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Valedictorian Address: Paying Attention

By: Gracie Coe

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand?

Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, poses this rhetorical question in her poem “Summer Day.”  I believe that my years at Veritas have helped me clearly grasp the answer to Oliver’s question: God. God made the world.  God made the grasshopper.  And He designed us for worship.

My classmates and I  have the distinct privilege of graduating on the 25th year anniversary of Veritas Christian Academy’s founding. I reached out to some early members of the Veritas faculty to better understand what the original vision of Veritas was. Mrs. Michelle Hill, who was a beloved literature teacher and served as Grammar School Principal before moving to Florida a few years ago says this: “the desire was for students to become lifelong learners who would know how to think about ideas through a biblical worldview. … we wanted to cultivate a sense of curiosity and awe and wonder of our Creator God. … we wanted students to take that awe and wonder of God and look at why it matters and how it influences every aspect of life, and then begin articulating those thoughts.”  

Dr. Woods shares, “time is of the essence, not in a hurry scurry manner or the way that the world counts time, but in the sense that we are called to redeem the time … we seek to be attentive to making the most of every opportunity.We have acted to purposefully slow the day down. We know that a child learns best at rest.”

It is not uncommon at Veritas to see students out near the chicken coop, sitting on the ground holding our new brood of chicks. A few days ago some students discovered and made friends with a turtle they found while playing and exploring in the woods on campus.  These children, in essence, were paying attention. And I was reminded last night at our Rhetoric Awards Ceremony of how Hannah Stage was stopped cold in her steps when she entered the Raphael exhibit in Florence on our Senior Trip to Italy and saw the School of Athens, a painting she had only been able to observe in texts up until that moment. She paid attention. She slowed down. She let awe fill her. 

At Veritas, we are taught what Mary Oliver declares in her poem when she writes about spending her entire day watching that grasshopper, “Tell me, what else should I have done?” We are made for wonder. We are made for worship.  We have nothing more important to do.

Veritas provides us with an ideal environment in which to grow into our best selves. I came to Veritas as a homeschooler in 5th grade. I had never darkened the door of a school and I had no idea what I was doing. When I arrived at Veritas I was blessed with what I call the Dream Team, Mrs. Barbara Johnson and Ms. Cindy Neal.  I have a vivid memory of playing kickball on the field every recess. I wasn’t used to being at a school, I was (and still am) tiny. I was (and still am) chronically un-athletic. I was terrible at kickball. But that didn’t matter.  Because  every time I was up, Ms. Neal would step forward and shout: “Everyone move back! Nobody touches the ball! It’s Gracie’s turn!” She made sure I had the room I needed to be successful, in my own un-athletic way. She created a space where I couldn’t possibly fail. And that sowed early seeds of confidence. So, thank you Ms. Neal for paying attention.  Don’t underestimate your role in getting me up on this stage tonight.  I am still un-athletic. I still hate kickball.  But I am stronger because of YOU--and I know 100s of Veritas kids would say the same. But Ms. Neal is only one Veritas staff member, and I am only one student.  For 25 years, every staff at Veritas has been investing themselves in our growth and success and our journey of faith.  They have been paying attention to us. 

Mrs. Cathy Allen, who served Veritas in the front office from day one, and for 25 years, knew every student’s name and treated every child like we were the most important thing on her to-do list. One of my favorite memories of Mrs. Allen is her interactive Christmas nativity on her desk every December.  If you ever had the opportunity to enjoy this, you might remember the Little People Nativity with Baby Jeus and Mary and Joseph.  She had a big basket of random little toy animals and people under her desk.  Over the month, she invited students in--some current, some little Veritas siblings--to choose an animal or person to make its way onto her desk and into the Nativity, until finally she’d have a sprawling Nativity of all manner of creatures witnessing the birth of Jesus.  And when I think of it now, how she invited us to pay attention and participate, I appreciate her so much.  And I see now how that Nativity was such a great picture of the body of Christ--a seemingly haphazard--gathering, shepherds and astronauts, wisemen and cowboys--but united by worship of our Lord. Thank you, Mrs. Allen, for paying attention.

In March, our beloved maintenance assistant Greg Hamlin lost his battle with cancer. The halls are quieter without his bright shining face spreading joy everywhere he went about campus.  He was an example to all of us of positivity and knowing what is truly important. He made it his business to talk to all students, to greet us with his contagious smile. Thank you, Mr. Greg, for paying attention.

I speak for my graduating class, and for every other student at Veritas, when I say thank you, Veritas, for loving us, nurturing us, and drawing us closer to the Lord. Thank you for paying attention. Besides Grace and Anna, who have been here since forever, most of us didn’t spend our whole school life here. Maggie, Ashton, and Phillip didn’t join us until 10th and 11th grades, and yet, Veritas still made a home for them, and now, it’s hard to imagine our class without them. 

Mary Oliver goes on to say in her poem, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed.” Thank you, Veritas, for teaching us how to better pray and making space for us to pay attention, to kneel in the grass.  I don’t just mean how to properly take notes and listen to the teachers. I mean how to really pay attention.

To pay attention to others inside of our community so we can love them well. To pay attention to God’s creation so we can enjoy its wonder. And to pay attention to ourselves--who we are, and why we are here, in this big world. Because when we do that, we can better fulfill what Veritas has taught us our real purpose is--to glorify God. Or, in the words of Mrs. Hill, to “choose to follow Christ and live our lives according to Him and to live our lives loving Him and sharing the gospel with others.” 

Veritas gives us the space and tools we need to grow. It holds our hand the whole way, but it also equips us with the tools we need when it is time to let go.  And, my fellow classmates, that time is now.  Tonight we begin to let go as we walk across this stage in a few moments. It’s time to say goodbye, and go out on our own, and to shift our attention to new and exciting things. 

And so, Veritas Christian Academy Class of 2024, I want to leave you with a charge, in the words of Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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