I was a valedictorian in my high school class. There were six of us with 4.0 averages (no extra points in that era for A+s or Honors or AP classes). Because there were so many of us, we were each given three minutes to speak at our graduation ceremony. We each chose one emotion to speak about, and I chose “Wonder.” (The single salutatorian got a whole fifteen minutes to himself.)
I thought my speech was long gone. I can remember practicing it alone in my room, over and over, and could remember a few phrases even now, more than forty years later. I can remember giving it on graduation night, looking out at friendly faces in the crowd and feeling the exuberance of the moment. At one point there had been a cassette tape of one of my practice sessions, but I hadn’t seen it in years, and I thought the text of the speech was lost.
Then when I was going through my father’s papers last week I found a copy. Because the topic was “wonder”, he used to tease me about it being the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” speech. But it must have meant something to him, because he kept it.
Here it is (I’ve corrected a few typos):
Wonder, by Theresa Claudson
Do you ever look at the sky and realize that you are looking at infinity? Beyond the clouds there is a sun 93 million miles away, and beyond the sun there are stars billions of miles further. Beyond the stars there is . . . who knows? The immensity of the universe is more than we can imagine. Any attempt at realizing the gigantic cosmos that surrounds us brings to our minds bafflement, incomprehension, fear; and yet there is also a sense of exhilaration, excitement, and amazement. In short, the emotion we feel when confronted with our own insignificance can only be described as wonder.
I call it wonder because, while there is certainly fear at the recognition of our infinitesimal part in the universe, and bewilderment at the realization that we will never understand all that surrounds us, there is also amazement that we are here at all, and joy at the perfection and order which bring beauty to all of nature. From the solar system to the atom, our world is arranged in a more complex symmetry than man could ever imagine. Clouds, trees, flowers, each one has an individual beauty which harmonizes perfectly with its surroundings. Have you ever seen a part of nature which was ugly? Nature and ugliness are utterly opposed.
But nature is not all that is wonderful. The workings of the human mind are also amazing. An artist or a musician, through thoughts imagined in his soul, can create beauty and emotions universal to all men. Who can look at Michelangelo’s David and not feel the strength and vigor present, or listen to Chopin and not feel his sadness?
There is, however, something still more beautiful, more wonderful than the creations of the human mind. And this is the existence of life itself. That a mere lump of protoplasm can breathe, move, and think; in short, that it can live is the most supreme miracle in the universe. Too few of us realize what a wonderful thing life is. We try to explain the workings of the body, the mind, and even of the universe. While there is nothing wrong with this knowledge in itself, things tend to become blasé after they are explained. Instead, we should accept the miracle of life and the beauty of nature as our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Let us not allow modern sophistication to make us lose the sense of wonder we once had. Let us remember, nature is beautiful, and life is wonderful.
Myself at almost sixty might not agree with every word in the speech, but last week I needed to hear these words from my youthful self about life and joy and wonder as I confronted the detritus of death. And I still agree with most of the sentiments expressed in the speech.
What in your life makes you feel wonder?