A class of ‘compassion and caring’ graduates from Wilton High School

With an exhortation to reach for the skies, Wilton High School’s senior class — 335 members strong — completed their high school careers on Saturday, June 24.

The graduation ceremony commenced at 5 p.m. as one of the largest graduating classes in the school’s history filled the north end of the Veterans Memorial football stadium. Garbed in the school colors — men in blue gowns, ladies in white — they were joined by faculty members in black gowns accentuated with the multi-colored sashes signifying their respective alma maters.

Out of concern for the new turf field, the students walked across a walkway of synthetic plywood boards (high heels were banned from the field for the ceremony), and their seats were arranged on an island of the same material.

Many of the graduating seniors had taken the liberty of decorating the mortarboards of their graduation caps — most shouted out the accepted senior’s intended college — but at least one enterprising classmate crafted a Pokéball around the crown of his tassel. After the band played the national anthem, the crowds on the field and in the bleachers took their seats for class Executive Board President and Presidential Scholar Jackson Walker.

At the podium he admitted he had some difficulty finding inspiration for his speech, and had consulted everywhere from “former graduation speeches” to “random articles on Google and Buzzfeed.”

Eventually, Jackson realized he was searching for inspiration on the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. He explained how in 1962 Kennedy had challenged American engineers at NASA to successfully land a man on the moon by the decade’s end — “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Jackson recounted how “The astronauts took off on July 16th, 1969, completely unsure of what stood beyond the dark abyss of the skies. And they won. They reached the moon. Isn’t that insane? A group of engineers and two astronauts accomplished something that 10 years prior was completely unthinkable.”
“So today,” he continued, drawing his attention back to his assembled classmates, “We sit at our Cape Canaveral. Our July 16th, 1969. Sure it’s probably a little bit cooler and not quite a NASA base — but this field, this high school, rather, serves as our launchpad. So here, fellow astronauts of the Wilton High School class of 2017, with our trajectories set and preparations made for whatever life may throw our way — prepare for take-off.” With crowds of classmates and family members cheering him from the field and bleachers, Jackson walked back down the green to take his seat among his fellow graduates.
Assistant Principal Donald Schels then took the podium to introduce the two valedictorian speakers. He spoke highly of how both valedictorians — Elizabeth Healy and William Heffernan — had successfully maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA throughout their high school careers. In introducing Elizabeth, Schels lauded her as “a woman who has truly done it all — a total Renaissance woman.”
“She belongs to more clubs and community service projects than I can list,” Schels continued, “but they all share a common denominator — compassion and altruism.” Community service and compassion would play a running theme in the afternoon’s accolades on the class of 2017. “Next year she will attend Brown University.”

“OK, and as I said, there’s more,” Schels continued, turning his attention to co-valedictorian William Heffernan. “The second —and equally deserving — is a young man who has dedicated himself to helping children grow and develop healthy lifestyles,” Schels said. “The Wilton youth sports program hailed him as one of the most dedicated coaches they have ever known. He, too, is a member of the National Honor Society.” William will attend the Honors College at the University of South Carolina as a National Merit Lieber Scholar and a Cooper Scholar.

Elizabeth spoke first. “The fact that I will meet a new set of people at the beginning of next year is thrilling, but also humbling. As is the fact that I know the people sitting in front of me today will be all over the country and all over the world next year ... I have found comfort, believe it or not, in the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be changed into different forms. Perhaps this is strange comfort, but it reminds me of the fact that there is no real end here today. Yes, energy changes, but nothing is lost when a Joule of energy goes from potential to kinetic energy … Yes, we are leaving next year, but we will always be Wilton Warriors.”

William quoted from T.S. Eliot, who said, “Only those who will risk going too far will possibly find out how far one can go;” and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once said, “You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.” He also spoke fondly of the odd moments of high school, “like when that turkey flew through [a teacher’s] window.”

In a throwback to the graduation of 2015, class adviser Kristina Harvey provided the keynote speech. While she offered hearty congratulations to the seniors of 2017, she also extolled the virtues of living — as she called it — a “life of gratitude.”  

“Since the boys were little, my husband has asked them every night before bed to list what or whom they are thankful for,” Harvey told the assembled graduates. “So I want to just check and see if you’ve been paying attention, OK? I want you, class of 2017 to think about all the headwinds you’ve experienced in your path to get to this moment. Those people who have pushed you to go harder, dig deeper… I want you to take a deep breath, and yell ‘thank you!’

“Thank you!” yelled the class in response.

After the band’s musical interlude of Homeland, when a handful of students batted around an inflatable beach ball, Principal Dr. Robert W. O’Donnell presented the class to Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith. He noted that despite the class’s many academic achievements, “we don’t measure caring and compassion.” He described the Wilton High class of 2017, however, as a “class with compassion.”

Pronouncing himself satisfied the gathered students had met the requirements of the state and town to receive their diplomas, Smith pronounced the students graduates of Wilton High School. Students’ names were called row by row to receive their diplomas, and a photographer was on hand to snap a photo as they walked back to their seats. A few members of the audience went so far as to hold up cardboard cutouts of their graduating senior, and at least one air horn sounded over the cheering crowd of proud Wilton families.

For the class gift, the graduates donated a mural to hang in the senior hallway “for all future classes to enjoy.” The class also made a donation to the Wounded Warriors project, a charity for armed forces veterans.

Emma Stow, a fellow graduating member of the class of 2017 created the mural, which depicts a tree sprouting from the ground. “In my piece,” Stow said in her brief remarks, “I wanted to show the students as blossoms on the tree, together … budding, and eventually blossoming the same way we all have these past four years.”

After, Senior Class President Emma Bratten gave closing remarks to the graduation ceremony. “These next years are yours,” she told her classmates. “They belong to you, and to you alone.”

She invited her fellow classmates to switch their tassels from the right to the left side. They did so, and caps flew into the June sky in a rain of white and blue.