A Graduation Speech to Knock Your Socks Off

Graduation Speech

Trask River High School

Tillamook, Oregon

Stephen Kaplan, Valedictorian

June 8, 2013


Well, here we are.  Graduation.  It has always been bizarre to me why we make it such a big event. All we had to do was show up to class, turn in some homework and pass a few tests.  I actually felt that way until I was asked to write a speech on the subject.  It wasn’t until I sat down and thought about what really went into graduating that I realized that it is a big event.

Having worked so hard to pass those tests, attending those classes, at becoming the man that could stand in front of you and speak on such a subject, I found that it is a great occasion.  I found that, especially for these sixteen graduates who are up here today, three things make it memorable:

  • The opportunities that got us here.
  • The work we did to get here.
  • What it can tell us about our futures, ourselves, and our lives.

The opportunities that we were given were unlikely.  Most of us came from places that we would never have had the chance to accomplish such a thing.  Some from bad neighborhoods, others from dysfunctional families, wherever it was, school was not much of a priority.

Then we got locked up.  In a place equated with loss of our lives as we knew them, freedom, and most, a little sanity.

Though some doors may have been locked behind us, many have opened in front of us.  We were given the opportunities to be here today.

The biggest thing that makes this such an important occasion are the sixteen men in front of you.  They took such an unlikely opportunity and ran.  They saw that door and walked through it, each facing their own struggles in doing so.  And whether it was the alphabet in math, where the comma goes in writing, or for myself, two long terms in fiber arts, we all overcame them in order to be graduating today.

As for the future, well, it’s what we make it.  I feel that I can speak for all of us when I say that these opportunities were a second chance in showing ourselves and others that it’s not time to give up yet; that we still have things to accomplish no matter how small or great.  And more than anything it shows us that we all have the ability to achieve what seemed so unlikely.

I want to finish with a quote that really sums up the importance of this event and what it means to each of us.  By my fellow graduate, Kenneth J.

He says, “A seed that wishes to thrive will blossom through concrete.”

And that is exactly what we did.




(I’m sharing this with Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, the directors of the Oregon Youth Authority and the Oregon Dept. of Corrections, as well as my state senator and state representative.)  This young man is now taking college classes, and just got an A in his second term of an on line calculus class. His academic goal is to earn an MBA.

High School Graduation Day, in Prison

Graduations are wonderful. The best ones, however, are in prison, watching youth fill with intense pride and determination, grasping a diploma that was well out of their reach, until their lives turned around, until they felt a sense of hope and possibility in their lonely, desperate lives.

Today, they succeeded, they grew, they came into their own. Their valedictorian gave the best graduation speech any of us had ever heard, bringing us to tears, and cheers, earning a standing ovation from all.

“When the doors of this prison locked behind us, other doors opened ahead of us,” was his opening line.

Later, he told me he was half way towards achieving his associates degree, and dreams of earning an MBA. I have no doubt he will accomplish all of that, and more.

Another young man played a captivating song, exhibiting great talent on the guitar, and with his voice. The principal remarked that he had never played publicly before. It was another moment of amazement and celebration.

I watched sixteen young men celebrate their amazing achievement, and move ahead, seizing opportunity, changing their lives, and making a better world for all of us.

Congratulations, Trask River High School Class of 2013!