Griffin Furlong’s valedictorian speech begins with the standard statistics about the accomplishments of his graduating class, a couple self-deprecating jokes, and a promise to make this the most non-boring valedictorian speech ever. It’s a promise he certainly delivers as he reveals to the crowd that behind his amazing achievement as valedictorian, he had been struggling with homelessness for 12 years.
“Giving up is never an option…Everyone thinks I try to make good grades because I’m smart. Not true. I perform the way I do in the classroom because I have everything to lose.” In a video of his speech, you can feel the crowd tense the moment he makes this statement. As the audience starts to realize what he means by it, a tangible hush falls upon the crowd. Up until this point, those outside of Furlong’s close circle were completely oblivious of his life outside of an academic setting.
Furlong’s mother died when he was 6, leaving him with his older brother and father. After her death and a series of family hardships, they were left with no roof over their heads, shifting from hotels to motels to shelters. Wherever they could sleep, they would go. In an interview with Daily Mail, Furlong recounted his feelings of isolation throughout his time in school. Because he did not live in the same neighborhoods as his peers, he would take a different bus route to and from the shelter or motel he stayed in. He recalled many nights spent enduring hunger pangs, wishing that he wouldn’t have to wake up to face another day of this. His peers and teachers were astonished, to say the least. Teacher Natalie Donald said, “I actually cried when I saw it on the news. He’s made straight As across the board in my class, and he never once used his circumstances as a crutch to justify not being able to do anything.”
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Furlong was set to go to Florida State University where his older brother was due to graduate that summer. A looming $20,000 per year fee for tuition and accommodation seemed to endanger the teen’s future educational goals. After securing a couple grants and applying for scholarships to help him cover the costs, he still came up short. Touched and overcome with sympathy for his situation, friends set up a GoFundMe page on Furlong’s behalf, and within two weeks, it had raised $90,000.
As Furlong concluded his speech, he imparted one last piece of advice to his classmates. “Do not live a life without purpose…It’s amazing what you can do with your life when you have motivation, ambition, and, most importantly, a purpose.” Go out there, and find your purpose.