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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 9, 2009

For GHS, tears mixed with cheers

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALBANY — A boy who gave bear hugs as a sign of affection was embraced by the Guilderland High School graduating class on June 28 during ceremonies at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

Michael Sullivan was not there. But the 453 graduates — the girls in gowns of white, the boys robed in red — sprang to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. They clapped loud and long.

Sullivan, who was born with Down’s syndrome, died on Feb. 4, 2009 at the age of 20.

He was in special-education classes at Guilderland and, said his cousin, Sandra Sullivan, the week he died, “He loved being with his classmates and participating in all they did...He was also in a work program through Vo-Tech. He had many obstacles in life to overcome but he met each one with his head held high.”

“None of us will ever forget him,” Guilderland High School Principal Brian McCann told the crowd that packed the convention center last Sunday. “He embodied the word ‘special.’”

Sullivan’s was the first diploma given out. His mother, Sally, escorted by his brother, Paul, accepted the diploma and a big hug from the principal, reminiscent of the kind that Michael Sullivan gave.

“I’m very proud,” Mrs. Sullivan said afterward. “It’s just a culmination of his life,” she said as she held the diploma in a red case. When her son started school, in Colonie, she said, he was among the first students in the state “in the newly adopted inclusion program.”

Mrs. Sullivan concluded through tears, “And now he’s the first to graduate through high school.”

 The moment capped a ceremony that ran the gamut from a humorous jaunt through 12 years of school — complete with on-stage dancing — to a passionate address by English teacher Derek Shuttleworth, chosen by the class to be the keynote speaker.

“Explore, dream, discover”

The program opened with Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” as the seniors processed past cheering friends and families while cameras flashed.

McCann welcomed the crowd to the 54th graduation of Guilderland High School, after which class President Herbert Goldstein led the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Gentlemen, remove your caps,” urged the principal; the young men obliged, placing red mortarboards over their hearts.

After the Concert Choir seniors sang a perfectly pitched rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Superintendent John McGuire told a family story. When his son Jeb was 6 years old, the McGuires bought a boat. A man instructing the family in running the powerboat turned to the 6-year-old and said, “This will be your job, and it is the most important thing.”

“He introduced Jeb to the drain plug,” said McGuire, explaining that every year, some boats would sink because they had been launched without the drain plug in place.

“My 6-year-old took the assignment very seriously,” said McGuire. He’s now a 29-year-old professional living in Nevada. “If I asked him, ‘What is the most important thing?’ he would say, ‘The drain plug, Dad.’”

Finding out the most important thing in life isn’t so easy, McGuire said.

“We are all learners at each stage of this experience we call life,” said the superintendent.

He went on to quote both Robert Kennedy and Albert Schweitzer.

“You live in the most privileged nation on earth,” Kennedy had said in 1966 at the University of California at Berkeley. “You are the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation; for you have been given the opportunity to study and learn, to take your place among the tiny minority of the world’s educated men and women. By coming to this school you have been lifted onto a tiny, sunlit island, while all around you lies an ocean of human misery, injustice, violence, and fear. You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to enrich the lives of your fellow man. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfillment of the best qualities of your own spirit. ”

“The only ones among you,” said Schweitzer, “who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

“Others,” said McGuire, can describe a direction but only you can chart your course.”

He closed with a quotation he attributed to Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

“Learning from and about each other”

When the applause subsided, Samuel Gorenstein, stepped to the podium to give the student welcoming address. (Guilderland does not name a valedictorian and salutatorian. Rather, all of the highest honors graduates sit on the stage. Students who want to address the crowd submit speeches from which the speakers are chosen.)

Gorenstein immediately engaged the crowd by asking his classmates to complete some phrases.

“Gradu —” intoned Gorenstein.

“— ation,” answered the crowd.

“Summer va —” began Gorenstein.

“— cation,” shouted the crowd.

“Good vi—”sang Gorenstein.

“—bration,” returned the crowd.

He went on to ask his classmates their favorite movie and best subjects, to which the answers became varied and louder.

He got a strong response, too, when he asked the name of the person seated to each graduate’s left, but was greeted mostly with silence when he asked that person’s favorite color. He went on to ask about their seatmate’s favorite music and favorite author.

It’s hard to know about people, said Gorenstein, and so much easier to read information.

He then went on to ask, what if, in some alternate universe, his classmates’ lives at Guilderland High School were a book or a movie or a TV show. He wondered what his classmates would want an audience to see and where one episode would end and another begin.

(Fast forward to the end of the ceremony: That fantasy became a reality after Maxwell Collins introduced the senior video.)

“You’ll see the plot lines develop,” said Gorenstein, “the small dramas and the big ones...comedy, drama, action adventures, science fiction, mystery, romance,” he said as the crowd laughed lightly.

Gorenstein riffed on the humorous strain, asking, “Doesn’t it seem like something out of a sitcom — we have a new principal every time we start a school year...It’s a good thing we’re leaving or Mr. McCann would have to be worried.”

Returning to a more serious theme, and the point of his opening gambit, Gorenstein went on, “Everyone in this room right now — that’s what matters most.”

Students have walked the halls of Guilderland High School for years, he said, and they may have had some of the same plots but not the same story.

“Even after four years at GHS, we’re clearly not done with learning from and about each other,” he said.

He went on to urge his classmates, “Start here, start today...Don’t forget this story...Don’t forget Guilderland...We do have an audience somewhere.”

“Education brought us together”

The Concert Choir seniors then sang “We Are” by Ysaye M. Barnwell. The song tells of the importance of each new life.

“We are the breath of our ancestors, we are the spirit of God,” sang the seniors. “We are lovers of life and builders of nations.”

The song set the stage for Ariella Segal to give the graduate address.

Segal spoke of the Guilderland class pictures from earlier years, in which the clothes may be outdated, but the individuals are not identifiable as jocks or nerds or artists.

As she and her classmates squeezed together on the bleachers for their class picture, Segal said, “We became that....Education brought us together…We are not separate groups of people. We are students. We are the class of 2009.”

Educators at Guilderland have become mentors and friends to the class, she said, naming a string of them. One was Elizabeth Whitman who taught about supply and demand, Segal said, but also taught that others are equals.

As the graduates grew politically and as their morals and ideals solidified, Segal said, “We have grown into our own people.”

Segal then told “an old tale” about a father distressed by the way his angry children had dispersed. In his old age, he gathered them together and told them to each go into the forest and gather twigs, then return to him. Each then was to choose a twig and break it, which was done without difficulty.

Then each was to choose another twig, which he bundled together with a string and gave to his oldest son, instructing him to break the twigs. Although the son was robust, he could not do it.

The father’s last words were: “You see, my children, each of you may be weak individually, but together you are unbreakable.”

“Education has bound us together,” Segal repeated her theme.

Now, on entering the “real world,” she said, “We will be able to speak out for the greater good” with the confidence gained through a Guilderland education.

“We have been provided with an incredible education,” Segal concluded, “that will help us realize our dreams...Every one of you has the power to make the changes you wish to see. We can change the world. Class of 2009, you are bound for greatness.”

“We takin’ over ”

Segal’s stirring message was followed with a rambunctious ramble, delivered in tandem by Steven Anderson, co-vice president of the class, and by William Kemp.

They began with a description of kindergarten clothes to which Anderson quipped, “You still wear your Power Ranger tidy-whiteys, don’t you?”

Nonplused, Kemp called out to his mother about his underwear selection.

The duo’s description of curricula at the other end of elementary school, in fifth grade, drew a sympathetic groan from the class of 2009 as the pair reminisced over “The Voyage of the Mimi.”

 “You all still remember the one lesson we will never forget — none of us will ever die of hypothermia,” said Anderson, alluding to nestling together to say warm.

“Hey, big guy,” returned Kemp, “where do you think I learned to spoon like that?”

Middle school followed on the heels of graduation from five different elementary schools. “We were off to a building that consisted of four squares and a circle — Farnsworth Middle School,” said Kemp.

The “squares” are different houses or schools within a school. The dynamic duo got the crowd laughing and cheering as they attributed different characteristics to those in each house.

But they later decided it wasn’t the houses that defined the students as much as their lunch habits. The duo distinguished among the salad-bar users, who kept organized desks; the hot mealers, “who still probably wear Power Ranger tidy-whiteys”; and the snack-bar kids, charged up by their sugar slushies.

“This group to this day can be found handing out wedgies on the back of the Big Yellow,” said Anderson.

The move to high school, Kemp said, was the start of a “caste system.”

The Class of 2009, said Anderson, became “the lowest of the low — untouchables.” The freshmen were led to search for a second floor and a swimming pool, neither of which exists.

In the midst of such harassment, Kemp repeated a school slogan with mock brightness, “You know, Steven, being a bully is not OK.”

Advisory became a cease-fire period, said Anderson. “Avoiding work is hard work,” quipped Kemp.

When students reached the age of 16, they could drive to school, “That is if you could find a place to park,” said Kemp, who went on to rib classmate Frank Corradi about parking on an athletic field.

The Class of 2009 rose up the ranks and, said Anderson, has officially completed the final phase of Operation Takeover.

In chanting form, the duo alternated in thanking parents, teachers, classmates and friends for “always being there.” The audience applauded enthusiastically after each accolade.

“And thank you to the cop on Depot Road for always being there,” said Kemp, completing the series to gales of laughter.

“He got me,” deadpanned Anderson.

Kemp went on to tell the crowd, “We learned a lot from you. You learned a lot from us.” He referred to the “foreign language” of texting, as Anderson launched into a litany of letters.

“Steven, you make me LOL,” said Kemp, a reference to laughing out loud as the audience did just that.

“I say, ‘We takin’ over one city at a time,” said Anderson, borrowing from DJ Khaled’s hip-hop hit.

“Class of 2009,” said Kemp, “whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t stop taking over,”

With that, the pair danced on stage as music played their theme song.

“There aren’t many times where I am afraid,” quipped McCann as he regained the podium, but those last two minutes....”

“We’ve grown up together”

Next, the sound of a bird was heard, calling from the back of the hall. It was followed by jungle noises as the Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Kathleen Ehlinger, played Naohiro Iwai’s “Jungle Fantasy.”

The unusual piece with striking rhythms was answered with thunderous applause.

McCann then asked each of the honors graduates — those with a grade-point average of 85 to 89.9 — to stand. The high honor graduates — with averages of 90 to 95.9 — were recognized next. And then the highest honor graduates with averages of 95 and up, who sat on the stage, were applauded.

McCann next asked the students who had given at least 200 hours of community service to stand. “Giving back to one’s community merits all of our recognition,” he said.

Finally, he asked the eight students with perfect attendance to stand and be recognized.

(The graduates with honors, community service, and perfect attendance are so noted on pages 12 and 13 of this edition.)

“You guys look great,” McCann began his address.

A long-term assistant principal at Guilderland, McCann noted that he had worked with members of the Class of 2009 in that capacity for their first three years of high school. “I’ve gotten to know many of you,” he said, with depth that was, in some cases, disturbing.

“We’ve grown up together,” he continued, “although we have to acknowledge that some of us are further down that road than others.”

McCann then referred to a thought of Bertrand Russell, that a person cannot call himself an educator if he does not have true affection for his students.

On the last day of classes, McCann said, he got to “enjoy one more lunch period” with students, having a philosophical discussion on the use of a taco tray.

One student asked McCann if he would cry on graduation day. He assured her that that was not a silly question.

As McCann searched for what to tell the class, he said, words kept ringing in his head, words that had been uttered by students sent to his office. When he would ask them why they had violated the code of context, they would answer, “I got nothin’.”

As the audience laughed, McCann said, “At least some of you can relate.”

The problem with dispensing “pearls of wisdom,” he said, is “your heads are clogged” with thoughts of graduation parties, food platters, and how much is in the envelope from Aunt Tess.

McCann concluded with heartfelt words of advice from a movie, spoken to a child — It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be...You can make the most of it or you can make the worst of it.... “I hope you live a life you are proud of,” said McCann. “And, if you are not, I hope you have the strength to start over again.”

“Our lives are symbiotic”

Christopher Stillman, co-vice president of the class, then introduced Shuttleworth, who was chosen to give the commencement address.

“Our whole class voted on who we wanted,” said Stillman. “When we realized Obama and Lil Wayne weren’t going to answer our calls, we went to our next best option.”

Stillman praised Shuttleworth for his “energy and enthusiasm” and the way he bonds with his students.

Shuttleworth gave a carefully worded speech that he said he had pared down from 13 pages to five.

He began by addressing parents who had done whatever they had to — “good cop, bad cop, friend, confessor, taxicab, dictator” — to get their kids to this point. Parents need teachers and teachers need parents, he said.

Good teachers make themselves unnecessary, said Shuttleworth.  He also said, “All life teaches if you are willing to remain” a student.

“We have enormous power to affect each other,” said Shuttleworth. In this land, we value self-reliance, he said of America. “I, too, have worshipped this idol.” But, he said, no one does much alone.

“Victories in life are so much sweeter in good company...,” said Shuttleworth. “Happiness is only real when shared.”

He also said, “Our lives are symbiotic.” He told the graduates, listening quietly to his words, “Let me tell you what I take from you — I take hope....All are responsible to give hope. All are required.”

He described the hope he derives from everyday acts by students — for example, a student raising her hand in class when she has so much to bear outside the classroom.

“Hope is rebellion...,” said Shuttleworth. “It is a refusal to go along, to accept this is the way things are.”

He referred to Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts: “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

“Graduates,” said Shuttleworth, “you must toe that line.”

He said it was a pivotal time in their lives and urged, “You must change the way we live.” Shuttleworth cautioned against serving only the self and said, “It seems as if the well of our character is running dry.”

He continued, “We have so much wrong to oppose, so much good to stand for.”

He asked how so much could rest on such small shoulders. He told the graduates they were from a generation that would rather text than talk but went on to say, “The truth is, you are stronger than you know...The great are made so in desperate times” and heroes are found in dark hours, he said.

Shuttleworth told the graduates that, if they were trembling under their robes, in the enormity of what is next, “Be the voice of reason in chaos, the lone voice for what you know is right...Find and found your life on principles that you chose.”

He also told the graduates, “You are not alone. You are flanked by all those” he said of parents, teachers, friends — the “chorus of your past.”

He went on, “When you stand and speak for what is right...you are truly the vessel of hope....”

The English teacher concluded, “I leave you with one last assignment...Let us go our separate ways...Return and bring us back together...Come back to make us better than we are today...

“You must be brave,” said Shuttleworth. “You must step out and away from us. Together we will keep this faith....Life is not to be found; it is to be felt.”

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