Given by Liangliang "Lynn" Zhang '12
Good afternoon, alumni, parents, teachers, staff, and the best class in the history of NMH. My name is Zhang Liangliang, but I go by Lynn. I am extremely blessed and honored to be named the valedictorian of the Class of 2012 of Northfield Mount Hermon School.
Now, I would like to invite all of you to join me in an incredibly important exercise. Please follow my instructions. Close your eyes. Calm yourself. Try not to make any sound. Inhale through your nose, one, two, three, four, and exhale through your nose, one, two, three, four. Sense the tranquility, enjoy the absolute silence. Now please open your eyes.
All right, so what did we just do? We breathed together. And guess what I would like to talk about today? Right, breathing. If you think this topic is a little odd, you‘re not alone. Last Monday, when I was hanging out with Mr. Block in the Upper South lounge, he asked me, “My dear, what are you going to talk about in your valedictory speech?” “Breathing,” I said. Mr. Block’s moustache rose in disbelief, “Well, do you suppose your audience does not know how to breathe?” So just a quick clarification—I trust that each and every one of you is a skillful breather. But I understand that each and every one of you is so engaged in a myriad of pursuits and duties that you sometimes forget to breathe. What I would like to do, in the next few minutes, is remind you of the meaning and value of breathing.
So what is breathing? Breathing is more than a system-determined muscle reflex that involves movements of the diaphragm and rib cage pumping air in and out of our lungs. Breathing is spiritual.
Coming from China, I know that breathing is a way of forming connections with the spirit of the world. Whether you practice a religion or not, you might recognize the existence of a power greater than human, an ineffable force that sustains and guides us. If you have taken the Humanities II class at NMH, you have come across Taoism, a Chinese philosophical/religious school established by Lao Tzu in 4th century BC. Literally, “Tao” means "way." Taoism, therefore, is a way of establishing harmony between the individual and the cosmos. In over two thousand years of practice, Taoism developed an intricate active meditation—the martial art of Tai Chi.
At the age of fourteen, I started practicing Tai Chi with my master-Shifu Sun Kim Shiu, a 67-year old national champion. The first day of class, I was prepared to be worn out by hard work, and probably beaten up as well. However, my master-Shifu had me do nothing but stand in the morning breeze and breathe. I got antsy in less than five minutes, silently grumbling, “My parents didn’t pay you to teach me how to breathe.” Master-Shifu, sensing my agitation, smiled and said, “Would you focus a little more if you know that you are practicing the highest skill of Tai Chi?” You see, the essence of practicing Tai Chi lies not in learning its movements, but in opening up a pathway between my own spirit and the spirit of the world through breathing. And once this connection is established, movements naturally flow from me as my private ego yields to a higher power. I am amazed by this ancient wisdom—to connect with the universe simply through breathing, to let the spirit of the world flow through one’s mind, guide one’s actions, and support one’s pursuits.
At NMH, I learned that breathing is a way of forming connections with my own heart. I learned this art from my beloved adviser and mentor Lara Freeman—who, despite her craziness, exudes an otherworldly peaceful aura. My NMH experience, although great at most times, was not without hardships. This past winter, when I was struggling with some seemingly unconquerable difficulties in my life, Lara had me come over to her apartment. Peering into my eyes as if penetrating my soul, Lara gently said, “Sometimes, you just need to remember how to breathe.” Then, hand in hand, we breathed together quietly. I closed my eyes, allowing a watery serenity to creep over my body. I heard a strong, soothing throbbing. I perceived a tranquil voice surging from every direction—just keep breathing, just keep listening to your heart. Opening my eyes, I knew my perspective on life would be different forever.
This past April was a month of mixed delight for all of us. Just like you, I used to think that hitting the submit button was so hard. But after I received several college acceptance letters, I realized that hitting the accept button was even harder. Researching online, visiting schools, and conversing with numerous people effectively narrowed down my choice to two schools: one in Pennsylvania, the other in North Carolina. Then, it became pretty hard. My friends almost organized a debate tournament for my sake—50% supporting one university, 50% the other. I couldn’t even count on my parents. My mom sent me an email on Wednesday saying, “Honey, we believe this university is the best school for you and here are ten good reasons.” Great! I should definitely go there! Two days later, she sent me another saying, “Honey, after some more consideration we are convinced that the other university is the best school for you and here are ten good reasons.” Great! Now what? In the state of confusion, I got a piece of invaluable advice from Sheila Heffernon—to set up a quiet time and to listen to my heart.
The next afternoon, I went down to Shadow Lake to breathe. I flattened myself on the west bank and closed my eyes, focusing on inhaling, exhaling, inhaling. One, two, three, four. My mind clear, my heart peaceful, I knew that I had connected with the spirit of the world. I knew that I was supported. At that moment, I heard the voice of my heart. And chose.
In addition to forming connections with the world and with your heart, breathing connects you with the people you love. My dear classmates, when we were breathing in quietude collectively just now, I hope that you felt an invisible thread weaving us together into a breathing unity; I hope you felt a secure sense of belonging listening to each other’s breathing. No matter how much we love each other, and how reluctant we are to depart, we are destined to embark on a new journey in less than 24 hours. I want you to remember this afternoon, when all of us breathed together in quietude, when a sense of belonging, security, and love flowed with the air through each of us. Whenever you begin to miss one another in the future, take a moment, close your eyes and breathe. You will realize that, scattered across the world, we are all breathing in the same rhythm, just like today, in this beautiful chapel. Let our breathing, the simplest activity, be the invisible net that links all of us together.
My dear class of 2012, I know you are full of passion, full of dreams, willing to think, and eager to act. I know you will shape the world into a better place by your intelligence and determination. But please, in your incredible future, take a moment to focus on your breathing, to gather strength and inner peace, to listen to the voice of your heart, and to think of all the people who love you and support you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, please remember that we have been, we are, and we will always be breathing together.
Now, allow me to conclude with an original piano composition. NMH has encouraged me to become the musician I never thought I could become. Maybe the best way of saying goodbye is through music. This piece, named “Rainbow Days,” reflects my NMH experience—bliss imbued with occasional bitterness, culminating in joy. I only have one little request—when my piece is finished, please take a moment to breathe with me in quietude.
Before I shift to the piano, I want to thank my parents for giving me life and loving me dearly. I want to thank my teachers and friends for filling my life with meaning and delight. I want to thank NMH for three years of the best time of my life…so far. And I want to thank all of you for listening to the voice of my heart today. In my grandma’s words, may God be with you along the way.