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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 6, 2006

Tears and laughter mingle at commencement

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALBANY — The 443 students in the Guilderland High School Class of 2006 — the women in caps and gowns of white, the men in caps and gowns of red — rose to their feet and clapped loud and long for a graduate who wasn’t there.

James Miller died on May 21, looking forward to a commencement that was never to be. Miller had muscular dystrophy, a progressive muscle disorder characterized by gradual irreversible wasting of skeletal muscle. He had watched his older brother die of the same disease.

"Though wheelchair-bound, his spirit was without bounds," High School Principal Michael Piccirillo told the graduates, their families and friends who filled to capacity the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on the afternoon of June 25.

Miller, who lived in East Berne and attended classes at Guilderland High School in a BOCES program, had prepared a graduation speech.

"James’s message is about enjoying what you have and keep it simple," said the principal.

Miller had written in the speech that, after graduation, he planned to take some time off to do things he enjoyed like going to car shows, riding his go-cart, and spending time with his family.

"This will be exciting," he wrote.

Miller was someone who lived every day to the fullest, "as we all should," said Piccirillo.

"Everything James was a part of was exciting," said the principal.

Following Miller’s lead, Piccirillo advised the graduates to "tell the people in your life that you love them" and to "do the things you like to do because you like to do them."

His mother, Jane Miller, had tears streaming down her face as she accepted the diploma to thunderous applause.

Dog’s tale

The mood lightened considerably when Superintendent Gregory Aidala took to the podium.

"It’s been both a long and very short 13 years for you," Aidala told the graduates. He characterized the class as "a group of achievers" who were willing "to exert the necessary effort of achieve success." Aidala also called the graduates "a compassionate group."

Then he launched into a personal tale. About a year ago, he said, after his daughter graduated from college, she and her dog, Ted, moved to Colorado, the mile-high city. She lived in a place without air-conditioning and asked if her parents, in cooler upstate New York, could care for her dog during the summer.

"Everywhere you turn, there is always someone or something we can learn from each day," said Aidala. He said, then, that he would list some of the things he had learned from Ted, a Welsh corgi.

As the hall rippled with laughter, the superintendent deadpanned, "I see you know Ted."

Aidala then listed a series of lessons he’d learned from Ted, including: Run, romp, and play daily; be loyal; when it’s in your best interest, practice obedience; never pretend to be something you are not; avoid biting when a simple growl will do; no matter how often you’re scolded, run right back and make friends; and, finally, when loved ones come home, greet them warmly.

Each piece of corgi advice was answered with a wave of laughter, followed by grand applause at the end.


Melanie King then gave a stunning graduate address — compelling both because of its honesty and its wisdom.

Guilderland does not name a valedictorian or salutatorian but, rather, has all of its highest honors graduates sit on stage and receive their diplomas first.

The speaker is chosen based on the merit of the speech submitted.

"Six years ago, I began writing and rewriting this speech," said King, an honors graduate. At the age of 12, she explained, she had watched her brother’s graduation ceremony.

"These were the students with the good grades, the leaders....," said King. "I would have to become speech-worthy."

Six years ago also marked King’s first coming out — to a friend, she said. "I resolved to keep that part of me a secret...All anyone wants at 12 years old is to be normal," said King.

Her brother asked her to define herself in one word, said King, explaining there were many one-word descriptions used by her peers to define others — jock, geek, and preppy among them.

In defining herself, King said, "I was sure of one word — gay." Her brother, though, knew there was more to her than one word.

"I know now I will never find that one word that will sum me up entirely," she said. It’s not about being good enough or pretty enough or popular, she said. "Finding oneself is about being honest...."

King went on to say, "We are all leaving our respectful, diverse safety net of Guilderland High School." At 18, she told her classmates, they have come of age — they can vote, they can join the military and fight for freedom.

But she described this age — as members of the Class of 2006 leave Guilderland to travel, or go to college, or start careers — as being a crossroads.

"Our future is uncertain, the future of our world as well," said King.

Referring to the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, King said, "In eighth grade, we all sat in shock as we learned we were under attack...Maybe we thought things would change..."

But, she said, "We kept the friends we always had." The familiar lunch-table configurations remained the same.

Today, our country is at war, she said, adding, "We are given the choice, the chance to evolve."

King went on to say that Dr. Seuss, the late children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, is often quoted at graduation ceremonies from his book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go.

She said, though, that quoting from The Lorax, Seuss’s book about environmental responsibility, seems more fitting:

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not."

King concluded, looking out over the red-and-white sea of over 400 classmates, that the most important lesson she had learned was, "Each of our 400 or so experiences have been speech-worthy."

High school, she said, is about being afraid and finding the strength to go ahead anyway.

"High school is about this moment, right now...," said King. "We do not worry about never, and maybe, and tomorrow."

She concluded by quoting Mahatma Gandhi — "We must be the change we want to see in the world" — and told her classmates they hold the power to change the community and change the world.


Principal Picirillo then asked five seniors to stand and be honored for perfect attendance — Sara Atalay, Connor Benton, Jason Conover, Jeremy Kester, and Paul Tariello.

Piccirillo said they had "exhibited an extraordinary level of commitment to education."

Next, Sarah Bolognino named the nine members of the Guilderland High School Class of 1956 attending the graduation ceremony.

Bolognino pointed out that they were the second class to graduate from the school and offered her congratulations.

"Koush! Koush! Koush!"

The ceremony kicked into high gear as class President Kousha Navidar strode to the podium to loud applause and chants of "Koush! Koush! Koush!"

As he got to the microphone, one last voice shouted out, "Love you, Koush!"

"Love you, too, man," replied the speaker.

Navidar, who has been acting since he had a part in The Elephant’s Child as a first-grader at Guilderland Elementary School and starred in this year’s Guilderland Players’ production of Steel Pier, presented his speech with a dramatic flair.

"The burning question of the day," he began, "is: What are we wearing underneath these gowns""

The best-fitting option, he said, has got to be the bathing suit. "At least one of us is ready for the graduation party," said Navidar.

"The question we’re too afraid to answer," he went on, "is: Are we ready""

Navidar told his classmates they were about to enter "a world bigger and more intimidating than anything we’ve every dealt with."

"Guys," he said with studied nonchalance, "it’s gonna be okay."

He then proceeded to outline the obstacles the class had already overcome — beginning with elementary school.

Leaving behind nursery school and home, kindergartners entered "the real world where amazing yellow buses took us everywhere and everyone walked in single-file lines."

After taking his classmates on a light-hearted romp through their elementary years, Navidar said, "Seasons change...We got ready for middle school — the real big time."

"We still had the same old yellow bus — but now we competed for the back-seat glory," said Navidar, continuing, "We lived in absolutes, but this was a good thing — we found out what we liked and what we didn’t."

Girls wore too much makeup, he said, and boys spiked their hair into impenetrable helmets. This was a problem when exercising. "Our eyes would burn from the poisonous sweat," said Navidar to gales of laughter.

By eighth grade, he said, class members had become "the big cheese" but secretly went home every day to watch Nickelodeon.

"As soon as we rose, our rein fell and we entered high school," said Navidar. "We were smaller than everyone else again."

Class members still rode on their amazing yellow buses but watched "as guys with facial hair drove in — by themselves"" he said, his voice rising in a pitch of mock disbelief.

Dances were only cool if you showed up but acted as if you didn’t want to be there, Navidar recalled.

"At last we realized there is no such thing as a third floor or a swimming pool in our building," Navidar said, as his classmates laughed some more.

He went on, "Report cards came and came and came — and sometimes disappeared. ‘Mom, they didn’t send you one" Oh well,’" he mimicked to still more laughter.

Navidar’s speech took a more serious turn, though, when he named some of "the little things we’ll miss," including: "The faculty member you just clicked with"; Taco Thursday; "Mr. Pipa’s stories that rivaled the Iliad"; and the words spoken by the late and beloved teacher, Thomas Farrelly, who died of leukemia in 2005 — "You can always tell a freshman. You just can’t tell him very much."

Listing some of what the class has learned, Navidar said, "We’ve learned that bad things happen...We’ve learned the only effective way you can judge anyone is by the quality of their actions."

Looking back over the years in Guilderland schools, Navidar said, "All these lessons show in your bathing suit." In elementary school, it was about fun; in middle school, about style; and in high school, about "our confidence, the courage to wear it and take the plunge."

Navidar concluded, referring again to that amazing bus ride, "The ride stays exactly the same. We’re the ones who changed...It’s the bathing suit on the inside that counts...We are ready or it."

With that, he stood in front of the lecturn and unzipped his red robe to reveal red bathing trunks underneath.

His classmates gave him a standing ovation — cheering and hooting.

When the applause subsided, Navidar returned to his seat on stage, and zipped his red robe shut.

Principal Piccirillo went to the microphone and assured the crowd, "Yes, I knew it was coming. Yes, I agreed to it. It was all part of that important message — a metaphor."

With that, a half-dozen beach balls were suddenly launched by graduates and tossed about as the high-school orchestra assembled at the back of the hall and the musicians tuned their instruments.

"Okay guys," said Piccirillo. "Out of respect for the orchestra, please stop."

The crowd applauded and, as suddenly as they had appeared, the beach balls disappeared.

The hall was pin-drop quiet as Jeffrey Herchenroder conducted the orchestra in a stirring rendition of Edward Elgar’s IX "Nimrod" from Enigma Variations.

Earlier musical selections had included the orchestra’s renditions of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and of Klaus Badelt’s "Pirates of the Caribbean," as well as the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance" as the seniors marched into the hall.

"He inspires"

Katharine Albanese introduced the keynote speaker, chosen by the senior class, Robert Oates.

Oates, who is retiring, has worked as a teacher, principal, coach, and choreographer in the Guilderland schools.

"He teaches, he encourages, and, above all, he inspires," said Albanese, describing Oates as a "role model."

Oates, who is fond of using quotations to make a point or to teach a lesson — "I live and die by quotes," he said — began with one from champion prizefighter Muhammad Ali: A man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20, has wasted 30 years of his life.

Oates went on to describe some "turning points" in people’s lives. When his son was 10, Oates was reading a "Far Side" cartoon by Gary Larsen that showed a college campus with a sculpture of an ear. "The Vincent van Gogh School of Art," it said.

His son didn’t get it, so Oates directed him to some reading on Van Gogh, the Dutch postimpressionist painter who cut off one of his ears. Later, Oates heard a giggle.

His son became a reader, which has made him a better person with a richer life, Oates said.

"Words are very powerful," he went on; they can move people to tears and to joy and they can make nations hate each other.

Oates illustrated his point with an anecdote from his days at Lynnwood Elementary School. One boy was very late getting to school because he was reluctant to run the 60-yard dash.

"Look at our yard," said the tardy first-grader.

"They had three acres," said Oates. The boy thought he would have to run across 60 similar-sized yards.

Oates told another story about a fourth-grader at Lynnwood.

"At age 30," Oates said, "I finally got rid of my buck teeth."

He was wearing braces when a student was upset after a visit to the orthodontist about the braces he was going to get. The student thought the orthodontist had lied to him, saying he’d only have his braces on for three years.

"Mr. Oates still has his on," said the fourth-grader. "Context; it’s all about context," Oates told the laughing crowd.

Oates said he puts quotes on a board and one of his favorite is from Mark Twain: Let us endeavor to live that, when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.

He also likes a thought from Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet: It is well to give when asked, better to give unasked, through understanding.

Oates said there are three types of people — those who never give; those who give when asked; and those who see what’s needed and give their time, talents, and possessions.

In 1968, Oates was a junior in a Long Island high school. As the student-council representative for his homeroom, he posted sports events and school activities and also "quotable quotes" from The Reader’s Digest.

He described the era as a time of civil strife; Martin Luther King and John Fitzgerald Kennedy had both been assassinated. One day, a quote was posted, but not by Oates. He has always remembered it: "The black and white keys of the piano are needed to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’" it said.

In the 1970’s, after Oates had graduated from college, he said, his father kept calling and telling him about the great and well-paid teaching jobs on Long Island.

Oates recalled his reply: "No, Dad, I hate Long Island...I love you. Long Island is a parking lot...Upstate is where I want to be."

Oates said then, years later, after he had settled into teaching upstate, he stepped out of his car with his seven-year-old son at 20 Mall in Guilderland.

"He pulled his hand out of my hand and said, ‘I can do it myself; I can cross,’" Oates recalled.

It was then Oates realized his father, with his calls to work in Long Island, had been trying to stay close. Oates hadn’t realized it, he said, "till I felt the hurt of that hand starting to slip with my own son."

Oates urged the parents in the crowd, "Release your child," and, at the same time, he urged the students, "Leave a little behind."

Oates then recalled his days in the merchant marine, traveling the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Minnesota. Nineteen of the 35 crew members were married and 17 wives would ride in cars up and back, following the boat, Oates said.

"People do follow their hearts and, in turn, hearts follow people," he said.

Oates went on to tell the graduating seniors that they will come to a lot of Y’s in the road. He never would have believed he would become a choreographer and teach the history of dance, Oates said.

He took a weekend course in square-dancing at Cortland College to get a half-credit, he said, and it was a turning point. Dance became "an absolute passion," he said.

"So be ready for it...and welcome it when it comes," he said.

Referring to the speech by Kousha Navidar, Oates went on to say, "As humans, we’ve always been focused on our outside. We’ve never given equal time to the inside. We’re all about decorating...."

But, said Oates, intellect is important, spiritualism is important, and compassion is important.

He urged the graduates to develop an appreciation for awe. "I still get goose bumps when I hear the choir sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’" he said.

Oates praised the rendition of the national anthem performed at the opening of the graduation ceremony by the chamber choir, under the direction of Rae Jean Teeter. He said he was awe-inspired.

He then spoke of other things he had learned in school that amazed him and awed him.

He also described a personal experience that awed him — "the first time I delivered a lamb."

It was two in the morning and freezing cold, he said, but, in 20 minutes, the lamb was up and walking; it knew how to find its mother’s teat. And the first-time mother knew exactly how to handle the lamb, he said; she made a noise he had never heard before.

"It takes 18 years for us to get out of the nest and 20 minutes for them," said Oates.

Oates concluded with a couple of jokes about one of the most pivotal court cases of our time.

He began by saying he doesn’t put bumper stickers on his car and doesn’t like people to know his political views. Once you label yourself, he said, "You never hear an opposing viewpoint."

So as not to stagnate, he listens to talk radio across the political spectrum, he said.

"As soon as you pigeonhole yourself....you’ve limited your ability to change," said Oates.

Referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which allowed women to have legal abortions, Oates said those who aren’t well read may think this is an argument between two campers over the best way to cross a shallow creek.

Oates then described the Supreme Court justices making their decision. One justice said that the beginning of life is when the baby is born. Another justice said that life begins at the point of conception.

"The chief justice says, ‘Let me tell you when the beginning of life is: It’s when the kids move out and the dog dies,’" said Oates.

He was greeted with applause as the seniors rose to their feet.

His speech was followed by the awarding of diplomas. One by one, the graduates walked across the stage for a handshake and a red diploma cover. As they came off the stage, they were handed a flower and a diploma.

A video of class memories followed, accompanied by the seniors in the high school choir.

The graduates then recessed to the "March of the Meistersingers" and to the warm embrace of their families and friends.

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