Co-valedictorian Remarks by Yiwen “Richard” Li delivered at Class Day Exercises on Thursday, May 19, 2022
I am a deeply flawed student. I have played thousands of hours of computer games. I stay up watching random videos on the internet until dawn. I procrastinate and frequently finish my work on the verge of the deadline. I consume so much cold brew coffee at the school store that I should be given my own loyalty card. And yes, if you saw a fool wandering around the campus with a bright orange squid hat, that was also me. Quite honestly, I have never considered myself as an “exemplary student,” let alone someone capable of offering inspiration. Therefore, I brought with me a simple story this evening.
It was quite late at night during our last spring break. My dear friends, Minh Tran and Jackson Xu, and I were in an Uber in New York City. Naturally, the car progressed at a walking pace. City lights pierced through the frigid darkness, illuminating the car’s interior. The radio was off, and there was only some hypnotizing humming from the engine. It was a good occasion to be philosophical. Now, for those of you who feel an irresistible urge right now to just shut your eyes, I promise I will not bring up Nietzsche or Derrida’s philosophical deconstruction, despite their presence in our conversation that night. Instead, here is a question from back then that is hopefully relevant to every one of us here today. “What would you do differently if you were placed at the starting point of your NMH journey, far, far back in time, with all your memories intact?” I am sure we all have different answers, and my response was: I would not have changed a single thing.
In hindsight, however, the answer I gave sounds quite ridiculous. Certainly, there are things I would have changed: I should have gotten a better haircut, for one, or perhaps I should have somehow become sick this week to avoid exposing my awkward story to hundreds of inquisitive eyes here in a couple of minutes. Jokes aside though, my statement of maintaining the status quo largely holds true. I would still spend my leisure time relaxing and playing games instead of grinding for an extra credit. I would still invest two hours exploring the implications of eternal life and happiness with a friend right before a calculus test. I would still read the New York Times in the morning when the APs began. On the other hand though, I would also repeat the 20 hours I devoted to coming up with a Latin poem in perfect meters, or further optimizing the Python program despite already getting the nod from my teacher, or looking up proofs of a mathematical theorem that is beyond the curriculum. I do not regret these seemingly irrational investments of time not because of some “greater academic dedication,” but because of genuine interest. I have found a dynamic balance between attaining effective personal development and enjoying my daily life; additionally, I have found a balance between the grades and my personal passion. Thus, forcing myself to diverge from this equilibrium would be an act of insincerity and irresponsibility.
I reached this conclusion not through some whimsical assumptions, but a painstaking endeavor of trial and error. In all the educational institutions that I attended back in China, the teachers there loved to compare the state of a student to a canoe paddling against the current. They emphasized that the lack of effort and dedication is essentially the same as regression. The classes were hyper-competitive. Every exam was ranked among the entire grade. We were expected to study in advance and learn extra content on our own. Teachers promoted “good” students to the front row and removed the “bad” ones to the back. I lived up to this unhealthy expectation for some years, yet it never felt fulfilling or meaningful. Rather, it was me automatically checking off objectives on an endlessly long list. I was constantly anxious about grades and often annoyed at myself for not reading the prompt carefully or making a trivial spelling mistake. Meanwhile, I also lamented my diminished time to pursue hobbies and just have fun. Regret overshadowed any sense of joy or purpose that I could possibly extract from my labor, thus rendering it overburdening, worthless, and sometimes even disdainful.
On the contrary, entering NMH was like moving to the opposite end of the educational spectrum. I have not been told exactly what to do but encouraged to explore what I love. No one will ever judge me as a person because of my grades. Our enthusiasm, whether in academic achievements, sports, service, or peculiar class songs, is recognized and respected. Admittedly, adapting to this new way of living and learning was not entirely effortless, yet it was a fun experiment to figure out the optimal balance. There were times when I stayed up until 3 am to refine a video project, but also times when I scrambled during a group discussion because I spent my time playing pool in Blake instead of reading — yes, that actually happened. Ultimately though, I found a recipe of work and rest that served me well, and I stuck to it. This is why I would keep things the way they are if I were to repeat my time at NMH. Well, maybe except that I should have asked someone out to the Chât Dance.
Perhaps my individual response is of little relevance to us all. In fact, all of our answers to what we would have done otherwise become irrelevant, for we cannot alter the past. Yet, when we encounter similar questions in future, I wish we can all proclaim that there are no regrets because we have let our passions guide us and have reached the equilibrium points unique to us all. Let us know ourselves and have faith in the decisions we make. More importantly, let us make the most joy in our own ways, not only for our last 72 hours here on campus, but for decades beyond.
Thank you, NMH Class of 2022, and I will see all of your cheerful faces at commencement.