New Paltz High graduates get live commencement after all

Last Friday evening, 216 seniors graduated from New Paltz High School. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

The New Paltz High School Class of 2021 burst onto the Floyd Patterson Football Field like a locust swarmof Maroon pride. The bleachers were filled to capacity; lawn chairs holding excited grandparents and family members dotted the green grass as the early-evening sky stretched and swelled from cobalt blue to a piercing pink-and-orange sorbet sunset. The evening was cool and breezy, with an air of lightness and hope streaming between goalposts and looping around the track.

There was much to be celebrated. Not only did the 225-odd members of the Class of 2021 complete their final year of high school, but they were able to all be together, for the first time in almost a year-and-a-half, unmasked, smiles showing, with their family and friends, educators, coaches and community surrounding them.

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“I haven’t seen this many people together in a long time,” said Margery Davis, an aunt of one of the graduates. “It feels so good to see people cheering and hugging and celebrating again. These kids needed a night like tonight.”

Like most of the past 16 months, plans were made and plans changed; and as the COVID-19 restrictions all but abated, NPHS went from having a virtual graduation to two separate graduations to one graduation with only two people per student to finally allowing each high school senior to get passes for two cars of supporters. It was kind of like Carload Night at the Ulster County Fair, with people jammed into their minivans trying to get as many of their loved ones as possible to witness the graduation in person. There was a livestream for anyone who couldn’t be present, for which many said they were grateful.

The ceremony was opened with remarks from Class of 1987 alumnus Glenn Lapolt, who serves as the New Paltz Central School District board president. “It’s been a heck of a year,” said Lapolt. “It wasn’t the year that any of us wanted, but it was the year we got; and here you are graduating.” He encouraged the students to remember as they move forward that, while they’re striving to reach their various goals, they also need to “take things one day at a time and don’t be too hard on yourself and remember that people love you.”

New Paltz High School salutatorian Rachel Reinking.

Salutatorian Rachel Reinking, who will be attending Smith College in the fall, opened her speech by noting that she “wasn’t the most obvious person to be talking in front of hundreds of people,” as she’d been given the superlative “Most Quiet” by her peers. That said, she took the advice of one of her teachers that being on the shyer side of the social spectrum gave her a unique vantagepoint to speak. She said that one of her fondest memories of high school was “our pep-rally sophomore year, when I was part of the marching band and we played ‘Sweet Caroline.’” Reinking, who spent a lot of her time at the Barefoot Dance Studio when she wasn’t studying or practicing her instrument, said that just being part of the band and feeling connected to the school community made that memory special.

She admitted that she worried about speaking because she felt like she wasn’t the student with the most pizazz or charisma or list of banner highlights from high school or triumphant moments, but was just one of the “small cogs and gears in this machine of our class.” Despite that, she said, it was critical to remember that each moving part had an impact on the greater Class of 2021 community, and encouraged her fellow graduates to “never underestimate your own importance and never undervalue the quiet people!”

Music director Nicole Foti was somehow able to get two dozen students together to sing and perform solos with the backup of the school band. Familiar faces like Mark LaBordeand Rhys Weires and other vocalists sang “Roots before Branches,” charging the atmosphere with their various harmonies and melodies as the crowd cheered.

A bevy of awards were handed out to the graduates, ranging from the New Paltz Bus Drivers’ Award to academic subject scholarships and financial awards presented in memory of several NPHS graduates and community members like Paul Mele (Class of 1988) Jimmy Finkenaur (Class of 1987) and Kyle Breuer (Class of 2017). Oddly, as if in a page from Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches, NPHS principal Mario Fernandez asked that all of the award recipients stand up for another round of applause (after having received individual applause), leaving those few who did not receive awards sitting awkwardly in their seats.

Thankfully, the next speaker, veteran Chemistry teacher Stephanie Costello, a beloved educator for the past 32 years, midway through her remarks tying together the art of chemistry to the art of life, asked the graduates if they might be feeling “tired, or bored, or hungry?” She then asked them to look under their chairs, where she had placed goodie bags with some treats to keep their blood-sugar levels up as the night wore on. Costello thanked all of the “parents, the grandparents, the guardians, the siblings and the community members and the friends” who had helped shepherd these kids to their diplomas, noting how proud she was of the student government and this class in particular, who had faced such uncertainty and disruption with grace and resilience.

Costello quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who said once that the US Constitution was “an experiment. Just as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.” She discussed the theory of equilibrium and how the universe is always attempting to get back in balance, saying that these graduates might treat life as an experiment and, when it turns out differently from what they had hoped or planned, they recalibrate, reassess, make modifications and try again. “You are equilibrium, and you will experience stress and shifts and may be in need of some extra support, a little positive energy to relieve that stress. Honor your experiences, honor your life and honor those around you. Help be that positive energy and that support and sooner or later, you will come back to equilibrium.”

Graduating members of the New Paltz High School choir leave the stage after performing.

Costello was followed by Don Bartlett, who has taught and coached several sports at the high school for the past 28 years and is retiring this year. He said that in his estimation, “This is a much better school than it was when I walked in,” due to the “outstanding teachers and coaches,” many of whom he said he felt awed by their talents. He held up an object and asked the kids to say “Ooh,” then said it was an old horseshoe that he found near his house on Mountain Rest Road and had them respond, “Aah.” He then noted that “You can’t go through life without knowing how to ooh and ahh.” That made the crowd laugh.

He read some pieces of advice he’d been given over the years, including one that he said he firmly believes in: “Those who have more are obligated to help those that have less.” “This is a big class and because of that I haven’t gotten to teach all of you, which I usually do, but each class has its own unique tone. And this class has a tone of kindness and thoughtfulness and caring. That isn’t always the case. I entered the ninth grade in 1977 and I’ve been in and out of high school for the past 44 years, and I have to say, I couldn’t be walking out with a finer group of people. Congratulations.”

Names were called, diplomas were handed out, people cheered, blew horns and rang cowbells. One student, Kayla Compeau, was so excited to graduate that she ran down the track and did a roundoff back-handspring in her cap and gown! Pictures snapped, people hugged and cried and for one night in June, it felt like everything was going to be okay.

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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