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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 10, 2008
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Lisa Whitman stepped to the podium at the Empire State Plaza auditorium wearing purple crocs beneath her black academic robe.
She received warm applause from the 500 Guilderland High School seniors whom she had served as a class advisor. The footwear of the young women, peeking out from beneath their white robes, ranged from flip-flops to tall hot-pink heels with conservative pumps and open-toed sandals in between. Footwear for the young men, visible beneath their red robes, ranged from sneakers to polished dress shoes.
In delivering the commencement address, Whitman offered some practical advice. A high-school social-studies teacher, passionate about economics, she told the graduates to set up 401k accounts before getting their first paychecks and reminded them that credit cards have to be paid off.
“Finally,” she said, “life is too short to wear uncomfortable shoes” a comment that was greeted with loud applause. “If your feet aren’t happy, you won’t be.”
Brittany Zadrozinski had introduced the speaker, chosen by the class, saying that Whitman had taught her inside and outside the classroom, always putting in 110 percent and “always keeping on task and focus.”
She also said Whitman was “not an ordinary economics teacher...She not only teaches it, but lives economically,” said Zadrozinski, who will be attending Lemoyne College to study English.
And she related Whitman’s constant advice: “Be safe, don’t be stupid. Hope to see you back here on Monday.”
For her part, Whitman told the graduates, “Without you, I couldn’t do my job...You share little bits and pieces of yourself with me...That’s why I come back every fall.”
After the applause subsided, she delivered the heart of her message to the graduates: “Pay attention.”
Whitman went on, “I see fewer and fewer people actually paying attention in their lives.”
She added that probably 50 people in the audience were, at that moment, texting messages, so, while they could hear her words, they weren’t thinking about them.
It is not just being present, but participating, she said. “I want you to react.”
She told the students who are college-bound that they would have to make new friends and advised, “Listen to the people around you...Hear who they are...You will be sought out for friendship.”
She told those graduates who are entering the “world of work” that they would have many people around them not their age and they would need to “pay attention” and could seek a mentor for an easier transition.
While she is passionate about economics, Whitman said, she likes to find out what her students are passionate about, attending their games and events. “The time I spend talking to my kids matters to me,” she said.
She also told the graduates, “Much of your education to date has not been about learning but achieving.” She advised the, “Live in the moment. Learn for the love of it....Life is what you make of it. It doesn’t happen to you.”
Whitman says she knows herself well enough to know what makes her happy. She went on to describe a time when that wasn’t so. As a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University in June of 1982 she took a job on Wall Street.
It was raining on her first day of work, June 1. She put on her London Fog raincoat, one of her new garments, along with pumps and suits, purchased for her job. As she left work, she discovered it was “an extraordinarily beautiful day.”
She was carpooling with her boss who walked with a purposeful stride. “I’m more of a stroller,” she said. Wearing her new pumps, she stumbled over a street curb and landed flat on her face as her boss, unaware, strode on.
“My hands are scraped, my knees are bleeding,” she recounted.
She hadn’t been paying attention to the curb or to the reality that Wall Street wasn’t right or her.
She advised the graduates to start practicing paying attention. Next time you are in a checkout line, she advised, “Say hello and mean it.”
Those who work retail know what it feels like to be invisible, she said. Noticing the person makes the transaction meaningful, said Whitman. “Those connections are the stuff of life.”
She concluded with her trademark sign-off: “Please be careful. Don’t be dumb. I mean that.” She couldn’t tell her students, though, that she’d see them on Monday.
Responsibility of choice
Whitman’s was the last speech before the graduates, one by one, ascended the stage to receive their diplomas. The ceremony had opened an hour-and-a-half before, at noon, with the strains of ”Pomp and Circumstance.” As the seniors walked to their seats at the center of the packed hall, proud parents took pictures and filmed videos.
“Do you know how the tassel thing works?” asked one young man, a drummer in the symphony orchestra.
“It goes on the right,” promptly responded a young woman, a violinist.
Once the music stopped, the class co-presidents, Erin O’Connor and Andrew Smith led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance after which the chamber choir sang the national anthem. O’Connor is going to Springfield College in the fall for athletic training and Smith is going to the University at Albany to study business and play football.
Superintendent John McGuire, new to Guilderland this year, gave his first welcoming address for the school’s 53rd commencement.
“This is a significant accomplishment for which I congratulate and salute you,” he said.
McGuire said he wanted to share one of life’s most important lessons and began with a story about two third-grade boys getting into a fistfight at recess. When the principal asked what happened, after some silence, one of the boys blurted out, “It all started when he hit me back.”
Laughter rippled across the hall.
Then, on a more serious note, McGuire went on to talk about Dr. Viktor Frankl, a world-renowned psychotherapist who was born in Vienna in 1902. In 1942, he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp where his family died and he endured “unthinkable tortures,” McGuire said.
Frankel thought he might lose his mind or his life. It was then he realized that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms…to choose his own way.”
McGuire told the graduates that each has “the awesome responsibility for our decisions.”
Returning to the story of the fist-fighting third-graders, he said the one boy’s response was an example of assigning to others the responsibility for our decisions.
McGuire concluded by relating a conversation between a Native American elder and his grandchild. The elder said he felt he had two great wolves inside of him engaged in a battle for his spirit one was vengeful, the other kind.
The child asked which would win.
The elder replied, “The one that will win will be the one that I feed.”
Keegan Burke-Falotico gave the student welcoming address. Guilderland does not name a salutatorian and valedictorian. Rather, the highest-honor graduates all sit on stage and the addresses are given by students who submit speeches to be chosen.
Burke-Falotico said his mother was still proud of his graduation from kindergarten.
He calculated that students had spent 4,800 hours in the classrooms and hallways of Guilderland High School.
”There have been ups; there have been downs,” he said.
The core of his speech was to thank those who “helped get us through it all.”
First on the list were parents and guardians. His parents, Burke-Falotico said, were his “biggest role models.”
“They taught me not to fear and to go after what I want in life,” he said.
Burke-Falotico, who has starred in Guilderland productions, will attend the University at Buffalo in the fall to study musical theater.
Teachers picked up where parents left off, he said; they have the hardest job and get the least credit.
Burke-Falotico called teaching “a most courageous job” and said, “We have the best because they care the most.”
He went on to advise his classmates, “Do what you love and love what you do.” He also urged them to appreciate each moment “as it comes at you.”
And, he named teachers who meant the most to him.
Finally, Burke-Falotico talked about the importance of friends.
One last thought, he urged his classmates, with whatever they pursue after high school, “Don’t do it for money or because someone want you to...Follow your heart and you will find your happiness,” he concluded to applause.
Lessons from a toothbrush
Kelly Hill began the class address by asking, “How many of you know who William Addis is?”
The question was answered with profound silence.
Hill then held up a toothbrush and said Addis was its inventor. (The Englishman is credited with making the first mass-produced toothbrush in 1780, inserting bristles in an animal bone to replace the usual method of teeth-cleaning rubbing a rag with salt and soot over the teeth.)
A recent USA Today survey found that young Americans today want to be wealthy and well known, she said.
Addis saw a problem and solved it; making money from the toothbrush was “an after effect,” she said.
“Not one of you knew his name,” she said of Addis yet a 2003 survey showed the toothbrush was the number-one invention that Americans couldn’t live without.
Tooth brushing, she said, keeps infection from spreading from the teeth to the lungs and also reduces the chance of heart attacks.
Addis wanted to improve society she said, going on to urge her classmates, “Every one of you can do the same thing.”
Hill, herself, will be going to Germany next year to study as an American Field Service foreign-exchange student.
She told her classmates, “Most of us will be regular, ordinary people...That doesn’t mean we can’t have an extraordinary impact.”
She cited, as examples, a mother reading stories to her children, a father playing with his kids, or a boss being fair to workers.
Simple acts of kindness can make the world a better place, Hill said. “You can lift others up, not tear them down,” she said.
She urged her classmates to make it a better world. We really can make a difference through how we live, said Hill, and how we treat those around us.
She concluded by taking one more lesson from Addis: “Focus on a simple need,” said Hill.
”If 500 people start doing that today...just think of what we can change.”
Many careers already
“Time and time again,” said Molly Clancy, a senior class representative, giving the class message, “we’ve been asked a difficult question since kindergarten...What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Clancy, an honors student, is going to attend the State University of New York College at Potsdam to study English education.
She told her classmates they already had been stylists, athletes, doctors, teachers, and historians.
About the stylists, she reminisced over the mushroom cuts sported by both boys and girls in grade school and mentioned several other fashion trends.
The class has produced athletes and cheerleaders, she said. “Our spirit never died; we became a red sea,” said Clancy, referencing the school color that students wore to games.
Her classmates were counselors and doctors, too, nursing broken hearts, always lending an ear to friends. “We’ve advised and listened to each other,” she said.
The class also has its artists and entertainers, performing in school plays and “creating our own legit sayings,” said Clancy.
“As artists,” she said, “We have wallpapered our once intimidating halls.
“Yes, we have been artists, even con artists,” creating “a little mischief,” said Clancy, such as crank-calling teachers.
Classmates have been activists, signing petitions, and comedians and stand-up performers, she said. And, they have been tourists, “taking our first steps in the Pine Bush” and going on to explore nearby cities and, finally, traveling overseas.
“We have been teachers,” said Clancy as class members helped each other learn.
“We have been historians,” she went on, witnessing and participating “in an era all our own.”
She cited an elementary-school example: “Lynnwood’s jealousy of the Pine Bush playground,” which elicited laughter across the hall.
Clancy went on, “We won’t forget the cross-country boys and their self-proclaimed spirit week...The powder-puff game and the craze that followed it.”
Clancy concluded by saying she trusted her classmates will grown up to be many things and urged, “The most important thing is to always be yourself.”
Giving parents their due
Michael Paolino, the new high school principal, commended the students for their academic and athletic successes as well as for their devotion to community service.
“They have indeed dedicated themselves to living their lives by choices and not by chances,” he said.
Paolino asked several groups of students to stand for applause: First the highest-honor graduates, with a grade-point average of 95 or higher; followed by the high-honor graduates, with an average of 90 or above; and finally the honor graduates with an average of 85 or higher.
Next to stand were the 43 students who had each completed more than 200 hours of community service. Paolino called them “simply inspiring” and said some students had donated 700 to 1,200 hours of their time for various causes.
Finally, five students with perfect attendance Brooke Bondi, Allyssa Coy, Kelly Hill, Michael Katt, and Justin Rucci stood for applause.
Having recently become the father of two twin boys, Paolino said he better understands what it means to be a parent.
He told the full hall, many of them parents, “You have done a remarkable job in raising such fine men and women.”
With that, the students rose to their feet and applauded their parents. It was the ceremony’s only standing ovation; the applause was loud and long.
Paolino concluded his remarks by quoting from the legendary college football coach, Lou Holtz: Everyone needs four things something to do, someone to love, something to hope for, something to believe in.
He urged the graduates to look to their families for love and to believe in themselves.