Photos by Lauren Thomas
As parents, friends and grandparents wait politely listening to speeches, the mood at New Paltz’s high school football field is muted, joyful and reflective. Outdoors, emerald leaves flutter beneath a gorgeous azure sky; the air has a clean smell — like the moment before a big rain.
In a big circle, laughing and carrying on, a large family totes a plethora of Mylar balloons — enough almost to lift a small child airborne. Each balloon is a variation on a theme: one reads “Congrats, Grad!” another “Happy Graduation!”
Out of sight from the action, a boy wearing a blue necktie flips himself upside down, clinging to the bleachers’ crossbeams. As the tie lilts downward, pulled by the force of gravity to his chin, blood rushes to the boy’s head. His mother looks on disapprovingly — ready to move in with a warning.
A few yards away from her, a bi-fold brochure flutters down from the seats above, hitting the grass with a light plop. The brochure is the program announcing New Paltz Central High School’s 83rd Annual graduation on June 26.
At the 50-yard line, center stage, James McColgan — the Class of 2015’s valedictorian — sounds relaxed delivering his prepared remarks, despite the fact that he’s talking about being nervous. McColgan remembers his first day as a freshman. Rattled by nerves, he didn’t know exactly how he’d find his locker between classes.
The setup, or at least the implication, of his speech’s opening scene is that change and nerve-racking days lie ahead as the seniors transition into college, careers or the military. It’s not unlike what they’ve faced before.
He urges his classmates to be creative. “It’s important that we take risks, but reasonable risks,” McColgan says. “Enjoy the journey and live life to the fullest.”
For Allan Podell, a high school teacher retiring after 19 years with the district, the day is special. Students requested that both he and his colleague, journalism teacher Joel Neden, deliver speeches at the graduation.
Long white hair frames a smile that bursts onto Podell’s suntanned face as he gets to the podium. Even in his last year, he tells the crowd, he wasn’t ready to give up on students.
“There is someone among you. This student had to complete work in three courses to be wearing his cap and gown. I hunted him down in the cafeteria on his last day of classes. He was sitting on the back table with about ten friends,” he recalls. “I had a big sign with me that I’d made especially for that moment. On the sign it said in bold letters, ‘Don’t be a chump! Get your work done!’
“That student came in the next day of his own volition — without me having to go to his home to get him, which I would have if it was necessary. And he did his work — all of it.”
Podell praises his fellow educators, pointing out similar instances where teachers had selflessly sacrificed time to help students accomplish a goal. He encourages seniors undecided on a career to consider teaching.
Podell, a special education teacher, says that his biggest lesson came from his students. He learned grit and tenacity — what it means to keep trying in the face of seeming failure. “What they have taught me is this: failure is not so much falling down. It is not getting back up and trying again,” he says.
Neden approaches the stand next. He notes that his job as the journalism teacher surrounds him with a great combination — inquisitive minds and current events.
“Most of you were born in 1996 or 1997,” Neden tells the seniors. “You were four or five years old on September 11, 2001. This means that you’ve spent almost your entire lives living with war, under a threat of terror and inundated with images of suffering from lands near and far.”
He says he knows that this impacts his students. “Take for example some of the events from this school year: the video that surfaced of Ray Rice beating his girlfriend in an elevator; thousands of people stricken ill with Ebola in West Africa; and, more recently, the terror in Charleston, SC.”
From a journalistic standpoint, that gives rise to the question of how this impacts students. Neden says he sees empathy.
“Class of 2015, we needed you this year. We needed your compassion, your drive for excellence, your charm. Our community suffered when we lost Kyle Brewer, but it was the leadership of this class that brought us together.”
Seniors went out of their way to offer solace to sophomores brokenhearted about their classmate’s unexpected death. They gave back, he says.
In the end, “2015 was a year of compassion for our senior class. And ladies and gentlemen, that is your legacy here,” he says.
And like that, Superintendent Maria Rice gets on stage, pronouncing (with the power invested in her by New York State) that this year’s 194 seniors have graduated. Caps fly into the air, and families get up to hug and congratulate their graduates.