Onteora’s Class of 2022 persevered through COVID-induced isolation and remote learning on top of life’s normal challenges to move on to the next phase of their lives as they transition into adulthood.
The 96 graduating seniors received sage words of wisdom from guest speaker Neal Smoller, owner of Village Apothecary, as well as the valedictorian, salutatorian and class president.
“Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of speaking in front of the Class of 2022,” said Salutatorian Tahlula Potter. “As much as I love philosophy, I feel a bit silly…on the stand offering words of wisdom to all of you. You are all filled with your unique perspectives and experiences that I can’t begin to speak to,” she said. “Who am I to tell all of you how to live your lives? Regardless I’ll impart this. The static self is an illusion we are always becoming. Change can be a gift. Reinvention is a blessing you can choose. Do not be afraid to switch paths. Our time on Earth is too short for us to live lives we think we should be living instead of ones we want to be.’
Valedictorian Joey Driscoll noted what an accomplishment it was to get all the way from 7th Grade to graduation considering their reputation. “As early as the first few months of 7th Grade, we’d already secured our collective title as the worst class to set foot in Onteora,” she said. “Singlehandedly necessitating an after-school bus pass mandate and losing our 8th Grade field trip due to our questionable behavior in DC only expanded that legacy…At one point, we lost our bathroom privileges. We got fidget spinners and slime banned in middle school and poor Mr. Baker’s room took quite a beating. Our antics have immortalized us though and I’m proud of us for making it through to the end without burning the place down…Almost.”
Driscoll noted how paths can change based on life experiences. Originally, she wanted to go into a STEM field, but after a summer counselor job at Camp Seewackamano, she decided early childhood education was her passion.
“And while being an elementary school teacher isn’t exactly as prestigious as being an award-winning scientist, I know that this path will make me happy in a way that forcing myself into STEM never could,” she said. “Of course, this isn’t to say that choosing stem isn’t the right decision. For some of you, it certainly is. But whatever the right decision is for each of us, it doesn’t have to be what we expected it to be.”
Class President Jackson Spiotta said he realized high school in real life did not resemble a John Hughes film. He said detention is nowhere near as fun as chronicled in The Breakfast Club, and girls like Sloane Peterson from Ferris Bueller don’t exist in real life.
“What we received in our high school experience was far from traditional, ruptured by COVID and made difficult by our ever shrinking TikTok-era attention spans. And while far from my Hollywood expectations, our rural mountain nestled school has been the setting of some of my fondest memories from Epic Games of floor hockey in the gym to lively debates and social studies class,” he said. “I feel it’s important to note that although being stripped of much of our real life high school experience, we did not falter in developing a notable class identity.”
Dr. Neal Smoller, who, from his headquarters at his Woodstock Apothecary, and with an army of volunteers, vaccinated more than 20,000 people against COVID-19 with his traveling roadshow, veered from the traditional go-to pieces of advice.
“So you know how these things go. Right? I list a challenge. I give an anecdote, probably from COVID, and then I convince you that you can save humanity, all by hoping that you don’t zone out like I did at my graduation,” Smoller said. “And I tried. I started to list out the challenges of our day, and the list just kept growing and growing, and I said, that’s just super depressing, man. You guys are graduating into that. Yikes.”
Smoller said while noting these days are challenging is a bit cliche, these times have a unique set of hurdles to overcome.
“I can tell you that our times are uniquely challenging because of three main things…Weaponized misinformation, the abandonment of just being reasonable, and a sense of futility in our communication with each other. We’re coming apart at the seams, and all through the pandemic, the ugly was everywhere,” he said. “Simultaneously, though, we see these glimmers, blinding beacons, even a breathtaking selflessness and unconditional compassion. I saw these beautiful moments in my journeys as Captain COVID…It was in the countless stories of the people picking up groceries and doing errands for their vulnerable neighbors, and watching the community groups working feverishly to feed people. And I saw it in the crowds of people willingly lining up following the science and participating in public health acts that at their core, put consideration of strangers first. And I saw it in that amazing group of people that became my COVID busters, and what they gave for no reason at all, but to help their community.”
Smoller said too much attention is paid to big moments in our lives.
“If you goof up a big moment, it stinks. But having had my share of experience with that I can come to realize it’s not a big deal. You’ll probably have another chance at the same exact thing. And if you goof it up so bad it’s gone forever, it’s fine, something else will come along, and then you’ll have experience,” Smoller said.
“What I’m trying to say is that life is a practice, and that’s important. But that’s not the wisdom. We pay almost no attention to the moments that are life-defining, that are life-altering. And what are those moments? Every other moment.”
He urged the graduates to stay above the discourse and be a positive influence, offering six key pieces of advice.
“First, stop the negative self-talk. I wasn’t a victim. I wasn’t getting ignored by a corrupt system,” he said. “Don’t let your brain yuck your yums.”
“Disconnect from the essentially sensationalist, over-editorialized media that’s filling our heads with garbage, pulling on our fears and making us angrier and dumber,” Smoller said.
“Delete social media completely, or even better, break the algorithm. Be a positive, enjoyable presence on social, elevate the conversation, ignore the negativity and starve the beast,” he added.
“Make your world smaller. We worship and hang on every word said by national talking heads with an ax to grind. They’re strangers. They’re charlatans. Connect instead with local people who have a shared sense of building a thriving community and tackle local issues,” he said.
“Never ever, ever reduce someone down to their arbitrary labels of who they voted for, their economic status or things like gender or race, or things that simplify us.”
And his final bit of advice…
“Stop saying should of. It’s should have.”
In all seriousness, Smoller said he was once where they are today and has now gathered life experiences.
“Look at me as I really am. I am you on the other side of space and time, on the other side of the cosmos. And I’m the you who now understands the best way to live life to be successful, and even save humanity, is in trying to be better every moment in the practice of my own life. If I can just be a little bit better, my world will be too,” he said.