Bailly to GHS grads: ‘While this is a time of great upheaval, it is also a moment of great power’

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Lighting up the night: Fireworks in red and white — Guilderland’s school colors — burst over the Jericho Drive-In sign, congratulating the graduates.

GUILDERLAND — Like so many things for the Guilderland High School Class of 2020, graduation was like no other. Coronavirus restrictions did not dampen the celebration but rather doubled it and amplified it.

Fireworks lit up the night at the Jericho Drive-In on Saturday, June 20, as the seniors in caps and gowns sat near the cars that held their families to watch commencement unfold on the big screen.

A week later, on Saturday, June 27, the graduates returned to their campus one last time and, in carefully choreographed groups, walked across a stage set up in front of the high school to collect their diplomas and awards.

The drive-in ceremony opened with a video put together by the high school principal, Michael Piscitelli, in which the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” were paired with film of the faculty and staff waving goodbye to seniors parading through school grounds in cars driven by their parents.

Throughout the ceremony, recorded speeches were interspersed with creative videos. The high school faculty lip-synched or sang the words to “A Million Dreams”: “I close my eyes and I can see the world that’s waiting up for me,” the teachers sang as pictures of them, one by one, flashed on the screen.

Two teachers held a sign that said, “Dream Big.” Another displayed a board with a modified line from Shakespeare: “Parting is such (bitter) sweet sorrow.” A father with two kids each held a sign: “You,” “Did,” “It.” The class co-advisor Brenna Autrey held a card that read, “Follow Your Dreams.” Even a dog lip-synched the words.

Another video featured the Guilderland Chamber choir, under the direction of RaeJean Teeter, singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Accompanying the singing were photos of students, many of them pictured with rainbows.

The final video was a stunning original song — a mellow male voice accompanied by a guitar. The song was written and performed by Jonathan Ouckama, a literacy specialist at Guilderland. As mosaics of school pictures — ranging from sporting events to couples in gowns and tuxedos — flashed on the big screen, he sang of “a mighty fleet of Dutchmen sailing” and concluded, “You’ve been blessed. Go make memories — yes.”

 

 

Overcoming hardship

After the initial video, the ceremony, hosted by Piscitelli, started with class officers Ryan Kapusinsky and Madeline Sullivan leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, filmed in his living room, Jack Parsons sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Superintendent Marie Wiles and Piscitelli both spoke on themes of past generations that had overcome hardships, encouraging the graduates to do the same.

“As members of the so-called Greatest Generation are leaving us,” said Wiles of surviving World War II veterans, now in their nineties, “I think it’s time for the next great generation to step up.”

While the pandemic upended lives and livelihoods, said Wiles, it may be “the inferno needed to forge the steely resolve of a generation of people who can take on the real problems of this world like income inequality, institutional racism, and climate change to name a few.”

She urged the graduates to enter the next phase of their lives with courage and conviction. “Your youth, your energy, your resilience, your passion for important causes gives me hope for a better, brighter future,” said Wiles.

Piscitelli said he had read stories of the survivors of the Great Depression who had lost lives and loved ones. When people had to make do with what they had, he said, a gritty generation was born.

Of the pandemic and the restrictions to stem its spread, Piscitelli said, “What this experience has given you, which is a special gift, is the gift of perspective.” He explained this with an analogy of the transition from winter to spring.

While residents in sunny California may take little note of the seasonal change, Piscitelli said, in the Northeast, “When we hit a day in March where the temperature is 40 degrees and the sun is shining, it feels like heaven.”

So, he said, “The winter experience provides us perspective.”

As the principal, Piscitelli said, he heard how much students missed school, missed their friends, missed their teachers, and missed events. He urged, “It is so easy to focus on the doldrums of life … Realize these day-to-day interactions are what life is all about.”

He also urged, “Find satisfaction in doing the work … in enjoying those moments when you were connecting with another human being face to face, not through a computer screen … If you enjoy the small things, I believe you will live a happy and fulfilled life.”

Piscitelli concluded, “Just like the survivors of the Great Depression, I know you will come out of this experience better — gritty, tough survivors, strong. Congratulations, Class of 2020.”

 

Students speak

Guilderland does not name a valedictorian or salutatorian. Rather, students submit speeches and two are selected.

The Jericho audience was encouraged to honk, cheer, and applaud as Piscitelli named the three highest levels of academic performance: honor students (with grades between 85 and 89.9), high honor students (with grades between 90 and 94.9), and highest honor students (with grades of 95 or higher).

He also recognized students with 200 hours or more of community service. The seniors stood from their seats in front of their parents’ cars to accept the crowd’s accolades.

“This is certainly a future we will never forget, “ said Sophia Vieni, the senior chosen to give the welcoming address. She went on, “Although our future may be uncertain, this is a time for us to embrace the new beginnings and opportunities that lay in front of us.

She concluded, “I hope the path you have chosen brings you success and happiness.”

Colin Ingraham injected humor into the graduate address, calling his class “the most socially-distanced class in history.” Noting that his mortarboard hid his quarantine haircut, Ingraham said, “I’d shake all your hands if they’d let me.”

Ingraham also said, “The coronavirus was the worst senior prank ever but out of it we have become the Senior Skip Day champions.” On a more serious note, he said, “The biggest highlight of staying home is knowing we’ve been saving lives in doing so.”

He noted that the seniors could not visit college campuses to make their choices for next year. “Zoom became our communication and window to the world,” he said. “We’ve also learned to be creative and resilient … We found ways to make things work and keep our friendships over FaceTime.”

Ingraham is going to college to be a math teacher, he said, noting he likes the reliability of formulas and equations. But this year, he has learned “history and life don’t always turn out the way we expect. Many of us have also learned lessons in heartbreak. Some of us have lost loved ones that we couldn’t visit. All of us have lost memories that we hoped to share together.”

The school was shut down in March just before the school musical, “Chicago,” in which Ingraham had a part, was to be performed. He listed a string of other events — like the night to honor athletes, the senior picnic and senior ball, and the senior art show — that were missed.

Ingraham quoted from Dr. Seuss: Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.

Then he recited a Seussian rhyme of his own:

I’ll teach you in a room,

I’ll teach you on Zoom.

I’ll teach you in a house,

I’ll teach you with a mouse.

I’ll teach you here and teach you there.

I’ll teach you because I care.

He thanked the teachers, administrators, and parents for teaching the class because they cared. “Let’s stay Guilderland United,” said Ingraham.

He concluded, “We’ve saved lives from staying apart but we’ve helped each other so many times … by checking in on our neighbors, providing meals for those in need, and staying in touch when we’ve all needed a friend.”

 

Keynote

Amanda Bailly, who graduated from Guilderland in 2006 and is now an independent filmmaker, focusing on human rights in the Middle East, gave the keynote address.

“We are living in difficult times,” said Bailly, citing the pandemic and racial unrest. “Whatever you’re feeling today, whether it’s sad, angry, afraid, happy, or relieved, it’s OK and valid and you’re not alone.”

Some may not yet have chosen their paths in life, Bailly said. “That’s OK. Every single path is important and worthy of celebration.”

Speaking of her own path, Bailly said, she had no idea what she wanted to do when she graduated from Guilderland. She had liked socializing more than studying in high school, she said, but she came to love learning at Boston University.

After two rejections, she persisted and got a chance to study abroad in Morocco in North Africa. Following her 2010 graduation, she worked for five years for Human Rights Watch in New York City and then took a “leap into the unknown,” quitting her job and moving to Beirut, Lebanon.

She wanted to learn how to film and to study Arabic. She described the “rush of excitement and fear” she felt as she headed to the airport. She planned on staying six months or a year but stayed for five years instead.

“I made new friends who became family; I adopted a dog; I fell in love,” said Bailly. “I experienced another way of life, one where family and community come first, and I’ve never seen the world the same since.”

A friend of hers, a Syrian woman, wanted a safe life for her children so Bailly made a “spur-of-the-moment decision,” she said, to go with her and film her journey. Bailly’s documentary, “8 Borders, 8 Days,” tracked the efforts of the single mother and her two children to travel to freedom in Europe.

“I became passionate about advocating for better refugee resettlement policies,” said Bailly, noting, “I couldn’t see the path ahead at the time of graduation.”

She told the seniors that the next chapter of their lives could be daunting. “The rush of excitement and fear means you’re on the right track toward something that will challenge you.”

She advised, “Try everything. Introduce yourself to new people and say yes to new experiences. Travel if you can … but you don’t have to go far to have new experiences. Right here in Guilderland, we speak more than 50 languages.

“Everyone you meet has the potential to challenge your thinking or expand your worldview. So seek out meaningful connections with people who don’t look like you, love like you, worship like you, or have resources like you.”

Since she initially wrote her speech, Bailly said, “The tragic death of George Floyd has again put racial inequality in the spotlight.”

Bailly went on, “I know I certainly didn’t understand the privilege I was born with when I sat where you are today. As a white woman with two supportive parents who are well-educated and employed, I had a headstart in life.

“If you, too, share that privilege … Work hard to recognize it and make the space to lift others up. We will all be better for it. So, while this is a time of great upheaval, it is also a moment of great power.

“I have faith that your generation can do better, can listen better, and can make this a world we all want to live in so that, when your kids graduate high school, they can have the kind of carefree celebration that should mark the end of a high school journey.”

Bailly concluded, “Be curious, be brave and, most importantly, be kind — be kind to everyone you meet and be kind to yourselves … as you, too, find your way forward in the world.”

With that, the roll call of the seniors began. As each name was read, the graduate’s picture was projected on the big screen.

After the last name was called out, Piscitelli congratulated the class and said that one order of business remained.

He instructed the graduates, “Move your tassel from right to left … You are now officially considered Guilderland alumni. Congratulations.”

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