a vibe.

I am a vibe! And my vibe is a product of my experiences and my people and my world. Since I am a vibe, I’m not a constant, wholly, original entity—I am not myself—I’m an amalgamation of the people and experiences I've chosen to interact with. Whenever someone preaches about “being yourself,” I say, don’t be yourself, because you can’t be. In my mind, Kamala Harris wants to say: “You think you just fell out of a coconut tree? You exist in the context of all in which you live and what came before you.” 

Isn’t it amazing how we didn’t come out of coconuts?! That we are all tied together, giving and taking quirks to and from each other? Instead of feeling bad that you aren’t an original human being, an intelligence isolated from environmental conditioning, dropped from a coconut tree, be amazed at how much you’ve taken from your world and how much you can still take and give.

At Commonwealth, I took the voices of students and teachers to help me think through problems sets, write essays, make jokes, and climb tough walls. I took your voices and perspectives and made them mine through my thoughts. When observing and listening to my classmates talking and thinking, I took what compelled me, influencing my vibe. So, to prove that I have, in fact, been studying at Commonwealth for these past four years instead of being dropped from a coconut tree, here is a peek into my world and context, the things that I’ve observed and responded to, the quirks that have made me not myself and have shaped my vibe:

The unwavering kindness of Arjun and Athena;

The laughs of Sienna S. and Anto;

The contemplative looks from Eve and Will;

The constant peace of Mirai and Aaron T.;

The big hugs from Rihanna and Bella;

The eclectic interests of Sophia, Henry, and Ben;

The juicy social insights from Dava and Paris;

The musicality of Wyatt and Luke;

The work ethic of Eliza, Genevieve, and Ziv;

The athleticism of Alex, Lizzy, and Rayna;

The concentrated passion of Charlie and Douglas;

The civic-mindedness of Jay and Amith;

The whimsy of Olivia, Matteo, and Ty;

And, from Sienna M., Thomas, and Aaron L: the shenanigans.

In our freshman year, we started out either in the ether or six feet apart. Yet, this forced split in our grade didn’t stop us from connecting with one another. We were even more united because of the distance. 

I have a request to my class: look at each other. Considering all our experiences, I urge everyone to appreciate that we’re all here today, that we’re all different now because we paid attention and interacted with each other. Though we may have started ignorant and distanced, we all ended up closer and smarter because of each other, and we are now graduating together. 

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