Dad’s words heard in grand new arena

Words of fatherly advice mixed with youthful exuberance on June 26 as close to 500 students graduated from Guilderland High School.

The ceremony felt festive as it was held at the athletic arena on the University at Albany campus. The smell of popcorn filled the air and the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” were punctuated with cheers, applause, and shouts of encouragement as young women in robes of white and young men in robes of red — the school colors — promenaded to their seats on the floor of the arena.

The bleachers were packed with friends and families of the graduates, and those with babies found respite on the mezzanine where they could push their strollers and still watch the ceremony. Large screens on either side of the podium gave a close-up view of the proceedings.

Guilderland commencement ceremonies in recent years had been held at the Empire State Plaza; the convention center was more formal and held fewer people.

Last week’s ceremony — Guilderland’s 55th commencement — began with the class president, Jeremy Tobin, and vice president, Jenna Lewanda, leading “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

Celia Snow, who played lead parts in many high school productions and plans on a career in music education, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with verve. The applause was resounding.

“Wow,” said high school Principal Brian McCann who presided over the ceremony.

Superintendent John McGuire praised Snow as well. He gave the opening speech — his last in a long career in education. He is retiring on July 1.

McGuire spoke of graduation as a major milestone in the lives of graduates and those who care about them.

McGuire’s own family is celebrating two graduations this spring — his son has completed a graduate degree and his daughter is graduating from high school.

“We are proud, excited, happy, nostalgic, even a bit sad,” said McGuire.

The heart of his speech was a letter to his daughter. “Dear Maddie, You’ve worked hard…It’s been a joy to see you accomplish so much,” he read.

Describing the highs and lows and rough road along the way, he said, “The laughter has far overshadowed the tears…Each of these lessons will serve you well.”

McGuire went on, “Please accept my apologies for the world you are about to enter.” Those in his generation, McGuire said, thought they would make a better world. “We have fallen far short of those goals,” he said.

McGuire also made “an observation about potential.” Your potential, he told his daughter and, by extension, the Guilderland graduates, is nearly limitless, a source of optimism and hope for the future.

But, he stressed, potential must be exercised.

“Life is an active undertaking, not a passive enterprise,” he said. “Be an active participant in your own life rather than an observer…Resilience will sustain you.”

McGuire also asserted, “When the world knocks you down…always get back up.”

He advised keeping a healthy sense of urgency and avoiding desperation, and concluded with the words of Max Ehrmann from Desiderata: “…Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should….And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world….”

McGuire concluded his letter to his daughter by saying how he anticipated joyful homecomings. He signed it, “Love, Dad.”

Principal McCann also imparted some fatherly advice to the graduates — advice he passed on from his own father.

McCann had said earlier, “My Dad is my hero.” His father taught high school science and, with his mother, raised seven children — McCann was in the middle, with three older brothers and three younger sisters.

“I grew up in the Waltons,” he said earlier, referencing a television show about a large, happy family. “I have a very loving, very supportive Irish Catholic family.” McCann and his wife have a large family of their own, with six children.

His message for the graduates began in a humorous vein.  Talking about the pressure of delivering a speech, he said, “I might not be all that inspirational of a guy…What would I say that hasn’t already been said?”

He acknowledged that the graduates’ thoughts were on their diplomas, the hugs and handshakes that would follow, and the parties after that.

Hoots and hollers from the sea of red and white greeted this last comment.

Words of wisdom from a principal might sound much like advice from parents, McCann said.  Then he launched into the words of wisdom he had taken from his own parents.

“Talk nice,” said McCann.

In an era of texting and twittering, he said, civility towards others and real communication is particularly important.

“You may find you need to embrace and nurture it,” he said.

Next, McCann related, his father always used to say, “Quit whining.”

McCann went on, “My Daddy used to say, ‘The world doesn’t owe you a living.’”

He then quoted another of his father’s favorite phrases: “Apologize to your mother for making me mad.”

McCann came to understand this meant you should be nice to your parents.

The principal told the graduates that their parents would reap the rewards or feel the fallout from whatever they do.

Finally, he concluded with what he called “three important words”: “Yes, you can.”

He left the graduates with a father’s wish for his child as she is about to embark on life’s journey: “It’s never too late to be who you want to be.”

He concluded, “I hope you live a life you’re proud of but, if you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over.”

“Don’t die a copy”

The students’ speeches ranged from serious advice to hilarity.

Guilderland does not recognize a valedictorian or salutatorian, but, rather, recognizes all of its highest honors graduates, those with a grade-point average of 95 or higher, by having them sit on stage at graduation and receive a medal along with their diploma.

Honors graduates, with an average between 85 and 89.9, and high honors graduates, with an average between 90 and 94.9, were asked to stand for recognition during the ceremony.

The students with 200 hours or more of community service were also recognized as were the students with perfect attendance. (They are so noted on the list of Guilderland graduates elsewhere in this edition.)

Students who wish to speak at commencement submit speeches ahead to be selected by a committee.

Sohee Rho, a highest honors graduate who was also recognized for her community service, gave the student welcoming address.

She spoke of the epiphany she had her junior year, her third year of working for The Journal, the school newspaper. She learned the importance of telling the stories of her fellow students, of those who had overcome struggles, of those who had shown compassion through their volunteerism.

“Our stories are unique to each of us,” she said. “Each of us has something to give,” not just to the community but to the world.

Rho spoke of the diversity of her classmates and said, “We made each other better and stronger….Together, we have written this incredible story.”

She urged her classmates, as they move on to the next chapters of their lives, to continue to write their original, unique stories.

“We are all too important to be forgotten,” she said, concluding with a quotation from John Mason: “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.”

“Seriously, don’t,” said Rho.

“Huge advantage”

Scott McKenzie, another highest honors graduate who also served as class treasurer, gave the graduate address. He began with a thought from Albert Einstein: Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.

“What will remain is our ability to solve problems…We know how to think critically,” McKenzie told his classmates.

A Guilderland education has given the graduates the tools they need to deal with a world that is constantly changing and evolving, he said, stating that he and his classmates have “a huge advantage over our peers and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

McKenzie named challenges that will be up to his generation to solve, including finding alternative energy sources, easing international tensions, and ensuring safety from volatile technology.

McKenzie gave examples from his Guilderland education. In English class, he said, students did not simply learn how to spell words but, rather, learned how to use the most powerful tool of all — the pen, which he noted is mightier than the sword.

“We must maintain homeostasis in our world,” said McKenzie. Human beings have existed for thousands of years, he said, and now his generation must take on the sacred quest.

“These diplomas tell us…we have the ability to think critically and solve problems,” said McKenzie, “and, above all, we have commitment…We have the internal drive.”

He went on, “We will be able to address the world’s problems…It will take a collaborative effort to find the solutions.”

McKenzie ended his speech where he began, with Einstein’s thought, concluding, “What remains is most important — our education.”

“A stroll down Memory Lane”

The lighthearted class message was delivered by Brittney Ginsburg, a highest honors graduate, and David Marinstein, a high honors graduate.

They said the speech was a surprise to their parents.

In rapid-fire and witty repartee, often laced with inside jokes, the pair traced the class journey from kindergarten through high school.

Marinstein termed it “a stroll down Memory Lane.”

“I could recite all 50 states in alphabetical order by age 9,” said Ginsburg.

“That’s Westmere Elementary School for you,” quipped Marinstein.

He spoke of riding the school bus. “Old Yellow was there for us every morning,” said Marinstein. When the class moved from the five elementary schools to Farnsworth Middle School, he said, “We once again found ourselves at the bottom of the food chain.”

Remembering to bring in new gym clothes was a challenge, said Ginsburg. That left two options — masking the smell with body spray, or finding new gym clothes, said Marinstein.

“No longer did we walk in single-file lines,” said Ginsburg; the Farnsworth students had freedom in the hallways.

“We all hoped to be placed in the Brad Pitt of houses — Hiawatha,” she said.

Just as their class got comfortable at Farnsworth, the pair recalled, construction of a new, fourth house, began and, said Ginsburg “came just shy of enraging inhabitants.”

Moving-Up Day took place in a small un-air-conditioned gym, said Marinstein, “nothing like these festivities.”

Ginsburg described high school as “a completely new environment with intimidating figures towering over us.”

Marinstein maintained he was not intimidated, asserting, to much laughter from the crowd, “I had a full beard freshman year.”

Ginsburg talked about the stress of midterm and Regents exams, and how Facebook took over the high school.

Soon enough, Facebook had a competitor, Twitter, said Marinstein, and students could share whatever they were thinking at all times.

The pair hit a note of sincerity near the end off their romp. Ginsburg thanked family, friends, and teachers for “helping us get to this moment.”

“We hope we continue to make you proud,” said Marinstein.

He left his classmates with this parting advice: Do what you love and love what you do.

Ginsburg shared these words of wisdom: Don’t follow your dreams; chase them.

Finally, they concluded with the sensible nonsensical by quoting Dr. Seuss’s “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!” and ended with a congratulatory “mazel tov.”

Making choices

The keynote speaker was introduced by Rosa Commisso. The Class of 2010, as had the graduates two years before, chose social studies teacher Lisa Whitman to give the commencement address.

“Her stories enrich the lessons she teaches,” said Commisso who described Whitman’s enthusiasm for student activities, ranging from sports to theater.

Whitman said she looked at her speech from two years ago, which was about the importance of paying attention, and decided it was “not bad,” but then, she said, “terror struck” as she wondered what was new in the last two years.

She immediately hit a cadence that balanced wisdom with wit.

“Each choice demonstrates the values we hold dear,” said Whitman. “Holy moly, this is really heavy stuff.”

Looking back at her life, she talked of some choices she had made.

When she was in the fifth grade, Whitman said, she was assigned a research paper on muscles in the body, and given a month to write it. She didn’t start working on it until the night before it was due.

“There was no Internet,” she said, so there was no way she could copy and paste a report. Although she had a set of encyclopedias in her home, the assignment called for using two source books that were not an encyclopedia.

She cried to her mother and begged to stay home from school the next day so she could work on the report.

Her mother said, “No dice.”

“I had to go to school and admit I hadn’t done the work,” Whitman said. She had always thought of herself as a good kid and worried she’d be seen as a bad kid.

Whitman told her teacher she hadn’t done the work, and doesn’t remember if she was given a chance to hand in the report late.

“I just remember my shame, and that is a feeling I vowed never to feel again,” she said.

That choice, Whitman said, has shaped even the way she teaches, always quickly handing back student assignments.

The second choice she described came as she was preparing to go away to college. Each of her parents had a heart-to-heart talk with her. They told her she had an incredible opportunity, that she could be whoever she wanted to be.

The talks made her wonder what was so wrong with her the way she was that her parents wanted her to change, she said.

But then she realized they were saying she could be so much more. She thought of all the things she most valued — honesty, integrity, kindness, good humor.

“I chose to be the person standing here,” said Whitman, adding that, in hindsight, she thinks she could have done it better.

Whitman then told the graduates that their next steps — whether it’s going to work, joining the military, or going to college — don’t matter. “What matters is you chose to do your best….Make choices that will make you proud of you,” she said.

Whitman concluded with the same tried-and-true practical advice she had given the Guilderland graduates two years ago.

Passionate about teaching economics, she told the graduates to set up IRAs or 401k accounts before getting their first paychecks, and reminded them that credit cards have to be paid off, and to use them carefully.

“Finally,” Whitman concluded, “life is too short to wear uncomfortable shoes. If your feet aren’t happy, you won’t be happy.”

To the sound of warm applause, she walked back to her seat in her trademark purple Crocs.

With that, the senior class advisors, Ann-Marie McManus and James Corona, began reading the names of the graduates. One by one, they ascended the stage to receive their diplomas.

Then only a video of their high school years and the sounds of a traditional pipe tune stood between them and the rest of their lives.

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