Last Thursday, June 26. was a perfect early summer evening with a cool breeze over the Highland High School football field. The 140 members of the graduating class of 2014 claimed their diplomas by the light of the setting sun.
There were speeches, of course. Principal Peter Harris welcomed the senior class and their families and friends with words from several inspirational women. In advising the students to build relationships with others as they go through life, he quoted Maya Angelou: “A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.” And, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Salutatorian Osmaan Shahid’s remarks were thoughtful and encouraging to his classmates, managing to reference both Peter Pan and Albert Einstein in the same speech (no easy feat). Valedictorian Shannon Ward took a lighthearted approach, reading comic thank-you notes riffing on the foibles of teachers, coaches and classmates. Ward ended on a more serious note. “I couldn’t have chosen a better group of people to spend all 13 years of school with,” she said.
Class president Greg Pennes acknowledged the supportive staff at the high school, and then told his classmates — tongue firmly in cheek — that graduation from “the 2157th greatest school” in the country means the students can now do “whatever” they want to, whether that means becoming a doctor or lawyer or the head lifeguard at Rocking Horse Ranch.
Be joyful and happy
The commencement speaker was Michael Horodyski, president and CEO of Wallkill Valley Federal Savings & Loan, a Lloyd town board member and a Highland High School graduate, class of 1992. He told the students not to count on luck in their careers. While successful people are often considered lucky, he said, “In the professional world, good luck really means a dedicated work ethic. A resolve to take risks and the ability to recognize and seize opportunity when it’s presented.”
Horodyski offered the students an acronym for the word luck: “L,” he said, stands for location; putting yourself in the right position to seize the opportunities that will present themselves. “U” is for understanding one’s environment and situation and making good decisions based on that understanding. “C” is for connections, developing a network that will help one succeed and being a resource for your connections in return. “K” stands for knowledge. “Organizational knowledge is very important. Learn to read people; read your bosses, your co-workers. This knowledge along with your subject knowledge will serve you well in the future.”
Work hard, Horodyski advised. “Work ethic is very important. Some of the smartest people I graduated with did not end up the most successful. But it doesn’t come overnight. This may come as a shock to you, but you are not going to come out of college or enter the work force and run the company.”
And, continued Horodyski, we’re not defined by how we handle success, but by how we handle adversity. “It’s easy to win,” he said. “But how you handle losses and adversity is really what defines you. Take personal responsibility in life; it’s not always somebody else’s fault.” Instead of blaming, he suggested, “Be the generation that says, How do we fix this? Worry only about the things you can control. Do what you can, and most importantly, learn from your mistakes.”
You’ll learn, he advised the class, that life is about the relationships, the family and friends, and the experiences you get to share. “And as happy and proud as you graduates are,” he added, “I can promise you your parents, your guardians, those that have been with you on your journey to this point, are just as — and I’d argue even more — joyful and happy. When you’re all done with your ceremony tonight, take a minute. Tell them you love them, and say thank you. I promise, they’ll appreciate it more than you know.”
Several musical interludes from the high-school concert choir and concert band alternated throughout the evening with the speakers. The final scheduled speech of the night was given by superintendent of schools Deborah Haab, who congratulated the class of 2014, telling them that she looked forward to a future in their hands. “Anything is possible, and there is only one you. Dream big.”
Before the diplomas were handed out, however, a tribute to retiring band director Joseph Martellaro was given in the form of a large “Thank You, Mr. Martellaro” sign held up by several students on the field. Graduating student Tristan Reynolds took the podium to tell those assembled that the band leader, who did two tours of military duty in Iraq, had always been able to put stress into perspective for the students by reminding them they weren’t being shot at.
“It does make you take a step back and look at your life,” Reynolds said. “He didn’t just teach us about music, he taught us about life. You learned a lot from Mr. Mart. An era is coming to an end.”
After the diplomas were issued, the concert choir sang the school’s alma mater. Before the recessional to Sousa’s King Cotton March ended the evening’s events, there was one more speech of recognition to go. Principal Peter Harris recognized individually the students who are going on to military service after graduation: Jacob Banach (National Guard), Sam Cruz (Marines), Steven Isolano (Army), Tania Mendez-Matias (Army), Sawyer Stanton (U.S. Coast Guard) and Andrea Twyman (Air Force).
“Thank you for the commitment you have made,” said Harris. And with that, to cheers and applause from their families, he presented the Highland High School class of 2014.