I Shaped My Life Based on Overheard Words
I didn’t know what a high school valedictorian was until a classmate in grade seven said I would be one. And so that’s what I did.
It all started on the drive home from the junior high band concert. It was the first concert of the year, and it was my first year at that school. Though it had started rough, I had made a few friends and my class was great. We were the dictionary definition of band geeks, and I was completely okay with that.
On the ride home after the concert, my mom was telling me about the parents she met at the event. “That Joshua kid seems nice,” she said. “I talked to his mom and she told me that Joshua said you’ll be your class’ high school valedictorian.”
My little grade-seven brain tried to process that comment. First, how embarrassing that my mom was talking to Joshua and his mom! Second, Joshua was talking to his mom about me — what does that mean? Third, what’s a valedictorian?
After my parents explained that the valedictorian was the student with the highest grades in the graduating class, I decided: okay, if Joshua says I’m going to be valedictorian, I’ll be valedictorian. From that moment on, and for the next five and a half years, that was my singular focus. I was going to be our valedictorian.
Looking back, I’m not sure why that comment made such a lasting impression. I wasn’t close friends with Joshua, nor did I typically put a lot of weight on the things he said. Also, I was in grade seven! I will note that I had always been academic. I loved school (and still do) and was usually near the top of the class. And, not to brag, but teachers loved me. (I realize now that that’s not necessarily something to be proud of.) All this to say: being valedictorian wasn’t something out of reach for me in five years, but it had clearly never crossed my mind at that point.
It was that statement, that confident yet casual affirmation of my future identity that stayed with me and ultimately guided my trajectory.
I worked hard in all of my classes, even though it was just junior high. Being at the top of my class became a priority of mine. There was a notice board in my school that listed the honor role students in order after each report card. I made it my mission to be at the top of that list. It wasn’t easy; there were two boys who would often be in the top three with me, and we’d take turns for spot number one.
When I got into high school the pressure was on. I continued to focus on my grades. My only extracurriculars were jazz band and I did some tutoring. My focus was valedictorian.
Let’s intermission here to add a few details:
- My high school was not very big at around 250 students in each grade; and,
- I did not have a social life and would not have had a social life if I wasn’t trying for valedictorian — it just worked out that without a social life, I could spend my lunches studying in the library.
I became valedictorian
I did it. Joshua’s statement from years earlier came true. I lived up to that expectation.
I was relieved and I was excited. My work had paid off. I had done it. I was so excited to finally have my time on the stage to give a speech and to get that affirmation that I was the best. Joshua was right, I was the valedictorian. It felt good.
The good and the bad
I share this story not to try and hype myself up. I know nobody cares who we were in high school.
I share this because that seemingly random and casual statement had power over me. I didn’t realize it at the time, and I’m sure my mom doesn’t even remember telling me about it, but it defined my teen years.
One person’s confidence in my ability to succeed made a huge difference in my life. I felt accountable to that identity and felt affirmed that I would do it.
Like all powerful things, confident words have consequences. I let that comment change my life, and I realize now that it probably wasn’t a good thing. I had such a narrow focus that I missed out on a lot of the fun things that high school can be about. Reflecting on this experience, I’ve learned the value of being conscious of the words I listen to and trusting myself to decide how to respond to them. I made living up to that statement my singular goal, and once I’d achieved it, I felt lost.
I remained academically-inclined in university and grad school, but I no longer had that same driving force. I realized I had to create my own goals. Who would I be? What would I do? It was hard work, and I still sometimes find myself wandering aimlessly in post-grad life. But as I’ve been thinking about this moment, I’ve come to recognize that I should be learning from this experience!
I was driven to achieve a goal that ultimately became my identity because of something I heard from someone who heard it from someone else. What must be the power of words when spoken intentionally?
So what does this mean? If you see something good in someone, tell them. Affirm in them the value and character that you see. You never know the power those words can have.
As I’ve had to learn, be intentional about the words you speak to yourself. Affirm the skills you know you have, and set confident goals. Don’t question those goals; work towards them.
Ultimately, I am grateful for Joshua’s comment that day. It helped me gain confidence in myself and gave me a sense of purpose even if it was a bit misguided.
I’ll leave you with a few summarizing points:
- Listen to words carefully; don’t let others define your goals
- Words are powerful; affirm the good you see in people. You just might change someone’s life.