At commencement ceremonies Monday night for Homer Flex School and Homer High School, speakers offered practical guidance for young adults going forth in the traditional American rite of passage. Usually adults offer inspiration, but at both schools examples of overcoming adversity came from the students themselves.
As a reminder of the chaotic world they enter, on the same night new graduates held flowers and gifts and smiled for happy families taking photographs, a world away in Manchester, England, a suicide bomber killed 22 people of their generation and others attending a concert by singer Ariana Grande.
Holding her 3-month old baby at the Flex School graduation ceremonies at Land’s End Resort, teacher Colette Choate said she wondered about her daughter’s future.
“I want her everything in the world that’s good without the pain,” she said.
But Choate said she knew that wouldn’t happen. For her daughter, she said she hoped her child would face challenges the same way the 12 graduating Flex students had.
“This is a stage of young adults who have faced adversity. Here they stand not as victims, but as beacons of resilience,” she said. “I should be lucky to have her grow up and develop the qualities that have gotten these grads to the stage.”
Low key and personal, the Flex graduation allows teachers, staff and students the chance to speak, and ends like a town meeting where people in the audience also can share their thoughts. Every student spoke, sticking with principal Christopher Brown’s advice to keep it short. All thanked families and friends.
“Thank you for teaching me to be kind, flexible and forgiving,” said Nonah Baltzer, the third child in her family to graduate from Flex.
“A super huge thank you to all the teachers who wouldn’t let me quit,” said Ravi Cavasos. “Thank you for everything I’ve done. I am so happy.”
“I know that whatever happens, I have the support of those around, and in the end, that’s what matters,” said Carlyn Waggoner.
At Homer High School, that theme of community support got repeated in commencement and valedictorian speeches. During a report on scholarships local organizations granted to graduates, counselor Lin Hampson had graduates stand up when she announced the groups who had given them money. Local donors gave $55,400. Students also received direct money from colleges and vocational schools in the amount of $529,500. If students eligible for Alaska Performance Scholarships are included, the total awarded to graduating seniors was $1,055,500
Hampson then asked people in the audience who had ever bought a raffle ticket, ever mentored a student, ever went to a school play and did any of the dozens of things big or small to support the Mariner community. A sea of hands went up.
“I think one of the great things about this town is everybody does pull together to support the youth here in phenomenal ways,” Hampson said.
That’s a gift that students return to the community. In his remarks, Homer High School Principal Douglas Waclawski spoke of how as a graduation requirement students have to do 30 hours of community service. Many do hundreds of hours of service, he said.
“What makes this class stand out is their heart. They give back,” he said.
A poignant moment — and an example of how the community rallies around its own — came when graduating senior Hoxie Parks walked the stage. His fellow Mariners had raised $2,000 to support Parks in his cancer treatment. Diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, Parks has been in Seattle for treatment, with his family staying with him. Parks got a medical release to fly home for graduation. He got the loudest cheers of the evening when his photo came up during a slide show of the class of 2017 and then when he received his diploma.
Hoxie still has “a lot of bridges to cross,” his father, Alan Parks said. Hoxie is in the middle of chemotherapy and then will have surgery to remove a tumor at the end of the femur near his knee and then another round of chemo.
Alan Parks said doctors are optimistic. After the first round of chemo Hoxie will have what’s called limb salvage surgery to remove the tumor — essentially complicated knee replacement surgery.
“It was overwhelming,” Parks said of the support for Hoxie. “They’re really a good bunch of kids. The support for Hoxie and us — the whole community has been incredible. We’ll get through this.”
Valedictorian Eryn Gillam urged her classmates to be positive and optimistic in life.
“It’s exciting and scary and weird,” she said. “We need to have respect for ourselves and hold on to our dreams. We also need respect for others. Basic kindness to others is a necessity.”
The second valedictorian, Alicia Steiner, also struck a note of optimism tempered with reality. There’s a misconception the high school is the best four years of your life.
“I hope not,” Steiner said. “I hope none of us pine for the years that used to be and for the years that will be.”
Life will be hard, she cautioned.
“The road ahead will be untraveled. If they’re anything like the roads of Homer, they will be full of potholes.”
Commencement speaker Kendra Remsen Nelson, a Homer High School social studies teacher, centered her speech on the idea of storytelling.
“Each of us decides the stories we want to be told. Whatever your story, tell it. Life is too short to let stories go untold,” she said. “My hope for you is your stories never reach a climax. I hope as the day goes by your story gets better and better.”
She urged the graduates to go out into the world, but also to return.
“Come back,” Nelson said. “We can’t wait to hear your stories.”