Mount Abe graduates look back, move forward

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School on Saturday graduated 110 seniors into a world in which they will experience a variety of emotions, including jubilation, trepidation, exultation and consternation. Commencement speaker Ken Marcelle added one more to the list: fear. But he urged the newly minted graduates to face that emotion head-on and defeat it.
“You can’t allow fear to stop you in your tracks,” said Marcelle, who until recently served as the school’s campus safety aide. “You have to embrace it, and allow it to drive you forward. Make that move, step off that cattle truck, step into your dorm room, take a chance. In order to grow we have to go out of our comfort zone. Embrace the fear.”
Marcelle worked at Mount Abe for eight years before stepping down to join the Hinesburg Police Department. He forged strong ties with the students, who overwhelmingly selected him to deliver their send-off speech on Saturday.
“With my new adventure, my family grew from four to over 800,” Marcelle said of his Mount Abe job. “I gained 700 kids and 100 brothers and sisters … Every year my family would lose some members as they walked across this stage, diploma in hand. They would spread their wings and leave their structured lives behind going into the unknown. As these family members were leaving, more would soon come into the nest bringing their own fears of the unknown.”
Fear is an emotion experienced by many — including himself, Marcelle stressed. And he spoke of his wife laying awake nervously when he responds to late-night emergency calls, “waiting to hear the familiar sound of Velcro of my body armor being removed” before succumbing to sleep.
“Fear is something we all go through one way or another in life, whether it is changing jobs, going to college or joining the military,” he told the class and hundreds of spectators, all huddled under a tent that shielded them from a lazy drizzle. “Don’t let fear control your destiny. It’s too late to go back now. It’s your turn to walk across this stage like so many before you have done. To spread your wings and fly into the unknown. Once you have reached your destination call your family, let them know that you made it and you’re all right. Because … you’re going to be all right.”
Valedictorian Hannah Funk urged her classmates to be proud of their achievements, and to be thankful to those — including family and friends — who helped bring them to the brink of the next chapter of their lives. She credited a friendly, supportive environment at Mount Abe for helping students succeed collectively. Funk metaphorically compared the class of 2016 to a flock of “pack eagles.”
“You may be surprised to hear that the pack eagle is commonly known as the turkey vulture, and can be frequently seen in the skies above Mount Abe,” Funk said. “This alternative species of eagle is just like your standard eagle, except that it travels in a pack. When one eagle tires, the others are there to support it, and together, the pack eagles are unbeatable. Over my years at Mount Abe, I have come to feel like a pack eagle. Strong and individual, yet supported and defined by the community around me.”
Funk noted that her class had a solid high school experience in spite of some the challenges that have dogged the district during the past few years. Voters defeated a sizable bond issue to refurbish the school, and the district has seen significant turnover in its administrative leadership. While a school improvement project remains in limbo, the district’s leadership team has now been solidified.
“I would never trade my Mount Abe experience, despite its flaws,” she said. “We may not have had state-of-the-art technology, administrative stability, or even air conditioning, but that did not stop us from realizing the core elements of being eagles.”
Helping the students through occasional turbulence were dedicated teachers who “marked my papers with comments like, ‘think harder,’ and ‘what are you really saying?’ and shared snippets of their lives and adventures with us,” Funk said. She also credited the school’s cafeteria workers and janitorial staff for working hard to keep students well-fed and the campus clean.
“As I leave Mount Abe, my most important memories are special — not because of what happened, but because of who was flying beside me,” Funk said. “Thank you, class of 2016, for being a part of the aerie over these past six years. As we spread our eagle wings and separate to all of the far corners of this earth, I like to think that we remain connected by the nest where we grew up, and the experience of learning to fly together. I wish you the best of luck as you travel out to find a new pack of eagles.”
Funk will attend Georgetown University this fall.
Salutatorian Mahli Knutson took a page from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s book in outlining what she believes are some essential freedoms to live by. Roosevelt emphasized the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Knutson, bound for Middlebury College this fall, gave some of her own, including:
•  Independence of reasons. “There will be things you can’t control in life, so take the initiative to live how you want to: Travel, teach, skydive, be a recluse, watch television, conduct research, volunteer,” Knutson said. “Finding yourself doesn’t mean having everything figured out. Take advantage of your intuition, any inkling of what you want to do today or in a decade. Transform that inkling into attitude, action. Your own convictions are reason enough.”
•  Freedom of exploration. “Quit a job for the first time,” she said. “Make a drastic change to your appearance, and then change your mind. Borrow money for a startup business. Kiss a stranger. Have an existential crisis or two. Make mistakes and have too much fun away from home. Redefine yourself.”
•  Freedom of association. “Connecting with people is one of the most beautiful parts of life,” she said. “Creating a network of peers, mentors, idols, dear friends, both lends inspiration and keeps you grounded. I’ve been inspired by my single mother, a ’60s jazz musician wielding a bass clarinet, an eager mathematician peer, a New Orleans trombonist … I’m grateful for more people and things than I can enumerate.”
•  Authenticity. “Every day, we hear a myriad of reasons and advice for study, work, lifestyle, relationships, life motivation,” Knutson said. “Don’t feel pressured; call upon your freedoms and find who you are — not necessarily thinking ‘big picture’ — but by the hour, the minute, the second. If you exercise your freedoms to your own satisfaction, you may find that your identity is not such a burdensome confinement; it’s not something you have to write down or explain, but self-fulfilling — something you live.”

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