Jennifer Harris is congratulated by JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools
Jennifer Harris is congratulated by JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools

Good Morning Mrs. Tier, Mr. Breen, Ms. Ivins, Mr. Smith, Parents and Families, faculty, and Class of 2018,

I would like to welcome everyone to the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2018 from Notre Dame High School-- I am Jennifer Harris, a proud member of this class.  

As I understand it, a valedictorian is supposed to express, among other things, aspirations which the class as a whole might strive to fulfill as well as his or her individual ones.  I don’t feel confident or qualified to tell my classmates what to do.  I don’t feel wise enough at this point in my life to share any particular advice.  I stand before you as the student in our grade with knowledge about hypothesis tests, derivatives, the parts of the brain, world wars, and ionic compounds thanks to so many amazing teachers at Notre Dame.  And yet, at times I feel like I have such little knowledge about who I am and where my life journey will take me in the years ahead.  When I have these moments of panic, I think of a very special teacher, the greatest teacher in my life, who has helped put me on the path for greater self-knowledge and instilled in me some of life’s most important lessons and values. Most of you know her as the AP Statistics teacher, or the “prob and stats” teacher, or the field hockey coach, or Mrs. Harris, but to me she is not only my mom, she is my master teacher.  

There are so many lessons my mom has taught me through the years but there’s one that stands out among the others.  It was during my freshman year and for some reason I attempted to be athletic and I joined the winter track team. During a meet in New York City, I remember the gun fired. I started running and fell on my face within the first 20 seconds of the race.  Somehow I managed to finish the 400, but I ran off the track and straight into my mom’s arms, bawling my eyes out.   That was the first time in my teenage years that I’ve ever cried in my mom’s arms.  

As my mom held me that day, I began to understand who I am as a person, someone who has feared failure her entire life and someone who has been afraid to ask for help. Through my mom’s hugs and words of wisdom that day, I gained the valuable lesson that failure is something we learn and grow from.  Most of all, my mom taught me that those who love you will stand by you and love you for exactly who you are.

I think we are all on the starting line of a new journey in our lives and many of us are feeling a bit unsteady and uncertain about our futures.  So today is a good opportunity to reflect on the life lessons that our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, and friends have shared with us through the years.  Who are the Master teachers in your life?  What lessons have they taught you? As you are dreaming of your future and trying to figure out who you truly are, never forget that you have been taught lessons of the heart and soul these past 18 years that can serve as important guideposts on your journey.

Today we take a giant step toward knowing and understanding ourselves on a much deeper level. We are tempted to dream of living a future achieving success in a career as a respected professional-- a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a scientist, an accountant, or a computer programmer.  We imagine ourselves constantly growing, always making the right choice on the best road to success.  And there is no harm in these dreams of the future.  But there is a more important task facing us. It is to find out as accurately as we can who we really are right now.  What thrills us?  What are we willing to sacrifice time and money for? What do we believe in? What and who do we love?  This is a task or a process of discernment. 

St.  Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the order of the Jesuit priests, called these questions, emotions, feelings, desires, and concerns, “the motions and movements of our souls.”  

Only when we take the time to reflect on these questions and understand our unique talents, abilities, and spiritual gifts, will we discover our true calling, our true selves, the person we were meant to be all along. Thankfully, all of us here today as graduates are blessed with family members, teachers, and friends who have helped lay the foundation of where our life journeys might lead us. As you are packing your clothes, bedspreads, mini-fridges, PlayStations, and photos for college, vocational schools, or military service, what are the lessons from your Master Teachers that you will pack and hold closely in your heart?

So what happened after that fateful day freshman year after I fell on my face? I guess it would make a great ending to say I stayed on the team and I never fell again.  But honestly that didn’t happen; I quit the team.  Or maybe I could tell you that I tried out for field hockey the next year to make my mom happy, but that didn’t happen either; at the last second, I decided against it.  Instead, I became a Peer Leader, I joined the Math League, and was inducted into the National Honor Society-- I embraced my inner nerd.  Why? Because four years ago on an indoor track field slobbering on my mom’s shoulder, she taught me and gave me permission to be my true self, the person I was meant to be all along, and she would love me every step of the way.