CASTLETON — After their administrators walked proudly down the aisle, 94 Fair Haven Union High School graduates marched neatly two by two, their deep navy-blue robes billowing in the chilly June evening air Thursday.
The Castleton Pavilion was a sea of teary-eyed families, and several members of the armed forces could be seen on the edges in their crisp uniforms and white gloves.
“Given the choice between being right or being kind, always choose kindness,” Principal Jason Rasco said to the students, quoting R.J. Palacio, who wrote the book “Wonder.”
Rasco then recited a short letter from one of the students, whom he did not name, who wrote about the challenge of depression they experienced while forging their way through high school.
That student came to realize the fears and anxieties that weighed on their shoulders for five long years were self-induced and mythical, and thanked the students for being kind.
Rasco again recalled how every year, he takes the name of the graduates and travels to the Saranac River, where he recalls every student on the list in school.
“At the end of the day … what is the most important in learning?” Rasco pondered. “I believe it’s everything. …From interest comes passion, and from your passion the desire to find something that you want to do … that makes you happy.”
This year’s speaker was 2018 graduate Gabrielle Ochs, who returned to her classmates to share her thoughts, experience and advice she wished she had as a senior.
“Once you get out of high school, it’s different,” Ochs said of the small-town atmosphere of Fair Haven, where everyone knows everyone else and their family. “Take the initiative to introduce yourself. … Whether it’s a job, or a new activity, or talking to new people, it is important to go outside your comfort zone. It’s the only way you will grow as a person.”
Ochs urged her former classmates to make time to see each other after high school, even though life may throw busy schedules their way, because it’s easy to accidentally let life’s activities overwhelm their time and the friendships they sustained through high school would stay strong if nurtured.
Cassidy Lanfear, the class salutatorian, told a story written by a close friend about a moth and a caterpillar who didn’t know the potential he had waiting inside of him.
The caterpillar, ever curious, met the moth at a crossroads in her life, and with a whisper from her new winged friend, transformed into a beautiful butterfly.
The whispered word, Lanfear said, was “believe. The man who wrote the story was Fuquan Ford, who passed away last year, and who was Lanfear’s closest companion.
“I know he should be standing in the back there smiling at me,” Lanfear said. “And although he’s not here, I can feel his presence.”
Lanfear called her fellow students to treasure the time they were fortunate to share with one another, and called attention to those who may have struggled to graduate, who persevered through tragedy and mental illness, for their courage and their heart.
“My little caterpillars, it is time for us to transform,” Lanfear said. “To spread our wings into the next chapter of our lives.”
The choir then assumed the stage to perform a traditional Hawaiian song, “Aloha ‘Oe,” arranged by Edward D. Wilkin, to bid a fond and melodic farewell to their fellow students, assuring them that the family they created at FHUHS would always be there to welcome them home.
“Until we meet again,” their voices echoed.
Valedictorian Sarah Ezzo praised her class for coming together as one from multiple schools to form a community.
“Little did I know that my best of friends, throughout my journey in high school, would be people I met here at Fair Haven Union High School,” Ezzo said with a bright smile.
Ezzo encouraged self-pride and reflection. She encouraged classmates to take credit for the growth the students have achieved, and to acknowledge the multitude of chances the students had before them to be forces of good in a challenging world, and to leave a legacy worth cherishing.
The band struck up then, the winds easily flowing into an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” backed gently by the brass’ perfect crescendos drawing hums and sways from the crowd.
French teacher Ashley Sanborn and Ben Worthing, both class advisers, encouraged the class to “follow your heart,” but to take the advice of the people who gave it, as they had the students’ best interests at heart.
Shantel Gregory, the senior class president, introduced the Class of 2019’s senior class present: over $1,400, the remaining funds from their Community Service Program, to serve the town and communities of Fair Haven.
And with that, the graduating Class of 2019, with silver tassels and cords of honor, departed their Slater homestead to find new roads abroad, never forgetting the rolling hills of their home town.