Good evening. Most of us in the class of 2021 are legally and socially considered adults now, and those who aren’t yet will be soon enough. It’s common to hear “grow up” and “act your age,” and although we still have a few years before our brains are considered fully developed, people expect more from us than ever before. They want us to show our responsibility and maturity because we’re not children anymore. We’ve grown past that.
We see young children as the prime example of immaturity. Pushing people on the playground, making up silly games, treating toys and stuffed animals with devotion— that was childish, wasn’t it?
And then we all got to middle school. Playing tag at recess turned to taking selfies in the bathroom at lunch and then hoping you’d get tagged in something because being “it” meant you were involved and people were running to you, not away. Dressing fashionably, having a nice new phone, maybe even having a significant other at the age of twelve meant you were so grownup and cool. Knowing who you were with respect to the cliques forming around you was a sign of maturity. Staying in your own lane and sticking to people “like you” meant you knew what was up.
Those were all signs of growing up in this society, and if being mature means knowing how to act in a way that’s socially acceptable, then sure, that’s middle school maturity. Middle schoolers think they’re more mature than elementary schoolers, and high schoolers think they’re more mature than middle schoolers, because getting older means dealing with bigger issues and knowing more about the world.
Personally, I’d like to say I’ve matured. For example, when I was really little, I wanted to be a mermaid princess. These days, I hold no illusions about being a mermaid princess in this economy. I’ve moved on to dreams of having a nice house and a stable job— grown-up hopes that make sense for someone my age.
But is there a difference between growing up and becoming mature, or growing up and just growing older? Is dismissing your dreams, no matter how silly and impossible they are, really the true spirit of growing up? Is making fun of a child’s dream a sign of maturity? Or does real maturity allow us to laugh in happy remembrance of how we used to see the world, and maybe hang onto that joy a bit longer?
Maybe I can’t be a mermaid princess. I can’t live in an underwater kingdom. But if it’s the wonder and the freedom and the adventure of being a mermaid princess that I was drawn to, I haven’t given that up. Now, as an eighteen-year-old, I like writing fantasy novels, and although I haven’t written anything recently about mermaid princesses, who’s to say I won’t ever? I don’t think I will ever. But I don’t want to forget all the easy, silly things of childhood in order to be an adult. Maturity doesn’t mean mocking simplicity, criticizing vulnerability, or distancing yourself from potential embarrassments at all costs.
Maturity doesn’t mean compromising your own beliefs for the sake of pleasing others, but it also doesn’t mean holding tight to something that’s not working out for you. It isn’t deciding that you’re better than someone else. Being mature doesn’t mean being judgmental. It means being able to acknowledge differences and individuality. It means being able to see what’s wrong with society, not just going along with what is common and acceptable. It means being able to see what you’ve done wrong, not just what someone else has done wrong. It means recognizing that other people have worth and you do too. Being grown-up doesn’t mean having everything planned out for yourself. It means learning more about yourself and others and testing out different paths to find the right one, and taking it easy on yourself if you trip up.
The events of the past year have forced all of us to new levels of maturity. We’ve faced a pandemic as well as political conflict, gun violence, hate crimes, and pervasive racism. We’ve worn masks to protect ourselves and other people. We’ve adapted to life, school, and work online. We’ve engaged with the news, we’ve attended protests and donated money, and listened. The pandemic may be getting better here in the US, but anyone who’s mature knows that other problems have deeper roots. Sugarcoated idealism may not be a sign of maturity, but believing in progress, having hope, and working for a better future are. Limiting someone else’s possibilities is not maturity. But being yourself, challenging your own limits, caring for others, and searching for the knowledge you don’t yet have, that’s maturity you can be proud of. And, class of 2021, I’ve seen all that in you. Our society should be responsible, just, dedicated, and mature. That can start with each of us. Thank you.