Indiana Jones, the spirit of community and a sense of magic

Sullivan West's graduation ceremonies of 2021

Posted 6/30/21

LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — What a world of difference between the graduation ceremonies of last year and the awarding of high school diplomas to the Sullivan West High School Class of 2021.

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Indiana Jones, the spirit of community and a sense of magic

Sullivan West's graduation ceremonies of 2021


LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — What a world of difference between the graduation ceremonies of last year and the awarding of high school diplomas to the Sullivan West High School Class of 2021.

In 2020, it was social distancing, masks for all and a rite of youthful passage broken up into two parts, with real fears about the future.

Fast forward 365-plus days, and on Saturday, June 26, the event returned to a sense of its former glory, taking place on the football field. The bleachers were stacked with parents, grandparents and friends galore of the 68 grads prepared to step into the realm of a new dawn.

The ceremony started with the Sullivan West High School band performing Edward Elgar’s processional “Pomp and Circumstance,” and then rapidly moved onto the “Pledge of Alliance” led by class president Daniel Hemmer, followed by the audience reciting the National Anthem, played by the high school band.

As a prelude to the welcoming addresses by the superintendent, high school principal and student speakers, the high school senior choir effectuated Stephen Flaherty’s “At the Beginning” from “Anastasia.”

Words of welcome

“Good morning, Bulldogs. We’ve made it!,” superintendent of schools Steven A. Walker said by way of introduction.

Walker continued by explaining that in search of some inspiration for his speech and breaking through a bit of writer’s block, he followed the path of what he described as “the concept of ‘student voice,’ making sure that students’ thoughts and opinions have a role in shaping their experiences in our schools... so I spoke with several members of the Class of 2021 to see what advice they could offer.”

Taking the lyrical hints offered by the students down a more serious route, Walker said, “Indeed, your lives will be full of stops and starts, times when things move smoothly, and times that will challenge you to put one foot in front of the other and just keeping moving... the memories and experiences that you have along the way will be the important things.”

High school principal Mark Plescia said he reads a lot of books, mostly biographies, and noted that a few stories of how some folks followed their dreams and passions to noteworthy success, including Jeff Bezos, the founder of the Amazon online retail empire “got off to a rough start and never accepted the phrase ‘we can’t do that.’

“The message, believe in yourself, create a vision, a plan, change with the times, and do not stop until you achieve you goal. Do not look for a paycheck, but a passion,” said Plescia.

In conclusion, he cited the accomplishments attainted against almost unsurmountable adversity of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team in the late 1980s. “This groundbreaking group of women refused to play second fiddle to the men’s team and fought for their rights,” adding a challenge to the young women about to graduate, “Whose shoulders will you stand on to change the world, and what world will you create so future generations of young women can stand on your shoulders?”

Students have a voice

Jessica Schwalb took to the podium as the Class of 2021 valedictorian, beginning with recalling her second-grade birthday party, during the time when she was “infatuated with Indiana Jones” and his famous quote: “If you want to be a good archeologist, you gotta get out of the library.”

“I realized that I am part of a larger ecosystem that does not only concern myself, eroding my insensitive, egocentric teenage tendencies. I know that we each have a passion, and maybe it’s hidden inside of us. But don’t go through life without finding it. So keep searching... because with each rock you turn over, you are one question closer to discovering the treasures that lie underneath it.”

Salutatorian Abigail Gaebel said of her senior classmates, “When I reflect upon this class, made up of such vibrant, accomplished individuals, I often feel a sense of community like no other.

“Growing up in such a small rural district can propose challenges, but we do not discuss its advantages enough. In a graduating class of a mere 68 students, we know each other, almost inside and out, complete with the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Gaebel took listeners of a virtual tour of Skinner’s Falls, the rock ledges of Big Eddy in Narrowsburg, NY and the quietude of Crystal Lake, all favorite haunts of her fellow seniors.

“These locations are much more than arbitrary destinations in the woods, They are all laced with a sense of magic. To be in the great outdoors, there is a whisper of the wind that brings a tranquil breath of life to every individual. There is a radiant sun, that warms even the coldest is crucial that we hold this very place, our home, at the core of our hearts, and at the root of our spirits.”

And then there were a couple of special “graduations”.

Marianne Hegge is retiring as a high school English instructor, and was honored midfield with a singular “high school diploma” presented by Class of 2021 President Frank Decker.

“Mrs. Hegge was my 11th grade AP English teacher, and she has helped me in so many ways,” he said, adding, “Even when I believed I wrote a great essay, Mrs. Hegge always gave me a way to improve and make my writing that much better....I believe that everyone who has had her as a teacher has become a better writer and become that much smarter due to her guidance...”

Sullivan County Deputy Sheriff Jack Harb joined the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office 10 years ago, and served the last six years as the Sullivan West School Resource Officer (SRO). A familiar face on the fields of athletic completion, he helped out at numerous track & field meets when not protecting his community as a uniformed patrol deputy.

June 26, 2021 marked his last day in uniform, as Harb was recently promoted to detective, a notable “graduation” up the ranks in law enforcement.

Completing the picture

In the wake of all the pomp and circumstances and the speeches that went down in history, the high school band performed “Flamingo Road” by Steve Hodge, then it was time to hand out the hard-won diplomas to the Class of 2021, presented by Board of Education president Rose Joyce-Turner, Plesciam and Walker.

After a few joyous grads tossed their mortarboards into the air, the high school band closed out the graduation ceremonies with a traditional recessional.

And with that, quick as Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it was all over until next year, when this year’s juniors will take their place in the morning’s sun as graduating seniors of the Class of 2022 at the “Home of the Bulldogs.”

Sullivan West, graduation


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