It was a relatively small graduating class of 121 students that filed onto the Carl F. Meekins Athletic Field at Highland High School for commencement ceremonies on a sultry summer evening last Thursday, June 22. Principal Peter Harris spoke first. He noted that the class of 2017 is off to further their studies all across the country, in the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, Colorado, Idaho, Tennessee, Rhode Island and South Carolina. “I take this as an indication that our students are expanding their horizons,” he said.
Harris reminded the students of the day he first spoke to them as a group, at their moving-up ceremony four years prior. He congratulated them on how they’d accepted his challenge that day to participate in clubs and all of the various activities the high school has to offer, telling the students that their involvement has shaped the school environment into what it now is.
Salutatorian Frank Alfonso, Jr., who earned the honor with a 101.78 GPA, also spoke of the value of participating in high school clubs, activities and sports and taking advantage of the travel opportunities the high school affords. Putting that together with hard work and being willing to laugh at oneself and have fun, is a path that incoming freshmen would do well to follow, he said. “If you take all these pieces of advice, you will leave here tonight like we are, with many happy memories of our time in high school.”
Alfonso was a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Math Club and Interact Club. He played basketball, football and baseball (team captain for the latter two his senior year), and challenged himself academically in five different AP and college courses. This fall he will study data analytics at Marist College.
Valedictorian Alexa Langseder led her class with a 102.37 GPA, maintained while enrolled in five different Advanced Placement (AP) and dual enrollment college courses. Like Alfonso, she thanked her parents, teachers and all who had helped the students advance to this point of graduation, recommending her fellow students do the same.
Langseder spoke of the freedom they have as graduates to create their own futures. “The world is your oyster, now, and it’s okay if you’re afraid. I am, too.” It was okay to complain about high school, she noted, “since by law, we had to go,” but if things go bad from this point on, “it’s on us.” And the upside of freedom is the opportunity for reinvention, and trying new things, she said. Bumps and bruises will inevitably occur along the way, but that’s all part of the process. “And battle scars make you stronger.”
Langseder will study engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology this fall. During her time at the high school, she was president of the Art Club, secretary of the Spanish Honor Society and a member of the National Honor Society, Interact Club, Quiz Bowl and Math Club. Langseder also played lacrosse and soccer, was captain of the JV soccer team and ran track.
In addition to the salutatorian and valedictorian, Highland named eight other students as the highest academic achievers: Dhruv Odedra, Kirti Shenoy, Calvin Ling, Celia Gottlieb, Alejandro Mendez Matias, Amanda Darmochwal, Carina Scivolette and Kaitlyn Poluzzi, who has already earned her associate’s degree while graduating from high school.
The commencement speaker was HHS English language arts teacher AnnMarie Meisel. She delivered an engaging commencement speech likening the students’ future to a writing assignment in which they write their own life story. Her speech unfolded like a good story itself, with strong visuals and warm humor delivered in clean, concise wording.
Meisel spoke about her own path as a student leaving Highland High School in 1986 to go off to college in Albany, where she was intimidated by students from larger towns and cities. She advised the graduating class not to undervalue the small town they’d come from. They might have trouble explaining to people elsewhere where they came from, she noted, “but there’s a lovely mystique about a town only a few people know. And an undeniable charm about a high school across from a sleepy apple orchard, at the base of Illinois Mountain, on a road named Pancake Hollow.”
(And how about that as the setting for their story: “You didn’t even have to make that up!”)
Meisel took the students step-by-step through the analogy; the students as main characters creating their life stories, destined for new settings, love, success and happiness along with the inevitable entrance of conflict. She spoke about her own son, Toby, born too soon at less than two pounds, with so many complications she and her husband, Ed, were called into his hospital room three times to say goodbye. But each time he managed to pull through, she said. When they asked his doctor how this was possible, they were told it was “because he hasn’t learned how to quit yet.”
“Quitting is a learned activity,” Meisel told the students. “You are hard-wired to persevere. So don’t learn it. Don’t learn how to quit. What you truly want, you will get. If you quit it, perhaps you wanted something else.”