Two-hundred and ninety students walked across the stage at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford last Thursday night, receiving their Newington High School diplomas.
Student Council President Lukas Houle was the first to address thousands of students, faculty, family and friends, beginning the program the exact same way he began the morning announcements at the start of each school day. Houle announced a 10-second moment of silent meditation before leading his class in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Class of 2018 President Kevin Zvonarek’s address was filled with anecdotal humor only his classmates would understand, including references to “glow-ups” and following teacher Julie Butryman on Instagram.
“During our time here at Newington High I have personally talked or interacted with each of you in some form or another,” Zvonarek said. “I can assure you all that we are full of the hardest workers, biggest procrastinators and fiends, the most artistic, and the most athletic people to walk through these halls. The second we walk out those doors we are young citizens of the world,” he continued. “Uncertainty and opportunity awaits us out there, but be sure to use the one chance you have at making a name for yourself in a memorable and positive way.”
Class Essayist Justin Field’s address was chosen by a selection committee charged with evaluating student submissions on the topic of social change. He focused on his generation being hushed by society, while their voices are as important as any other.
“If you look at history there’s always examples of the older generations telling the younger ones that they shouldn’t speak up or that they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Field pointed out, offering the Chinese government’s 1989 response to protests in Tiananmen Square as one of the most extreme examples.
“If teenagers and young people are not supposed to speak their mind, then why does the world keep listening?” Field pondered. “From what I’ve seen it’s because we all have the perfect blend of naiveté, cynicism, and stubbornness that makes us speak our mind and not particularly care about what others think about it.”
He urged his classmates to speak their minds even if others won’t listen.
“Scream and fight for every inch society will give you until it can’t stop ignoring you. Until it can’t sit idly by and say, ‘these kids don’t know what they’re talking about,’ because you know what? Pretty soon we’ll all be part of that society - and then? Well, then they’ll have to listen.”
Salutatorian Jessica Buslewicz offered a statement from Philip Schentrup, the father of Carmen Schentrup, a girl killed in the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Buslewicz has been in contact with the family through her involvement with the NHS Organizers, who held a memorial service for Parkland victims and advocated for peace and social change this past spring.
“Think about how lucky you are to be watching your graduate walk across this stage tonight,” began the message Philip Schentrup told Buslewicz to share with the audience. “Cherish this moment, and do everything in your power to make sure no child will be unjustly deprived of this honor.”
“With the blessing of her family, I will graduate tonight for both myself and Carmen,” she added. “Thank you, Carmen.”
Valedictorian Khang Nguyen told a story about a family friend who was one of 800,000 Vietnamese refugees to flee after the Vietnam War. This individual faced unbelievable hardships with faith and was able to build a happy, secure life for himself in the U.S., Nguyen said.
“When faced with such darkness and such uncertainty, I ask that you take a moment to realize that there is nothing too great for you to overcome and no darkness so absolute that you cannot shine your light in order to pierce through the void and forge a path forward,” he told fellow graduates.
The ceremony was colored by music class officers chose to represent their classmates’ journey. The Chamber Choir performed “Beautiful City” by Stephen Schwartz and the Chamber Orchestra, “The Star Wars Epic” by composer John Williams.
The event also marked the end of Terra Tigno’s first year as the school’s principal. She used the opportunity to sing to her the class her version of the Journey hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” accompanied by the Chamber Choir. She told them the job was “the best decision I ever made,” encouraging students to find something that makes them feel just as happy and proud. Applause was the loudest for Tigno, fondly known by the school community as the mother to her “family of learners.”
Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins noted that the class is the 80th to graduate from NHS and 2018 also marks the 120th anniversary of the district transporting students to school. He went on to offer several pieces of advice, finishing with, “Express your passion and views about making a genuine difference in our society. You have the ability. I’ve seen it.”
Collins announced his resignation this week. Check for a story in next week’s Town Crier. Board of Education Chairman Josh Shulman was the last school official to address the class and the closest to them in age, having graduated from NHS in 2006. He focused on dealing with life’s inevitable failures, recounting a few in his own journey.
“I promise you, on the way to your next milestone, you will fail,” Shulman said. “Those of you that are prepared to fail, can figure out why you failed, and move on, will be the ones who find a greater measure of happiness and success after high school.”
Before moving the tassle to the other side of his graduation hat, David Torres thought of his lacrosse team.
“They showed me how to be a better person,” he said. “I met a lot of people who helped me out.”
Julia Burton walked across the stage on crutches, having had surgery just a week before.
“I’m making the best of it,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t want to miss this.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.