Mount Abe graduates 118 seniors

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School’s 118 graduating seniors looked pretty much the same this past Saturday — all dressed in maroon gowns and square, tasseled caps — but commencement speaker Jessica Little likened them to a diverse array of puzzle pieces searching for the right fit.
“Life is a billion-piece puzzle that we have to figure out without a picture on the box to help us put it together,” Little, a Mount Abe social studies and history teacher, said during her speech to the new graduates, their friends and families.
“We have to find where we fit, how we connect the pieces,” she continued. “Those connections are often not self-evident in the moment but, over time, the puzzle picture becomes clearer and we see where the pieces do fit … even the weird ones.”
And Little stressed the graduates celebrate the things about them that are offbeat and unique.
“My advice regarding the weird: Do not change the weird,” she said. “We are all weirdly wonderful in our own way.”
She made some additional suggestions to the outgoing seniors as they transition into college, jobs, the military and other post-graduate pursuits: Avoid polarization, “find your tribe” and “own yourself.”
“Humanity is our family and, as in any family, blood born or chosen, we sometimes have to put together a puzzle by setting aside our differences, leaning in, and listening to each other,” she said. “Lashing out at those who see the world differently only leads to discord and distrust, furthering the fissures and fanning the flames of an already polarized world.”
When choosing a “tribe,” she urged the graduates to gravitate toward people who will “let you be you.”
She recalled her own interview at Mount Abe for the teaching position she now holds. She was asked at the end of the meeting to philosophically sum up what she was looking for.
“With on-the-spot honesty, I said ‘I am looking for my home.’”
And Little has confidence she has found it in Mount Abe and the 5-town area.
“I have found my home, the place where my puzzle piece fits, here at Mount Abe,” she said. “And you, the class of 2018 … you are my people, my tribe … pieces of my heart’s puzzle.”
Valedictorian Molly Funk acknowledged graduation is looked upon as a new beginning and celebration of not only an accomplishment, but what’s to come next. Still, Funk encouraged her classmates to also reflect upon where they’ve been during their scholastic careers.
“If I could leave my class with anything, I hope it will be a little bit of nostalgia, and love for the place we’re leaving behind,” she said. “In fact, I believe the ability to appreciate the place where you are, both the physical location and the sense of community, is a great skill to take forward in life.”
An avid environmentalist and promising artist, Funk made some colorful, organic comparisons to further make her point.
“Let’s remember back to when we entered this school as awkward little middle schoolers, or in this case, little bits of soggy broccoli,” she said, to the appreciative chuckles of the audience. “They threw us in that beautiful concrete box, mixed us all together, threw a little bit of manure on there and a few scoops of leaves. All these years later, it’s pretty amazing what’s become of those bits of broccoli. I’m so proud of the soil we’ve become, and the vegetables we may now grow.”
She took her playful narrative a step further.
“High school is a slow process, and sometimes as messy as a decomposing pile of waste, but eventually we reap the reward, which is what we’re here for today,” she joked.
Funk listed a series of Mount Abe-related events or programs she believes will serve graduates well into the future. They included:
•  Lip sync battles and musical auditions that have taught participants to be vulnerable without fear.
•  The ability to win or lose gratefully, as learned through successful (girls’ basketball, softball) and not-so-successful (girls’ lacrosse) sports teams.
•  The confidence in knowing that “light exists somewhere” in spite of having studied in some windowless classrooms at Mount Abe.
Like speakers at other recent Mount Abe graduations, Funk poked fun at the state of the deteriorating school building, which has yet to earn voter approval for a major overhaul. She believes the challenges of studying in a sub-par structure have made her and her classmates stronger.
“I’m so proud to be graduating from Mount Abe,” she said. “And I don’t mean just that I’m proud of graduating. I mean I’m proud of Mount Abe, proud to be from here. Yes, sometimes pieces of the ceiling fall down, and as legend has it, the odd snake might crawl out of the wall. But honestly, that’s part of the reason I love this school. We’re pretty quirky, but we make it work.”
Funk is confident the Mount Abe class of 2018 will remain close for many years.
“Our social structure is not a hierarchy but a tangled knot, each group linked to the next, not a single person extractable from the web of connections we’ve formed,” she said. “There is a fierceness and a passion that means we’ve had many lively debates. But there is also loyalty to each other, that means we’ll always come back together in the end. What makes us successful is not our individual skills, but the way we feed off each other’s energy to reach new heights.”
It had indeed been a busy 24 hours for Salutatorian Jenna McArdle. Roughly 15 hours prior to her graduation march, McArdle was celebrating a Division II state softball title in Castleton with her Eagle teammates.
McArdle said competition has been a common thread throughout the class of 2018’s high school years.
“That’s the thing about the class of 2018,” she said. “I think any of the people sitting behind me will agree that we are competitive, and they’d also agree that that is a massive understatement. We’ve competed with each other for everything. From gym class volleyball titles to the fifth decimal point in our GPAs, competition is what drives us. It is also what drives us together. Our fierce loyalty to each other has compelled us to compete ruthlessly in the ‘spirit’ point competition, in which we basically have no competition.”
She credited class members for being versatile and multi-talented.
“Mount Abe is a place where you can be a top-scorer for basketball and for scholars bowl,” she said. “It is a place where you can play the lead in the school musical and be a soccer star, be a farmer and an environmentalist. We not only defy stereotypes because we refuse to be contained, we shatter barriers as we change.”
McArdle urged her classmates to build on their success at Mount Abe as they transition to the next chapter of their lives.
“Our futures are paved with opportunities that will scare us, starting right after we leave here today,” she said. “Our mission is no longer to win a state championship or become class president. It is to punch fear in the face until it caves and becomes excitement. That is when we will truly have won.”

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