Beverly Speakes’ Class of 2013 Valedictorian Speech

Beverly Speaks and Congressman CohenCongressman Steve Cohen congratulates Beverly Speakes

Beverly Speakes was the valedictorian for MCA’s 63rd graduating class. She presented the following speech to family and friends, faculty and fellow graduates at the commencement ceremony, held at the Levitt Shell:

I’m a non-traditional student who’s overcome—or worked around—some non-traditional obstacles. It’s a good thing I’m creative and more than a little bit obsessive, because those traits have put me here speaking to you today. Since I’ve been a student at MCA, when I’ve been out and people have seen my ID, they’ve invariably assumed that I was a grad student or a teacher. “No,” I told them, “I’m working for my undergrad—I’m just a slow starter”—and since it’s now 2013, obviously I’m a slow finisher, as well. It’s taken me 10 years to get my degree, but my dreams of art school and my desire for an art degree have existed much longer than that. I had heard about Memphis College of Art for as long as I’d been in Memphis, and I nurtured a secret desire to be a student here. But life happened. There was work and child raising and more work, and every year, my plans moved me further and further away from the idea of being at MCA. I finally quit thinking about it entirely. Then one year, I became very ill, plans went awry, my existence went sideways, and within a short time, the person I had been was gone, and the person I’d become was a stranger. And then more life happened—because that’s what it does. But slowly, I began to move forward. In 2002, applying to Memphis College of Art—finally taking that first step—was a way of moving forward for me. I learned early on that I wasn’t able to study the way people usually do, so I had to figure out how I could study. And I did. Even so, it’s been hard. But here I am.

I’ve been here for a long time. I remember when Leslie became the librarian, when Shane began teaching Illustration, and when Tom Lee’s facial hair looked more…domesticated. I was the RA the first year that Metz Hall was open. Mike and Jeff, with their maintenance super powers, became my heroes that year. There were 40-plus residents, mostly freshman, many of whom had never been away from home before. That term was never—ever—dull. And it gave me some lasting relationships. In just a few years, I saw those fellow students graduate—and I’m still in touch with some of them. I’ve seen them go on to grad school, to work—several have gotten married and now have families. Watching them begin their away-from-home lives at MCA and then go out into the world has made me feel as though I am a part of something large and wide reaching.

MCA has taken a group trip every Spring since I’ve been here. One year, I went with them to Paris. It was cold; it even snowed a little. But it was Paris and it was amazing—even though I was worse for wear when I got back home. I saw works by Leonardo, Dali, Kandinsky and Degas—and I visited Jim Morrison’s grave. That trip was something I’ll never forget. Every year, I’ve thought about going to Horn Island too, and although Lisa Tribo and Bob Riseling have made a good case for it, so far, I’m still way too attached to indoor plumbing to brave it, but maybe one day I’ll get there.

The best part of my MCA experience has been my 10-year exposure to art students and teachers. Being surrounded by talented, creative people is just about the best thing, ever. There’s nothing like it. I’ve learned a lot, and I have enduring memories of surf music and bunny stories. I’ve met so many incredible people…some who’ve already left, some who are leaving and some who’ll be here for a while longer. I’ve secretly wished to be a few of them—Brittany Vega, Krislee Kyle and Fidencio Martinez, this year, for instance. Seeing things through your eyes, listening to you talk about how you see the world has given me perspective that I don’t believe I’d have found anywhere else.

I’ve had a support system here at MCA. Today, some of those people are sitting behind me—some are in the audience, when in years past, they’d have also been sitting behind me—and some are not in attendance. But wherever they all are at this moment, their counsel and kindness has been most appreciated. Thank you especially to Betty Spence, who kept me sane and focused on more than one occasion. Thank-yous also go out to Jennifer Sargent, Shane McDermott, Tad Lauritzen-Wright and Fred Burton who, without fail, always made me feel as though I had potential. Thank you, as well, to Jeanine, Nona, Diane, Deborah, Kenny, Lisa, Zark and the rest of you who always met me with smiles, hellos and conversation.

Smiles and hellos and conversation mean a lot. And last but not least, my heartfelt thanks go to Susan Miller, who unfailingly encouraged me and who did her best to fix any problem I ever brought to her.

We sometimes hear—from non-artists, of course—that majoring in art is not desirable, that we should be investing in something that much of rest of the world believes to have a more guaranteed or lucrative return. I think the rest of the world is jealous. I believe that we, as artists, more than any other career demographic, invest in ourselves. We invest in the innate need we have to make art—to have that intensely personal experience—and share it. When we leave Memphis College of Art, things might not always turn out as we plan. There will probably be obstacles—and ups and downs. Things might be harder than we expect them to be. But it is vital that we—as artists—persevere. We need to continue making art and we need to continue sharing it. Art is one of the primary hallmarks of civilization. The world needs artists. We inspire. We ­are important.

The word “valedictorian” is derived from the Latin root phrase meaning, “to say farewell.” And this is the day we do just that. Our time at MCA has come to a close and we’ll follow different paths from here on out. We’re saying good-bye, but we’ll carry little bits of MCA with us—the memories of the people we’ve met here, the experiences we’ve had and the knowledge we’ve gained. We are now, forever, a part of Memphis College of Art and it is, forever, a part of us. I don’t know if any of us can impact the future in huge ways, but I firmly believe that the common spark that drew us to MCA, that part of us that’s been nurtured here, gives us, at least, the power to make the corners of the world where we eventually end up, little bit better. Thank you.

Beverly Speakes, Class of 2013 Valedictorian
May 11, 2013