Perhaps it was because the ceremony was moved inside to the athletic center on campus due to the ongoing construction on South Putt Corners Road, but the excitement during the New Paltz High School graduation ceremony on Friday nearly stood one’s arm hairs on end at times. Audience members took very little incitement to whoop and cheer, and those sounds of joy rolled back and forth across the bleacher-lined chamber, seemingly intensifying with each echo.
That isn’t to say that the 2018 graduates and their family members were unruly: barring a few incidents of attendees talking excessively during speeches, this was a well-mannered crowd. When it was requested that applause be held until the end of a long list of scholarships and awards, that request was honored. When the same was asked while the graduates themselves walked across the stage, it was respected other than the occasional air horn, gong, or flip by a graduate. The excitement was palpable, but restrained.
As most of the 182 graduating seniors walked under flowered arches evocative of some mass wedding at a brisk pace to the tried-and-true “Pomp and Circumstance,” they exuded a combination of confidence, happiness, apprehension, and amazement. As they ceremony progressed, it became apparent that there was an undertone as well, one both sad and wistful.
Members of this class have considerable particular trials, and more than one speaker acknowledged how the loss of Maya Gold during their 10th grade year, and Rebecca Lynch this year, affected them as a group. Both girls took their own lives, sending waves of collective grief through the halls of the school.
Salutatorian Oliver Goland noted that this might be the “last time most of us will ever see each other again,” as they take those common experiences with them into the workforce and academia.
Between funds conferred by members of the district’s scholarship committee and others, many of which are bankrolled by local business owners, students received a total of $50,300 in awards. Echoing the bittersweet sense of accomplishment and loss members of this class doubtless know well, one of those scholarships comes from the Kyle Brewer Memorial Fund. Brewer, who would have graduated last year, died after having two heart attacks in March of 2015.
Graduate Kody Priest celebrates with a flip
Grace Morrissey, valedictorian, saw how her classmates rallied together when things were difficult. “Losing Maya Gold in 10th grade changed us as a class,” she said, and Lynch’s death compounded that, but some of that change involved pulling together in sometimes unrelated ways. She called out the rally which was held in the wake of the Parkland shootings as sending a clear message “to be kinder.” Admitting that she is “terrified” to be going to a school far from friends and family, she urged her classmates to “start where you are, use what you have, and just do what you can.”
The senior class gift, in fact, are trees to create a peaceful environment in honor of the two girls.
Teacher Albert Cook, during his commencement address, also acknowledged the passing of Gold and Lynch. “We won’t forget them,” he said, adding later that members of this class endured hardship “with a grace many of us on this stage find inspiring. He then launched into a speech that held many of the graduates rapt. He advised them to embrace humility, “seek purpose, not status,” and “love determinedly,” because, “love is a decision that you make.”
Cook apologized for the great many challenges facing them in the world due to the actions of the adults they are joining, but reminded them that there are have tougher times: the Jim Crow period, the Holocaust, and the struggle for women’s suffrage, he offered as examples. While his speech extended well beyond the three-to-five-minute limit he’d been given and promised to break, he received a standing ovation from the graduating seniors and many others.
“Only you can control your choices,” superintendent Maria Rice said just before certifying the diplomas, and “you’ve made some phenomenal choices.”