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MUHS grads urged to embrace community

MIDDLEBURY — Amid smiles, hugs, bouquets, thunderous cheers and applause from family and well-wishers, and the familiar strains of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the 146 members of the Middlebury Union High School class of 2016 officially received their high school diplomas on Saturday.
The commencement ceremony at the Memorial Sports Center also featured wise words from top administrators, plus three insightful and humor-laced speeches from peers, before the newly minted graduates were launched into the world.
MUHS Principal William Lawson encouraged the soon-to-be graduates to reflect on their achievements to date and drew attention to a range of classmates notable for such accomplishments as acts of kindness and friendship, outstanding academic projects, or the dogged determination to graduate outside the box. Lawson gave a special shout-out to the Tiger girls’ lacrosse team, which faced Mount Anthony in the Division I state finals later that afternoon.
Lawson concluded by urging graduates to be “active, compassionate, life-long learners” with respect for others’ beliefs and experiences.
“I urge you, as you leave this stage, to embrace your curiosity and principled beliefs about the world and to take action in order to create a purposeful and meaningful quality of life for those around you,” Lawson said.
The class of 2016 boasted no fewer than three valedictorians and two salutatorians. Claire Armstrong of Cornwall, Marcelo Hanta-Davis of Middlebury and James Whitley of Weybridge graduated with top honors. Salutatorians were Harriet Milligan and Sophie Saunders, both of Middlebury.
Armstrong spoke to the importance of mutual support and cooperation, using a parable-like story of a dog, bear, cat and a monkey all tasked with climbing up a tree. All accomplish this task easily, of course, except the dog, whose “most incredible talents” are “never discovered.” Armstrong then spoke to the “narrow definition of success that our education system has created” and suggested that for the class of 2016 it has been important for all to work together so that “branch by branch” all “helped carry each other up.” For as many times as someone has been the bear, monkey or cat, “everyone here has also been the dog. Whether it was academic, physical or emotional support, someone often provided a leg up.”
Having now ascended to the height of high school graduation, said Armstrong, “we have a much better view of the world around us and we are now ready to define our own success.”
Whitley spoke about his own path to graduation, the pressures young people, especially, face as they mature, and the difference between reaching for external validation vs. responding from core values.
“For me, the pressure has been to achieve academic success,” said Whitley.
Whitley admitted that when he was younger he struggled in school, such that “‘This is so easy even James can understand this’ was a statement I remember hearing from peers quite a bit before I got to middle school.”
Out of this struggle, Whitley set himself the goal to become valedictorian. But along the way, he said, he realized that as much of an honor as it’s been to reach this goal, what’s truly of value is friendship and community.
“Validation comes through human relationships, not titles,” said Whitley. “We are all very fortunate here. So no matter the success, money or prestige we might chase, we are luckiest when we are surrounded by the people who care about us and hold a place in our hearts.”
Hanta-Davis, the concluding valedictorian speaker, compared entering high school to “moving into a new house,” and then asked what it means to truly create a home. Having drawn loud cheers and whistles from a shout out to the class of 2016’s world-shattering Winter Carnival win as mere freshmen, Hanta-Davis then turned to something a bit more serious, drawing on Aristotle’s and Plato’s discussion of what brings people together to form communities.
“How do we best contribute to our communities and homes? How do we pursue noble actions, as Aristotle says, or virtue?” Hanta-Davis asked. “In ‘The Republic,’ Plato concludes that our homes are merely a reflection of our inner souls and minds … So we give best to our homes by feeding our mind’s appetite for knowledge, allowing our mind’s reason to guide our emotions, and nurturing our mind’s propensity to see the humanity in others.”
Hanta-Davis then reflected on how this truth connects to national and international affairs, saying: “Now that we have built this home, we know how to set out to build other communities. In the future, when we are building some might tell us ‘Let’s build a fence, better yet let’s build a wall around our homes and communities.’ But we know better not to follow such advice because doing so builds fences around our minds.”
This remark drew thunderous applause from the audience.
ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows urged students in the overly busy, hyper-connected information age of the 21st century to make time for reflection. He then announced the winners of numerous awards and scholarships.
Alyssa Crogan, Julia Vorsteveld and Hanta-Davis won the departmental awards in English, social studies and math, respectively. Sophie Saunders won the departmental awards in fine arts, science and world languages.
Burrows then announced winners of the over $107,000 in 32 named scholarships awarded by local entities. Given that many of the scholarships had multiple recipients, over 90 scholarships were awarded in amounts ranging from $200 to $3,500.
After the MUHS Camarata vocal group sang Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life,” it was time at last for the handing out of diplomas. Starting with the valedictorians and salutatorians, students from Ali S. Abdul Sater through Bruce J. Wright walked forward to receive their handshakes and degrees, accompanied by shouts and cheers from friends and family.
For a few minutes during one part of the handing out of degrees, a toddler crawled determinedly down the center aisle and looked around, reminding attendees, parents especially, how far the young people being celebrated Saturday morning had come and how much to be celebrated still lay ahead.
The new graduates exited the ceremony accompanied by Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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