“You are our future. And I am not afraid.”
– Superintendent Maria Rice
With the traditional sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” echoing through the chambers of the SUNY New Paltz basketball gymnasium, 172 New Paltz High School (NPHS) seniors marched in with their maroon gowns and golden tassels under flowered covered arches to receive their diplomas Wednesday night. As it stormed and raged outside, inside the mood was festive with applause ringing from every corner, horns blowing, soloists from the choir cascading their vocals and the brass band instruments sending vibrations of hope and expectations through the floorboards. The choral selection included a rendition of “Seasons of Love” from the play Rent, with several soloists including Maddie Leitner, Logan Linares, Emily Barbato and Trevor Croston.
Veteran NPHS principal Barbara Clinton opened up the 87th New Paltz graduation: an emotional moment for many as she has announced her retirement after 48 years of serving in the district. Vice principal Owen Kelso read aloud the numerous scholarships awarded to the class of 2019, including the Kyle Brewer Memorial Fund, which was given to Michael Fillette, and the Marjorie W. Tighe Scholarship for $6,000, presented to Isabella Santos.
After the various community-based scholarships were announced, salutatorian Elijah Tamarchenko, who will be attending Williams College in the fall, addressed his classmates and their loved ones. He noted with a laugh that the days of trying to finish all of Mr. Bartlett’s notes for AP Euro were over, as were all of the requests for him to help people who hadn’t finished their own homework. He also acknowledged that, while he may have finished his NPHS career as the salutatorian, he hasn’t “lived any longer” than any of his classmates, nor had he “experienced any more,” and joked that, while he might like to think otherwise, he is really “no wiser than any of you.” So he felt that he didn’t have advice to impart, but did have compassion for his classmates and spoke eloquently about friends who were faced with devastating illness, injury or losses at home and still got across the finish line of high school. “I had one friend that was sidelined from an injury for a year and had to work four times as hard as anyone I know to keep up – and she’s going to Harvard next year!”
Claire Deen Taylor, the valedictorian, talked about the multitude of talent that her classmates have already unleashed: “Our class includes promising journalists, one of whom wrote for the New Paltz Times, talented artists who received national awards, a state champion in swimming, a world-class Scrabble player, several All-State musicians,” she said. The Amherst-bound graduate also talked about growing up in a world that is frayed by school shootings, the #MeToo movement, racial tension and climate change, and about how she and her classmates had to watch the installation of shatterproof glass so that if there were an active shooter, the shrapnel might not be as devastating.
But Taylor also spoke about the surge of courage that has come from these conditions. “Even as we feel the weight of these distressing crises, we have witnessed people our age throughout the world making an impact and speaking out about the issues the world faces. Young people have inspired us: Malala started an international movement for women’s education, and Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, was instrumental in organizing the March for Our Lives. And through their example, we can see that we aren’t powerless,” she said to a round of applause.
Taylor went on to say that not only did she believe that they were the generation who can take control of situations that have gone drastically awry, but also that they are the generation who “must take control.” She added that she was inspired by a youth-led movement whose mission is to build a coalition of first-time voters who prioritize climate action. “Our diplomas may say Class of 2019, but marked in history, we are the Class of Zero: zero emissions. Zero excuses. Zero time to waste.”
Those two uplifting speeches were followed by beloved NPHS math teacher Kathryn Stewart, who said that she had only three pieces of advice for the graduates, but that she would be testing them on them later. “Seek out people who are different from you and listen to their stories,” she said. “Share your own stories, because when we learn where people come from, it helps us become more compassionate and understanding.” She then counseled them to do at least one “embarrassing thing a week.”
“If you’re at ShopRite and a song comes on that you like, dance down the aisle. If you’re on a bus, introduce yourself to the person next to you. I’ve done that. It’s very embarrassing, but fun!” Stewart then asked all of the members of the Class of 2019 and those in attendance reach out and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know. Then she had them all fling and shake their arms wildly, which they did.
“Find something to be grateful for every day,” she said. “I saw a blue heron when I was riding my bike the other day, and I just said out loud, ‘Thank you’.” She led the entire auditorium in an exercise where they were quiet and pondered one thing that they were thankful for, and then all at once shouted it out. The words family and friends, children and God, nature and clean water and love came tumbling out of people’s mouth in a cacophony of gratitude.
“It’s always hard to follow Ms. Stewart, and it’s always so worth listening to her speak,” said Principal Clinton. She then quoted Dr. Seuss, saying that she would not be at all surprised to learn of all of the things that this class will do and the experiences they will have. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!”