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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 5, 2007

Graduates at Guilderland told
Go through life with "courage and fortitude"

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The graduates in their caps and gowns of red and white rose to their feet and saluted one of their own with thunderous applause.

Craig Joseph Gardner exemplifies courage, said the Guilderland High School principal, Michael Piccirillo.

Piccirillo had begun his speech with a dictionary definition of courage and then quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: "You must do the thing you think you cannot."

Piccirillo went on, "In November, a young man faced a life-threatening infection in his heart...He underwent a very dangerous and risky surgery...The odds were not in his favor...Courage and fortitude brought him through."

Piccirillo went on to praise Gardner not just for his bravery in facing surgery but throughout the long recovery and "uphill climb to complete his course work to graduate on time." The principal said, "He and his parents are an inspiration to me."

Piccirillo put on a red cap for the University of Hartford where Gardner will attend school in the fall and beckoned Gardner and his parents, Mark and Lisa Gardner, to the stage. He handed Craig Gardner the cap, and heartfelt hugs were had all around as the crowd’s applause rang to the rafters.

The embrace was the emotional high point of the 2007 Guilderland High School commencement ceremony, held on Sunday, June 24, at the Empire State Plaza’s convention center in Albany.

"A sense of purpose"

The noon ceremony began to the familiar strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" as the seniors promenaded to their seats; parents and grandparents wept and smiled, snapped photos and waved.

Senior Jennifer Meglino led the Pledge of Allegiance and seniors in the Chamber Choir, under the direction of Rae Jean Teeter, sang the national anthem.

Superintendent Gregory Aidala, making his final commencement speech, having announced his retirement for next fall, turned back the clock to 1968 when he was a 17-and-a-half-year-old graduate of Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, N.Y.

"Thirty-nine years ago to the day..." said the superintendent, "I didn’t have a clue about how my life was going to turn out."

He knew he was going to go to the State University of New York College at Oneonta to study math. "I was really excited about moving away from home," he said, saying there would be no one to tell him what he could do, all the food he could eat, and a beautiful setting.

Aidala then went on to distill the wisdom he had gained in four decades, and accompanied his advice with pictures from his past, projected on the large screens at either side of the stage.

First, he said, "If you like what you’re doing, it won’t seem like a job at all."

Second, he advised, while a picture of himself with a chef was displayed: "Enjoy eating and being around food." Aidala said some of his best memories are connected to food.

Third, he said, "There’s a time to be serious and focused and there’s a time when you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously."

The crowd laughed as a picture of Aidala with a large apple in his mouth flashed on the screen. "Know the difference," said Aidala.

For his "lesson number four," he advised spending time with family.

Fifth, he said, as a picture was displayed of a younger Aidala, smiling while pilloried in the stocks: "Accept the fact life doesn’t always go smoothly." He advised learning from it and moving on.

Sixth, he said, "When you stop learning, you stop growing...Keep an open mind."

Seventh, he told the graduates to travel. "There is a great, big, beautiful world out there," said Aidala.

His eighth and final lesson was: "Take time to relax, reflect, and enjoy yourself...Time goes by quickly. Always remember, your best days lie ahead of you."

Aidala concluded that there is no unique method for getting everything you want. Thirty-nine years ago, he said, "I was told our world was changing rapidly...We didn’t even have microwave popcorn back then...What we did know was the future had limitless opportunities...May you enjoy true happiness," he told the graduating seniors, "and a sense of purpose."

"We’re afraid"

Allison Sobol, co-president of the class, was greeted with loud cheers as she stepped to the podium

She said thanks and told the crowd that her speech would not be traditional, saying it was "a great opportunity for all you ultra-conservatives to tune out."

College professors, Sobol told her classmates, won’t give you an A for coloring inside the lines. Sobol, too, will be attending the University of Hartford.

"What we’re not told," she said, "is how to be an individuals when we’re walking down the same aisle in caps and gowns."

She also said, "The biggest thing that is left out is we’re afraid."

Sobol mentioned some humorous fears such as doing laundry at college and being "afraid our entire wardrobe will be pink."

She also said, "We’re all a little worried about meeting our roommate for the first time...Will they disclose too much information about themselves while talking in their sleep"" was among the worries she expressed.

Larger worries included choosing the wrong college and, said Sobol, "We’re nervous to leave our 18-year safety nest at Guilderland."

The seniors are continually asked what they want to become, said Sobol. Statistically, she said, it is likely the class of 480 will produce 27 lawyers, 35 doctors, and three "will go into the exciting industry of adult entertainment" — a statement that was greeted with gales of laughter and loud cheers.

On a more serious note, Sobol went on, "One thing Guilderland High School has taught me....is the confidence to take chances...We have already taken the first step together...It’s not wrong to be afraid; we all are."

Sobol concluded, "Let us not be afraid that we are the generation of change."

Nathan Rich then read the 50 year roll call as members of the Guilderland High School class of 1957 stood, one by one, to applause.

Principal Piccirillo congratulated them on their 50th anniversary and asked the graduating seniors, "where will you be in 2057""

"Regret sucks"

Michael Lee Fitzgerald, a highest-honors graduate, gave the graduate address. Rather than recognizing a valedictorian and salutatorian, Guilderland honors all of those graduates with a grade-point average of 95 or higher — 30 this year — by having them sit on the stage during the commencement ceremony.

The student who gives the graduate address is chosen based on the speech submitted.

Fitzgerald began his speech in serious tones, describing how he came to America when he was 4 years old, the son of a rice paddy farmer. He recounted seeing the Statue of Liberty and said, "I thank God, this is truly a land of opportunity."

He then punctured his serious start by continuing, "And while none of that is actually true..." as many of his clasmates roared with laughter and others looked puzzled.

Fitzgerald continued his rollicking romp by going on to quote George Washington: "Martha, what’s for dinner""

As George complained about meat loaf and Martha urged him to fix his own dinner, Fitzgerald sobered his discourse to continue, "Decisions are made by those who show up."

He told his classmates, "For 12 years, you showed up and that’s something...You should take a moment to be proud of what you’ve done..."

Ftizgerald went on, "The only true currency in this world is the time we spend doing something we love...because regret sucks. I would rather be shot in the kneecaps while drowning in lava."

He urged his classmates, "Find something you love to do and be good at it and the money will follow."

Fitzgerald said his father had told him that, while everybody else shoots for a basket, they are thinking, "Don’t miss, don’t miss," but, when Michael Jordan shoots a basket, he is thinking, "Go in, go in..."

While Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t tell his classmates what to be, he would tell them what not to be. "Do not become that guy on the beach, looking for treasure with a metal detector," he said. He also advised not becoming the uncle that stays late at every party, telling stories no one wants to hear.

Fitzgerald concluded by telling his classmates, "You inspire me; you motivate me; you kept me out of my top colleges..." He was interrupted with loud applause and laughter after the last comment but finished, "We’re going to do great things."

After Fitzgerald’s speech, Principal Piccirillo asked cavorting seniors to "please hold the beach balls" while the high school chorus sang Stephen Schwartz’s "For Good." The balls were dropped and the seniors sang to a pin-drop quiet hall.

"Why are we here""

Class Co-President Susan Bresney then gave the class message.

She said she was both "a bit nervous" and "overwhelmingly honored" to be giving a speech.

"I’m going into this world just as blind as the rest of you," said Bresney, who will attend Boston University to study education. "I’m not different and I’m really not anything great."

The burning question in everyone’s mind, she said, is: "Why are we here"" Bresney wasn’t referring to the commencement hall. She applied this question to living in general and said she was not concerned with answers like the Big Bang Theory, or God.

The summer before second grade, Bresney said, she learned the meaning of life when people she loved died.

What she learned, Bresney said, is, "Life is simply for living."

Bresney then recounted what it was like for her and for her classmates as they began high school. "When we first began, it was all about fitting in...," she said. "We survived the upperclassmen bullies and searching for the swimming pool on the third floor," she said of the non-existent pool.

Senior year "came all too quickly" and class members found they were "the top dogs," Bresney said.

"We all made it here, yet no one in the same way," said Bresney.

Referring to the start of her speech, she went on, "I see we are everything but ordinary...It’s just really cool...[we] can be so different."

She asked, "Re-dos"" and answered herself, "No thanks. I think we did it right the first time."

Looking around, Bresney noted the red and white gowns but said underneath were different people: an accomplished athlete, "a drama queen who made gossiping worthwhile," a future engineer, "the kid whose test you copied from so you could be here."

"I truly feel lucky to have shared the past four...years and this day with the rest of you," said Bresney to loud applause, which drowned out her last line of thanks.

"It’s all about people"

Principal Piccirillo spoke next, noting he moved the position of his speech so the students could deliver their addresses first.

He talked about the ways the class had distinguished itself — in the classroom, in athletics, in community service, in music and art, and in strong leadership skills.

He asked the 30 highest-honors students to stand; and then the 90 high-honors students, those with averages of 90 or higher; and then the honors graduates, those with averages of 85 or better.

Piccirillo then called the names of the six students, five boys and a girl, who had perfect attendance, and acknowledged their parents as well.

He completed his list of honored students by bringing Craig Gardner and his parents to the stage.

After the applause subsided, Piccirillo said, "As educators, you realize it’s all about people."

Piccirillo went on to give some quick words of advice to the graduates. He advised them to spend quality time with family and friends and tell the people in their lives they are loved. He also advised, "Do the things you like to do because you like to do them," and he said, "Look to your family and friends and good old Guilderland High School for support."

Piccirillo is leaving, after 20 months at Guilderland, for an administrative post at the Saratoga Springs City Schools.

"I, too, have to summon courage," he said, "to move on to another part of my life."

"Be a lifelong learner"

Megan Cleary then introduced Harry Lampman, a Guilderland High School math teacher, whom the class chose to give the commencement address.

"It wasn’t torture; it was fun," said Cleary of Lampman’s class.

Aside from calculus, Cleary said, Lampman "taught me erasers are not necessary; you can just use your sleeve."

She went on in a more serious vein, "His lifestyle and personality are one of a kind," Describing Lampman as "upbeat," Cleary said, "He really cares about each and every person he encounters."

Lampman teaches respect, stated Leary, which she said is "an ideal commonly lost in a large public school."

He "truly believes everyone is equal," she said and concluded, "He taught us how to be smart not only in math but also in life."

Lampman started his speech by unzipping his black, academic robe, to reveal a clean, white shirt underneath. "Not a speck of chalk anywhere," he said. "I clean up pretty good."

He told the seniors he had known the last three state education commissioners on a first-name basis and had national responsibilities as well.

"I’ve never been more honored or more daunted," he said of giving his speech, "especially because it was you who asked me to do it."

He recalled two things from his own high-school graduation 40 years ago. He advised, to ripples of laughter, "Take the diploma with your left hand so you can shake with your right hand."

He also recalled his principal going "on and on and on" as his friends poked each other and giggled.

"You will look back on these as some of the best four years of your life," his principal had said.

"He was right," said Lampman.

He then recalled a speech he heard a year ago as his two sons graduated from community college, given by John Ryan, then the chancellor of the State University of New York. Lampman asked Ryan’s permission to make the same four points to the Guilderland seniors, he said.

First, he said, do what you love. Looking at Aidala, he quipped the superintendent "stole" that from his speech.

"I love what I do every day," Lampman went on.

He was reminded of Joseph Campbell who collected mythologies from cultures around the world and said, "Follow your bliss."

Secondly, Lampman said, "Be a lifelong learner. Be open to new ideas and new experiences."

Curiosity is one of the hallmarks of intelligence and vitality, he said. "You don’t want to be left behind."

Third, Lampman said, "Be a person with some core values, some character...Show up and do the work."

Speaking like a math teacher, he went on, "The corollary to that is, keep your eye on the ball...focus on the job."

John Ryan, in his speech, used the example of John McCain being shot down in Vietnam and thrown in prison with other people who were being tortured. Because McCain had a well-known father, Lampman said, "they offered to release him for political gain. John McCain said, ‘No, not till my friends go home.’ That’s character," concluded Lampman.

He then quoted from the 1995 movie, Rob Roy, about an 18th-Century Scottish folk hero, in which the son asks his father what honor is. The father replies: "Son, honor is something no man can give you and no man can take away from you. It is a gift a man gives to himself."

Fourth, Lampman advised, "Have balance in your life," referring to both work and play. "It’s easy to understand the fallacy of playing all the time," said Lampman. "The other is the one to watch out for. There are no happy workaholics out there."

Lampman ended his speech then, as Ryan had, with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

With that, the graduates ascended the stage, one by one, to receive diplomas — in their left hands — and to shake with their right hands.

They shook the hand of Aidala and school board President Richard Weisz, who conferred the diplomas.

The program concluded with the choir signing "Remember" and the graduates doing just that as they watched a video of their lives and times at Guilderland.

They then marched triumphantly out of the hall to the embrace of their friends and families.

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