MUHS seniors rise up and go forward

MIDDLEBURY — At a lively, light-filled commencement this past Saturday morning, Middlebury Union High School conferred 167 diplomas and one honorary degree on its class of 2018, and hundreds of their friends and family gathered in Memorial Sports Center conferred upon them great hopeful hurrahs and several standing ovations.
As they sally forth to make their destinies, MUHS Principal William Lawson urged the graduates to remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising up every time that we fail.”
In one of the morning’s most moving moments, Lawson spoke of his graduating advisory group and his intention at one point to retire at the end of the school year.
“My own plan for leaving high school after 36-plus years and commencing a future of retirement featured me walking off the stage with you today. However, this plan has changed. And now you’re leaving me behind.”
Overcome with emotion, he struggled to get through the next few words, and a hush of empathy and affection fell over Memorial Sports Center as he paused and reached under the podium for a cup of water.
Composed again, Lawson highlighted notable individual student accomplishments, then congratulated the 75-member cast of the senior play, “Beauty and the Beast,” recognized the members of the state-champion Nordic ski and girls’ lacrosse teams, and honored the class’s activism.
On the issue of school violence their voices “had immeasurable impact in prodding our Vermont government to respond and take action,” he told them. “You truly epitomized what (British author) Simon Sinek meant when he said, ‘Fight against something and we focus on the things that we hate. Fight for something and we focus on the things that we love.’
“Even in your class’s senior prank, you demonstrated your capacity to love and care about others as you transform a traditional prank into a memorial for your classmate.”
Late last month seniors painted in rainbow colors a shed near the school football field and dedicated it to Walter “TJ” Duncanson, a fellow member of the class of 2018 who in ninth grade took his own life.
SOPHIE LEFKOE IS bubbling over during Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Class Salutatorian Julian Schmitt, battling pneumonia, began his senior reflection with a calculus analogy to “highlight the connectedness between the generations present here today but also to showcase, through the beauty of mathematics, the uniqueness, in terms of experience and interactions with one another.”
He cautioned his classmates to beware the echo chambers and isolation that new media technologies have made possible, then asked them to close their eyes and imagine Franklin Roosevelt’s first fireside chat 85 years ago, and their great-grandparents among the millions of families gathered around radios, “entranced by the calm and reassuring voice of the president during a time of financial and social insecurity.”
Listening, speaking out and connecting will lead to greater understanding, he said, and closed with Dr. Seuss:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”
MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School graduates applaud their peers on Saturday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Class Valedictorian Laura Whitley framed her reflections with the “fundamental attribution error, a fancy way of saying we make big assumptions about others, with only a tiny bit of information.”
Such assumptions may have been fine for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who needed to make snap judgments about, say, charging buffalos. But thousands of years later, “this way of processing information can be more harmful than helpful.”
Whitley then drew a contrast between her personal experiences and the assumptions we make when we think about the “class valedictorian.” She had suffered from anxiety all year, she revealed. Stricken with panic in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, struggling to get back to sleep, she had struggled to get out of bed nearly every day.
“We often hide the hard parts of life from each other,” she said, “but if you enter every interaction trying to remember that the other person is an actual human being who could be struggling more than they’ll ever tell you, you treat them with the gentleness and the care that you would want for yourself during those hard moments.”
Her classmates all had the power to make life better for everyone, she said.
“Please, Class of 2018 — own that power.”
CLASS VALEDICTORIAN LAURA Whitley receives her diploma.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Principal Lawson then returned to the stage to honor four retiring MUHS teachers — Paul Scaramucci, Karen Greene, Jeff Clark and Matt Ottinger — who have been teaching for a combined 111 years.
District Superintendent Peter Burrows found students, teachers and principal a hard act to follow.
“There’s not much left to say!” he began.
He asked the class of 2018 to stand, “find your special people in the audience,” and acknowledge them.
Before Burrows presented more than $100,000 in scholarships from 32 local businesses and organizations, he urged the class of 2018 to “be strong, be kind, have fun.”
The MUHS Senior Choral Ensemble sang “A Million Dreams” from the film “The Greatest Showman,” then one by one the class of 2018 crossed the stage and broke on through to the other side.

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