In a ritual as old as the hills, the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" floated on the breeze Sunday, first at Hinders Field in Rock Falls, where 150 Rockets were preparing to blast off into the future, then at Roscoe Eades Stadium in Sterling, where 201 Golden Warriors were preparing to do the same.
Programs flapped, helping the breeze along, as family and friends, in the Popsicle and pastel colors of Midwestern summer casual, chattered happily in the jam-packed bleachers, waiting to play their part in this rite of passage, this rite of spring. The sun tinged pink skin not yet used to the heat, put a shine on noses and foreheads, flashed like laser beams off the brass in the band.
In caps and gowns and sashes, and the occasional silly pair of shoes, the Class of 2014 stood ready to shed its last vestige of childhood.
You forget, if you've reached a certain age, how full of sweet hope and optimism a teenager can be, how full of endless possibilities their future is. Graduation speeches remind you.
In Rock Falls
“There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living,” said Sandra Gomez, vice president of her class, quoting the late Nelson Mandela.
Don't fear taking a risk, she told her fellow graduates. "This is the moment when we have to take charge."
Thomas Wei, one of two salutatorians, thanked his family, at school and at home, and reminded his classmates that, when it comes to the high school experience, "what matters most is what you make of it ... don't forget where you are from."
He also pointedly reminded his dad, Mike, of a bet they'd made, one that involved him making it to the podium at graduation, which he did, and the promise of a reward in the form of a car. "I like BMWs, and my favorite color is black," he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
With what must be characteristic goofiness, valedictorian Jadon Mammoser also drew giggles, lamenting that, on the downside, graduation means no more free football tickets. On the plus side, "If we want to, we can avoid homework for the rest of our lives."
Slightly more seriously, he reminded his classmates that "just because we're done with high school doesn't mean the good times are over. This is the beginning of great things to come, for all of us ... Congratulations, Class of 2014: Live long and prosper."
Salutatorian Shanwen "Steven" Chen, who moved to Rock Falls from China 5 years ago and spoke almost no English, drew thunderous applause with his heartfelt thanks, to his best friend, Wei, and to his teachers, who helped him learn English, and to his mother, a restaurant worker whom he thanked in Chinese for working so hard to give him a better life.
When he moved to Rock Falls, "I was afraid I would not fit in with this society, that people would make fun of me," said Steven, who's on his way to a career in chemistry. But his high school family and his adopted town took him under its wing. "I do not regret my move to this place, and it will always be one of my greatest memories."
Be yourself. That was the advice from Senior Class President Jescelynne Gibbons, who also read an original poem tracing the life of a student.
“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life," she told her classmates, quoting the late Steve Jobs. "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
Be courageous. "We have the power to make our lives into exactly what we want them to be. Don't be afraid of what you don't know," Student Council President Erin Ansusinha said.
And don't lose track of the friendships forged these last 4 years: "Remember the family it has been," Ansusinha said, concluding with "congratulations, Class of 2014. We made it."
Katarina Gvozdjak mused on the great adventure they all are about to embark upon. It's just like going back to freshman year, to the butterflies in the stomach, the feeling of uncertainty.
"It's just part of the journey. That's the fun part, knowing we're on a journey into the unknown," she said.
"Whatever you do, don't stop believing."
Then Zachary Woessner took to the podium, and by the time he was done, there wasn't a dry eye in the stadium.
He read from Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," a book that does a pretty fair job of congratulating those stepping out into a new phase of life on all the wonderful, exciting, fabulous and fame-inducing things about to come their way.
Except when they don't. Because sometimes they won't, the good doctor notes.
Because life inherently is unfair (but really, not always), and making mistakes is inevitable (but not necessarily bad), the wise Mr. Woessner noted.
Zach was only 14 when, he said, he went into a hospital with two parents, and left with only one. (His dad, Bob, a local insurance agent, died in November 2009 from complications from the H1N1 virus.)
Not fair, he said. Not fair at all.
But Dr. Seuss, he said, is an inspiration. Seuss tells the truth, that life still goes on. "We don't always get what we want; otherwise, we would want for nothing," Zach said. Not particularly motivating, was his point.
And here was his other point:
"We can't be prepared for everything life throws at us. We will make mistakes, and that's OK. What matters is that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again."
Amen to that.
Good luck, Sauk Valley graduates, one and all.
Woessner's speech, Stereotypically Seuss
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You steer yourself.
Any direction you choose.
Did I mention I failed my first driving test?
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Something tells me I have to do my own laundry now.
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so,
but, sadly, it’s true,
can happen to you.
I’m thinking I liked Green Eggs & Ham Better, but...that’s not fair.
You see, I thought the man who taught us how to read, how to write
Should also be the man to teach us how to lead...to take flight.
Doctor Seuss is an inspiration,
And not because he is one of the most well known authors the world round.
No, he is one of the most sincere people in a child’s life.
You see, Seuss tells the truth in his stories. He teaches us that life still goes on despite those hang-ups. It will not be fair. Some people will have one fish. Two Fish. Red or blue. But what you make of it, well, that’s up to you.
My story, like all of yours, hasn’t always been fair. At the age of 14, I spent my Thanksgiving in a sterilehospital cafeteria. I walked out of that hospital with one parent when I had entered with two.
The next class gets laptops. Unfair.
However, that’s the nature of life. We don’t get everything we want – otherwise we would want for nothing. These unfair moments make life fair; the sadness makes us all the more glad to be glad.
I have new neighbors next door. And on Saturday afternoons, I often hear the giggles of little children floating over my fence. They’re one of the reasons I don’t wish my father back. Of course I miss him, but how unfair is it that I would place my happiness above theirs?
You see, their daddy has my father’s job, and because of that, they get to grow up as I did. Though I am sad, I am glad they are glad.
With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball –
...throw a ball? What if I’d have played football?
– will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t.
Because, sometimes, they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games, too.
Games you can’t win
‘cause you’ll play against you.
Do you ever look in the mirror and think “that’s not who I wanted to be”? All those What-if’s that stare back at me.
What if I had applied to more schools?
What if I was accepted to them?
What if our senior prank had gone well...
Life is like the game of Risk – the board game with little, plastic toy soldiers and world domination.
What if I hide in Australia, expand over Asia, or conquer the Americas as Columbus once did?
What if my hopes and dreams are as high as the sky?
I come crashing to earth and I fall flat on my face
My troops eradicated, toy soldiers misplaced?
What If...I look in that mirror into those What-if-filled eyes
and say, You’re naught but a refraction
a possible guise.
What-if’s are not glasses I will wear on my eyes.
We all have 20/20 hindsight, but none of us can see into the future. Therefore, we won’t be prepared for everything life throws at us. We’ll make mistakes – and that’s OK. What matters is that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, call the troops to attention, and Risk those What-if’s.
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or a graduate of Sterling High this day
we’re off to great places!
Today is our day!
Our mountains are waiting.
And we’re on our way!