James Madison High School senior Michelle Xu knows the price that striving for success exacts.

Faced with a more intense focus on grades in high school, she dropped several rewarding activities to excel at schoolwork and get into a good college.

“I was following a formula for what I saw as greatness: fame, wealth, recognition,” said Xu, who gave the student address at the school’s June 7 commencement ceremony. “And this meant always facing a better version of myself, striving to be greater and accomplish greater things than others around me.”

Learning became a competition instead of a collaborative experience. Xu lamented when others bested her in academics and sports and barely could celebrate their achievements.

“My quest for greatness had  left me neither fulfilled nor rewarded,” Xu said. “I was a gilded figurine, a shiny but shallow imitation of what I could be.”

Xu belatedly realized how fortunate she’d been to be surrounded  by so many talented people.

“Loss, failure and pressure aren’t things to feel threatened by,” she said. “They were blessings in disguise that pushed me beyond the limits of my capability and kept me humble enough to ask for help.”

The 380-member class, clad in black caps and gowns, accepted their diplomas at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Retiring science teacher Matthew Thomson, who gave the keynote address, said he’d never planned on becoming a teacher. His parents hoped he would study engineering, medicine or law, so he chose engineering and struggled mightily in his first three years of college.

Thomson thought hard about educational experiences he’d enjoyed and remembered how his  high-school physics teacher had loved his subject and treated his pupils as people. Thomson became a teacher and discovered something pleasant: Mistakes always could be rectified in the next class or following school year.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Take second chances and, most importantly, give second chances to others,” he said, adding, “Always be ready for forgiveness and to be forgiven.”

Thomson said his personal struggles – bad grades, poor musical talent, countless lost golf balls and needing three marriage proposals to his future wife before she accepted – taught him to persevere.

“It’s the striving that’s important,” he said. “Set yourself a task that is not easily attained. Be willing to fail before you succeed. Choose the more difficult path. Reach for excellence and that will make your eventual success all the sweeter.”

Madison High administrators presented “Eminent Awards,” including Citizenship Awards to Hannah Kase and Afshin Nematiarjmand.

Kase “leads a life dedicated to the service of others,” said Timothy Buckley, director of student services, and Nematiarjmand is “truly well-respected by the entire Madison community.”

The school’s Faculty Award, which included a $1,000 college scholarship, went to Patrick Berry. Administrators also recognized 188 honor graduates, who had maintained grade-point averages of at least 4.0 throughout their high-school careers.

Principal Gregory Hood advised graduates to value what they have instead of yearning for things out of their grasp. And Hood reminded the class that happiness is a choice.

“If you wake up and the day is hot, enjoy the sun,” he said. “If it’s cold and snowy, go sledding. If it’s raining, look for the rainbow. And I promise, if you look for happiness, you will find it and every day will be the best day of your life.”

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