With shining white and blue graduation gowns draped around them, members of the Newtown High School Class of 2014 entered the Western Connecticut State University’s O’Neill Center on Tuesday, June 17.
As Salutatorian Amisha Dave told her graduating classmates, “Here’s to us, Newtown High School’s Class of 2014, officially Newtown High School’s best class ever.” Standing before them, she gave them other words to remember: “Learning to embrace embarrassment was a breakthrough... and learning to laugh at myself.”
She remembers her “nerves through the roof,” four years ago as she and her class began their high school careers, the embarrassment of her student ID photo, and with her friends, briefly went back to the daunting orientation day before freshman year began. So many embarrassing things have happened, Amisha said, and there is no way of stopping it.
“So why bother wasting energy trying to do so?” she asked, noting that in ten years the Class of 2014’s ten-year reunion, which she said her fellow students “better attend,” no one will remember the embarrassing things.
Amid the thanks to her teachers, friends, and the hundreds of class family members filling the floor and stands, she said, “Life is so much more enjoyable when we can get over what other people think, embrace our quirks for what they are, and laugh wholeheartedly at ourselves …”
Minutes earlier as the long line of graduates entered, teacher Marc Michaud applauded as the students flooded the auditorium. His daughter Nancy was among them.
The commencement exercises included a bagpipe processional, musical performances by the NHS Chamber Choir under the direction of Jane Matson, and speeches by NHS Interim Principal Jeffrey Jaslow, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein, Class of 2014 Co-Presidents Hope McMorran and Mary Joee Rossi, Salutatorian Amisha Dave, Valedictorian Anne Beier, NHS teacher Larry Saladin, and Student Government President Siena Cicarelli.
Once in their seats, the graduates faced the stage where school staff and Board of Education members sat. The Chamber Choir sang “The Star Spangled-Banner” as the evening began.
A Better Place
“Good afternoon and welcome to the commencement exercises of Newtown High School,” Mr Jaslow said, once the roughly 420 graduates had found their seats.
Though Mr Jaslow said he has only been with the high school for a short time, he noted the students of the Class of 2014 have made an impact on their school.
“Newtown High School is a better place, because you have passed through it,” said Mr Jaslow. “What’s most exciting to me though, is thinking about what comes next, what you do from here. Having seen the pride, enthusiasm, and joy with which you approach whatever you set out to do, I can’t begin to tell you how reassuring it is to know that our future is in the hands of such bright, capable, and caring young men and women.”
Class Co-Presidents Hope McMorran and Mary Joee Rossi delivered their messages after Mr Jaslow. Hope admitted she has heard it said that there is no place like Newtown.
“But this town is more than just a place,” Hope said. “It is that indescribable feeling when you are not home, because home is where you go to ridiculous lengths for a Misty Vale sandwich. Home is where we literally have a 100-foot flagpole in the middle of the road, and it is not a big deal.”
Home, Hope continued, is where the students cheered for the school sports teams, where they heard the voice of NHS teacher Jason Edwards as he announced numerous events, and where the students witnessed the NHS production of Peter Pan before it earned 13 nominations at the Connecticut High School Music Theater Awards.
Between the graduates, according to Hope, 47 internships, 21 senior projects, and more than 50,000 hours of community service were completed.
“There will come a time when our home addresses won’t be here anymore,” Hope said, “but this is Newtown, and this is home.”
When it was her turn to speak, Co-President Mary Joe said, “Definitions don’t define us, they don’t shape us, they just attempt to limit us.”
When she and her peers entered high school a few years ago, she said, “We tried to alter who we were to be accepted by others.” She soon heard the advice to “think outside the box,” to which she had replied, “What box?” The only box is “the one we put ourselves in,” she said.
Looking back over the four years, Mary Joe declared the Class of 2014 is not normal.
“Our generation has been described as having never known the world without the Internet, cellphones, or iPods,” said Mary Joe. “They say that we are more likely to spend time programming video games than to simply taking in what we are surrounded by. These are someone else’s opinions on who we are supposed to be.”
Mary Joe cautioned the students to not let a definition define them, and to remember, “We are not a stereotype. We are not here to fit in.”
She applauded the students “who know who they are as individuals,” like Sam Svensson, Rashad Brewer, Isabella Saraceni, and Jordan Salvesen. Mary Joe also said her classmates Emma Sullivan and Sasha Nanavaty strolled into prom wearing dresses they sewed together, Sonya Stanczyk has been recognized for creating a high school program to help feed the hungry, and Sarah Clements is “determined to make this world a safer place.”
At the end of her class’s four years at NHS, Mary Joe said, “We walk out of here with the confidence to be who we are, knowing that who we are will allow us to do great things... We cannot be defined. Wherever the next year takes you, don’t let anyone dull your sparkle, don’t let anyone hold you back, and don’t let anyone put you in a box.”
Student Government President Siena Cicarelli gave her advice: “In the end, it’s all up to you.” She then borrowed a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald and said, “It’s never too early or too late to be whoever you want to be.”
As a 17-year-old, Siena said it was “weird” to be standing in front of others offering advice, so she had researched the wise words of others in preparation. She also noted that each of the graduates are leaving in some way.
“We’re leaving fantastic teachers, fantastic opportunities, and these fantastic friends who have been by our side through it all,” Siena said. “However, this place and these people have influenced us in ways we cannot even know. This community has taught everyone the true value of love and strength. And no matter whether we are traveling 20 or 2,000 miles, we will take these experiences with us.”
From this moment, Siena told the students to know their decisions are up to them.
“And with a class this talented, diverse, and intelligent as ours, I’m sure that everyone’s choice will be interesting,” said Siena.
Celebrating An End And A Beginning
Valedictorian Anne Beier left her friends with these words, “This is it, we’re graduating, we’re done. It’s over,” celebrating the end of high school. She knew others would be looking ahead to college, military service, and beginning their working lives.
Anne congratulated all of the graduates and their support systems before saying her research on graduation pulled up many articles about people graduating from college, not high school.
“It does send a reassuring message: We still have so much ahead of us to experience and to achieve,” Anne said. “We don’t have to have it all figured out yet.”
Anne thanked all in attendance and noted that the graduates’ families, friends, and the staff at NHS have been their “cheerleaders.” She also thanked the Class of 2014 for being an “unforgettable family and community.”
The graduates, Anne said, have worked hard to make the most out of the opportunities they were given, balanced tough circumstances, dedicated themselves to local and global public service. Anne said she was also impressed by “the way you carried on with strength after suffering from loss.”
As the students move into the next path of their educational careers, Anne said they should strive to have NHS teacher Larry Saladin’s dedication, school counseling secretary Clare Francke’s kindness, and NHS guidance counselor Jeff Tolson’s enthusiasm.
After asking others for advice on how he should deliver the 2014 Commencement Exercises Keynote Address, Mr Saladin said he sought out his “own voice,” but in the end found the voice of the 2014 graduates.
“What I’m going to do is simply talk about you,” Mr Saladin said.
Mr Saladin said he first met this year’s graduates as “fresh-faced teenagers.” He went on to know 120 of the graduates in Western History class, he said, and his memories from that range. Brandon Unger, he said, possessed “an expertise on medieval torture devices,” Aileen Sheluck had a near-perfect photographic memory, Jillianne Lyon was excited to learn anything, and Ellen Atkinson displayed courage and resilience that year.
After that year, Mr Saladin said he was resolved to continue keeping up with his former students in the hallways between periods to talk about academic and personal things. Through that, he said, he learned “some great lessons.”
When he thinks of the Class of 2014, Mr Saladin said he thinks of Tools For Living, a special education class that matches students with special needs with general education students. The students learn from one another and discover their own humanity, like Meghan Logan, who spent four years in the class working for others with a smile, Mr Saladin said. He also thinks of the after school program Best Buddies, “the legion of you who were involved in this organization and Charlotte Gray, who made it her life’s work to turn this school into a force of social justice, doing whatever it took to promote acceptance, and understanding of those with disabilities.”
He also thinks of smaller moments like seeing one student decorating another student’s locker for their birthday, showing painstaking precision at 6 am.
“It’s stories like these that put everything in perspective,” said Mr Saladin.
Anecdotes like the ones he shared demonstrate the Class of 2014’s character, Mr Saladin said. They are, he said, young adults who have found their humanity through acts of service, friendship, and gratitude to others.
Mr Saladin said he witnessed acts like those big and small each day in the halls of NHS.
“The toil and struggle, the endless homework, the tests, the projects, the galactic failures, the giant recoveries, the band concerts, the big tournaments, the dance recitals, the athletic competitions, and your travels around the world have brought you to where you are now on the threshold of a new beginning,” said Mr Saladin, before asking the graduates to remember the lesson that a life built on service and gratitude “is a life well lived.”
Before sharing his advice for all of the graduates, Dr Erardi took a moment to acknowledge, “We live in a country of freedoms that have been preserved by women and by men who have risked and given their lives for all of us.”
He asked NHS 2014 graduate Jordan Salvesen, who plans to enter the Navy, his parents, and all veterans to stand for a moment of silence to honor them.
“Our moment of reflection was 26 seconds, symbolic and deeply respectful to one of America’s greatest communities, Newtown, Connecticut,” Dr Erardi said.