New Paltz grads perform musical selections at the ceremony accompanied by their underclassmen. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

With the New Paltz High School chorus singing a sweet version of “In My Life” — the Beatles poetic paean to remembrance — the noble seniors of 2012 marched forth to claim their independence this past Friday at the Larry Johnson Gym. It seemed to be the theme running through speeches by salutatorian Melanie Schmidt, valedictorian Charlton Tsai and guest commencement speaker, New Paltz teacher Albert Cook. The idea that the future is out there, yes, and it should be faced and commenced with, but each warned of difficulties ahead, noting, as Schmidt did, “that the world is not an easy thing to live in.”

Schmidt’s speech, filled with some sardonic humor, began with her congratulating her classmates “the last class to graduate from New Paltz…ever,” alluding to the Maya calendar prediction that the year 2012 could be our last. “Our final adieu to New Paltz.” Adding, “there is no guarantee to get jobs, payoff our college debt…giving us the feeling we are going to fail.” But then, reverting to the ever-present optimistic remembrances of young adulthood, she reflected on her time at New Paltz. “It will be amazing to go off into the world, but I love New Paltz High School. The people are special; the teachers actually care about us.” She praised her classmates for their industriousness, “with no non-willing slackers among us. We are destined to succeed…we can get through hardships…there are great changes going on,” and she mentioned social-networking opening up the world to all. “It will be harder out there than at New Paltz High School, but we can make the world what we want it to be.”

School board vice-president KT Tobin then told the gathering that “we are creating citizens of the world, ready for the challenges ahead…New Paltz has provided the means to do that, the rest is up to you.” Tobin then quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

A theme if not picked up by, then at least delivered with that requisite amount of enthusiasm by New Paltz valedictorian Charlton Tsai. Looking as comfortable as could be addressing his classmates, Tsai mixed in some pointed ideas (and ideals) along with some humorous reminiscences, things like “diversity has been our unity”, “despite our differences we have collective strength”, “we live life like we want to”, “we need to act now to address the serious issues facing our world”, and then quoting Renaissance poet John Donne, added that “No man is an island.” Tsai’s winning humor got a great reception from his classmates, and as he added a personal note at the end of his speech regarding his opportunity to skip ahead a grade after first grade, which he turned down to stay with his beloved classmates — now graduating with him — an audible “Ahhhhhhhh”, filled the gym. “You only live once,” said Tsai, “so stay true to yourself.”

Guest speaker, New Paltz history teacher Albert Cook after congratulating the seniors for making it through to this moment, said, “It is no small thing what you have accomplished. With struggles along the way, some heart-wrenching…but you made it! This is your moment of triumph” — then asked the graduates to think about three ideas, “three pieces of advice I could give you,” enumerating philosophically the ideas of potential, success and wisdom. Seeing potential as common to all people, Cook told the seniors to maximize that potential, “make a habit of it.” With success, Cook asked how we measure it, to not be short-sighted in our pursuit of it, that it is not just material success that matters, but “love and service, an unquantifiable satisfaction.” And for wisdom…”seek it”…know what to do with knowledge, the right and wrong way of doing things. And quoting English philosopher Thomas More: “Education is not the piling on of learning, it is the making visible what has been hidden…like a seed.”

The graduates then received their well-deserved diplomas, ending the 80th annual New Paltz High School graduation to the strains of “Sine Nomine” by Vaughan Williams.