PORTLAND - The 263 graduates of Windham High School capped off their 13 years of hard work Sunday with an enthusiastic skyward fling of their maroon and white caps inside the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
From the perfect weather to the precision of the graduates as they marched in unison, as well as the sounds of the Senior Chorus and the joyful singing of Phil Collins’ “On My Way” by the entire class just before they departed, the ceremony was memorable.
The guest speaker was Windham teacher and coach Peter Small, who began by noting Sunday’s other big Portland event, the Old Port Festival: “Welcome to the Old Port Fest, Windham-Raymond style.”
Small, whose first day coincided with the class of 2012’s first day at the school, as well, praised the students for their community involvement, mentioning their 40 hours of community service required for graduation, and urged them to keep it up.
“Be involved in your community. It’s a message you received Day 1, it’s a message you receive the last day, as well,” Small said.
Small then went on to focus on what he called the metaphysical meanings behind three questions: Where are you going? What are you doing? Where are you from?
“Where are you going? What path? Nobody holds that answer for you. No one here holds that answer for any of us,” Small said. “People will say he’s headed for stardom; she’s going to change the world; he’s headed down a bad road. So that’s the direction you’re going, but where are you going? I ask you to seek yourself out to find what is right, what is appropriate and head to that place.”
Regarding the second question, “What are you doing?” Small referred to a classroom discussion on Somalia in which a Somalian student said he wanted to go back and help his native countrymen. He was using his time in Windham to receive the education that would enable him to be of use to his family and community when he did return, Small explained.
“I do ask you, focus upon ‘What are you doing?’ And is it bringing you to a place of ‘Where are you going?’” he said.
For the third question, “Where are you from?” Small referenced the American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who survived cancer to win the Tour de France seven times. When asked in an interview how he managed to break away with apparent ease to win a mountainous stage of the 2001 race, Small paraphrased Armstrong’s answer, saying, “That’s not easy. Eleven months out of the year, I beg you, come watch me, it’s blood, sweat and tears. I climb mountains at 5 a.m. I fall down caverns on my bike. I break bones so that for one month out of the year, I react. It happens.”
Small then turned to the students and said, “Where was he from? He was from a place of commitment. He was from a place of preparation. He was from a place of passion. And that commitment, preparation and passion brought him to what he was doing, he was on his way to winning his third Tour de France.”
Several of the top 10 students also spoke at the ceremony. Salutatorian Sarah Skvorak mentioned her nephew, Noah, born in 2011. He gave her “a gift no one else could. Noah has shown me through the eyes of a child what living really is. Noah reminded me to be bold, vibrant, inquisitive, confident, carefree, silly and messy. I think we all could use a reminder from time to time to hold onto traits that children show so clearly.”
Ashley Crocker, the third honor essayist (fifth in the class), who is planning to pursue a degree in film, talked about her chosen career path in her speech. While she has a plan, her comments were made for those who don’t have one or get scared or discouraged following their dreams.
“So for all of you out there who are worried about your future, don’t fret, I have a little something which may just give you a boost when you’re having a bad day,” Crocker said. “It’s something a little blue fish named Dori told me in a movie called ‘Finding Nemo.’”
Crocker then played an audio clip of the movie in which Dori the fish repeats: “Just keep swimming,” when confronted with adversity.
“No matter what life may throw at you,” Crocker told her classmates, “don’t give up. Everyone will have challenges to face. Challenges are like trenches in the ocean. For some they’re dark, for others they’re long, and others they’re high. What does your trench look like and what will you do when you reach it? Only you can answer that.”
Next to speak was second honor essayist (fourth in the class) Margaret Kilgallon, who during her high school years lost her mother to cancer. She told her classmates that her mother, despite illness, always pushed her daughter to achieve, which Kilgallon credits for her high placement in the class.
“Life wasn’t put on hold when my mom was sick. Expectations didn’t change. When she passed away before the start of junior year, I felt as though I had to keep my promise of staying on top of my schoolwork, trying my best and going the extra mile,” Kilgallon said. “I dedicate this speech to my mom because if it wasn’t for her support and the values she instilled in me, I don’t know if I would have the honor of speaking as an essayist today.”
Devin Pelletier, who finished third in the class and plans to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, used his speech to request the military members in the audience to stand and to thank them for their service.
Pelletier, who said he’s the 25th member of his family to serve in the military, mentioned especially his great uncle who was a prisoner of war in World War II for 16 months.
“The whole time he was in prison, he never gave up any American secrets. He only gave his name and rank,” Pelletier said proudly.
Acknowledging the other members of the class of 2012 entering military service, Pelletier ended his remarks saying, “Your service and future service has and will keep America the free nation it was meant to be. Thank you.”
The final speech of the afternoon came from valedictorian Talia McKay, who started her speech plainly admitting her shortcomings, namely her lack of football knowledge, difficulty with navigation and spelling.
“I’ve been called a science nerd and can be considered book-smart, but these mean nothing when it comes to watching football games or navigating to the civic center on my own in time for graduation. I’m intelligent in some ways but clueless in others,” McKay said.
McKay said most people are intelligent in certain things and not in others. She said some people can fall into destructive ruts if they put too much emphasis on how others define intelligence.
“Embrace your imperfections, but do not define yourself by what you are not and cannot be. Do not place limits upon yourself,” she told her classmates. “You alone draw the line where you think your maximum potential can be placed. Once you define where this line is located, it becomes extremely difficult to navigate past this barrier. But if you focus on what you are good at, what you love to do and what you wish to achieve, it would become obvious that you might actually be able to accomplish what you once thought was impossible.”
McKay then said that hard work and a good attitude helped her achieve good grades.
“Do not let your perceived imperfections and happily-ever-after fantasies break your motivation to be the best you can be. Do not let what you cannot do limit what you can,” she said. “I know I got where I am today because of my dedication and determination. I am conscious of my flaws and I embrace them. I am aware of my academic interests and I’ve pursued them.”
Then, addressing her classmates, McKay said, “Class of 2012, what are you capable of offering with your intellectual abilities? What will you actually accomplish with your brain power?”
The two-hour rite of passage then ended with closing remarks by Marissa Michaud, class president, who thanked the people who helped make the graduation possible.
“Most of us have reached this rite of passage through the guidance, care and love provided by our parents,” Michaud said. “If it was not our parents, perhaps it was another relative or a friend who helped us push through to reach this moment. It’s not only the ones at home we owe, but the countless staff members in our Windham-Raymond school district. Many thanks go out to the teachers, administrators, advisers, janitors, lunch ladies, coaches and more who have all helped make it possible for us.”