Liz Johnston's Valedictory Address

Hello.  Welcome, to the.. end of the marathon that has been today. President Barker, President Traves, Members of the Board, Administration, faculty, staff, parents and family, and all of you matching people in the first five rows, it is my incredible honour to be addressing you today as the Valedictorian for the University of King’s College class of 2011.


Weeks ago, I had a nightmare wherein I had completely forgotten to write my valedictory and almost slept through Encaenia altogether. But, luckily, in the nightmare, after some smooth maneuvering of the limousine (sent by the university to ensure my immediate arrival) and driven by a slightly deranged Jude Law I showed up just in time and with the perfect speech, written on the back of a cereal box. Somehow in my seven-minute drive I had managed to mix just the right amount of reminiscence and humour, schmaltz and inspiration. I had turns of phrase in there that were so.. delightful. But this is not that speech. You see, because I woke up from that dream and immediately tried to write down what I remembered and instead ended up with a rhyming couplet about the value of green space in cities and its positive effects on students.

So I was left to come up with the perfect words for today, entirely on my own, without any help from my subconscious. I had the ever-so-daunting task of trying to describe what “King’s is to me”, what it is has been for us. More importantly I was charged with trying to share that experience with you, the once eager and now practically comatose audience. How could I even begin to write about my experiences here, with all of you? How could I put these past four years onto paper? How could I beat the “bring a book” mentality?

Faced with this daunting task I sought guidance at every turn. I asked friends, strangers, and professors. I even returned to ask my high-school valedictory advisory for some further advice All he had to say was that if I did use any quotations they should be from a Canadian, because everyone always quotes Brits or Americans, so I ripped up my page of Shakespearean passages and moved on. There were an endless number of false starts, and I must thank those of you who put up with me through all of them.

To friends who dissuaded me from performing my Colin Firth impression from The King’s Speech (get it!), which was in fact far less funny, and more offensive than I had originally thought. To the friend who upon my pleading for help to make the speech more funny offered me jokes like “Graduating is kind of like being cleared to go into outer space… Lance Bass hasn’t done it”. To that other member of the “Valedictorian club” who reminded me of George Burn’s famous words; “the secret to a good speech is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible”. I thank you all for your support.

My peers here have always supported me but to say that I have never encountered a more supportive group of people would be untrue, I went to a camp for 12 years where “sigh” was a bad word, it was the social equivalent of an excellent sports bra. So no, this is not the most supportive group of people I have ever encountered. Nor is it the most exquisitely beautiful, charming, or sweet group of people I have ever known. It is, however, a group of people who consistently challenges, pushes, and demands the best of each other. I have never wished to succeed as I have here at King’s among my peers, and I find it hard to believe that I might ever find a group so open to discussion and debate as these people are. This class has an immense capacity for Kindness, their generosity of spirit is overwhelming and the intelligence of these individuals seated around me is staggering.

Sufficed to say I was not pleased with the idea of coming up short as their choice for valedictorian. I couldn’t bear to think about it anymore and refused to discuss the speech for a long time. Finally I returned to my old notebooks. I went slowly; page-by-page, through my first semester of FYP and then I found it. It had to be one of the most serendipitous moments I have ever experienced.

A friend had asked me if there was anything, any object, that had been with me throughout my entire University career that might serve as a focal point, or at least give me some inspiration. I couldn’t think of anything, most important objects that came with me from high school had been lost or forgotten over time. But between the pages of ancient Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh I found this photo. (Which, obviously all of you can see and is thus a very important prop!). It is a picture of my parents when they are about the age that I am now. This has been my favourite picture since its discovery in the 8th grade and when I thought that I had lost it in the move after first year I was distraught. This small and faded picture was what I kept with me all through first year to remind myself of what I had to live up to. My parents have been a constant source of inspiration and now, more than ever, as we prepare to – return home and begin freeloading again – we must remind them of how much we appreciate and respect their dedication to our education. Whether they forced or allowed us to come here, our families recognized just how wonderful a place King’s is. So, even if we cannot share what a unique experience we have had, we must thank all of our families for acknowledging that it exists. Thank you.

This picture I’ve been telling you about was stuck to a page in my notes entitled; “The Ancient Near East II: Mesopotamia” and further down the page there was a note which I had underlined and highlighted. The line read; it was too important to be written. The ancient epics of the Mesopotamians were only entrusted to poets, priests and singers. The myths were a collective memory; they were the truth about the community. It was these ancient narratives, these myths, that shaped the world. King’s has countless myths surrounding it. Its narratives belong to the students who add to this community and it is the retelling of these myths to each new generation that allow the narratives to grow and survive. I realize now that I will never be able to write about what King’s has meant to us, because it does not belong on paper. It is too important to be written.

Of course the note at the very bottom of the same page read “A Priest would recite this myth while the King was beaten in mud. If he didn’t cry it would not be successful.”Still,  I think that my extremely poignant message holds.

I have found myself incapable of describing King’s and what it has meant to us. It belongs to the priests, the poets, and the musicians. It cannot be written about in an essay, or article, or speech, and it can certainly not be described in the 5 minutes or less that our communal attention spans allow. It is an experience that we have shared and will keep alive in the ritual retelling of our favourite stories, and singing of our favourite songs.

There is no way that we can describe why the Wardroom birthday is so important, but I can tell you a story about a boy who burst into the KSU office only to befoul the newest box of the Students Union flyers and then flee in shame from the Quad holding the box while being chased by Student Patrol, only then to leave it on the doorstep of an unsuspecting neighbour.

We can’t explain to you why Dr. Bill Barker was such an excellent fit at Kings but I can tell you about the first time I met him as a first year, I was asking Pam Dean, his secretary and godsend for all of the King’s administration, if I could literally steal the rug from under her feet for a KTS production I was directing. As Pam thankfully agreed to lend me the large carpet, Dr. Barker turned to me and said, if you could have anyone speak at graduation, who would it be? I was still four years from graduating at this point but he pressed so I thought of those I had heard speak in Toronto and came up with the name of Miriam Toews, “Oh. She went here. Yes, I like that idea, we could do an honorary thing”. No one else seems to remember this story, but it is a real tribute to Dr. Barker’s open attitude and incredible ease with students. Bill, You have made our King’s experience so enjoyable and we thank you.

We can’t explain what Zona Roberts means us, but I can tell you about the times I’ve seen her literally stuff food into starving students pockets.

We cant’s explain the tradition of the April Fools water balloon fight, but I can play you the Ride of the Valkyries and we will see the blood-lust rise in those old enemies of Alex Hall and the Bays.

And we certainly can’t explain how one might actually make themselves a family out of friends at King’s. But I can tell you all about the 4 beautiful girls I have lived with non-stop in the same house for the past 3 years and how unbearable it will be to leave them.

Our graduating class is so diverse and although I cannot pretend to understand what everyone’s experience of King’s has been. I know that wherever they choose to go, whether with a degree in Journalism, Early Modern Studies, Contemporary Studies, History of Science and Technology, or any of the countless Dalhousie degrees, they will continue to share their stories about King’s. They will continue to dance, and sing, and drink more heavily than other people on Monday nights. They will all understand what I have understood but cannot ever fully share with all of you.

Some of us will go on to grad school, some of us will travel, some have fantastic jobs lined up (lucky sons a..), and some will very well end up back here teaching. The future is far too uncertain for me to tell all of you that you will be successful, or happy, or destitute. I cannot pretend to offer you advice when I am as lost as the anyone, but I can look at these faces around me and know that wherever you happen to end up you will still be able to challenge, discuss, and demand the best from those around you. Live and learn generously as I know you are all capable of doing and I’m sure you will be alright, and if not, make sure to keep the numbers of everyone else that is graduating so you can ride their coat tails to success.

To my class of 2011. I could not be more honoured to enter this crazy mixed up world with anyone else.

Thank you!