Jackson Walker — We’re all going to shoot for the moon


Good afternoon, parents, friends and families of the Wilton High School Class of 2017. It’s an honor to be the opening speaker for these graduation exercises for the class, and I’m proud to say I’m a classmate of theirs.

On the eve of JFK’s 100th birthday and this graduation, I was searching for inspiration for this speech. I dug through old notes and readings from class, random articles from Google and 10 things every graduation speech should have” from Buzzfeed to find something truly impactful, something really provocative, to really get the people going. Then, in true nerd fashion, it hit me: the moon.

At Rice University, on September 12th, 1962, John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke to America and he said:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

With the help of the brightest minds in engineering, those 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? The MOON. A group of engineers and two brave astronauts literally accomplished something that 10 years prior was unthinkable.

So today, we sit at our Cape Canaveral, our July 16th, 1969. Sure it’s probably a little cooler and not quite a NASA base, but this field, this high school, rather, serves as our launch pad. Over these last four years, we all have acquired skills and abilities through tests — both figurative and academic — that have prepared us for this day. Together, we have constructed a sturdy exterior and a powerful engine, suitable for our missions and goals.

The motto of Wilton High School is to strive for excellence, and today, I know we’re all going to shoot for the moon. And, as JFK said, we choose to shoot for our moon, not because it is easy but because it is hard, because we know the Wilton Public Schools have prepared us to be successful in our post-secondary pursuits. To reach your moon, to keep striving for your own excellence, is a quest that all of us are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one that all of us plan to win.

So here, fellow astronauts of the Wilton High School class of ‘17, with our trajectories set and our preparations made for whatever life may throw our way, prepare for take off.

Donald Schels — Introduction of the valedictorians


I have the privilege of introducing our co-valedictorians. You can already guess the most salient feature of their qualifications — each has maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA over the past four years. With a class as talented as this one, that is almost a necessary condition for this honor. But taking account of the things we tend to value the most, it is not a sufficient condition for this honor. There is more. Let me tell you a few things about our honorees that are not apparent from their transcripts alone.

The first is a young lady who has truly done it all during her high school career — a total Renaissance woman. She belongs to more clubs and community service projects than I could list, but they all share a common denominator — compassion and altruism. She worries about animal rights, took action to support them in the animal rights club, and she worked for economic justice and community wellness as a vibrant member of the Key Club. She was inducted into the National Honor Society. She is a scholar-athlete in possession of multiple varsity letters in track and cross country, and also played soccer and basketball. She coaches in the Wilton Youth Program, and is a member of the Choir for Youth project in Bridgeport. Perhaps most importantly, I can simply tell you she is an extremely kind and sensitive young woman. Next year she will attend Brown University. Please congratulate Elizabeth Healy.

The second is a young man who has dedicated himself to helping children grow and develop healthy lifestyles. He is well known in town for all the time and energy he spends as a youth coach, in baseball, basketball and football. The Wilton Youth Sports Programs hail him as one of the most dedicated coaches they have known. He is a member of the National Honor Society, and has won numerous academic awards in the classics and economics. He is amiable, unassuming, and seems more comfortable helping others than accepting his own well-deserved accolades. In fact, he seems more than willing to let his record speak for itself without entering the spotlight at all. But the spotlight is where he belongs today. Next year he will attend the Honors College at the University of South Carolina as a National Merit Lieber Scholar and a Cooper Scholar. Please congratulate Will Heffernan.

Elizabeth Healy — There is no real end here today


Thank you Mr. Schels for that kind introduction. Thank you as well to Dr. Smith, the Board of Education, Dr. O’Donnell, the entire administration, and all the teachers, faculty, family, and friends who are here today. I think I can speak for many of us when I say that we would not be where we are today without the help, support, and generosity of so many of you. Thank you also to my fellow members of Wilton High School’s Class of 2017. It is truly an honor to stand here before all of you.

For these past few weeks, I have thought a lot about graduation, as I am sure many of you have, and have come to decide that the most obvious fact of graduation also produces the most disparate feelings. Going somewhere new next year and doing something different, change essentially, is its own entirely unique experience, equal parts exciting and daunting. 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 will be all over the country, and the world, next year, to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, and even the United Kingdom and Canada. It is exhilarating to think of the opportunities next year will bring and the many ways we will be able to expose ourselves to a broader world. And honestly, I cannot wait.

But I also know that I can wait. I can wait to leave behind some of the kindest, and most patient, teachers, to part ways with friends, to start all over next year without the people I have gone to school with for the last thirteen years.

As I have processed this, 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 (in a closed system). Perhaps this is a strange comfort but it reminds me of the fact there is no real end here today nor will there be an abrupt beginning, separate from everything and everyone today, that happens tomorrow. Yes energy changes, but nothing is lost when a joule goes from potential to kinetic energy and that joule of energy does not suddenly stop being a joule of energy when it changes forms. Yes, we are leaving next year, but we will always be Wilton Warriors, even if we shed that name for a new one. Every day we are a culmination of our experiences, just as any unit of energy in a closed system is.

Therefore the First Law of Thermodynamics, in this current time in our lives of transition and transformation, excitement and trepidation, tells us to not be afraid of change. Change does not extinguish everything you once were. Instead, it merely alters you to a slightly different form of yourself, so no matter what amazing places we, the Class of 2017, go to or the astounding feats we accomplish in the coming years, I find comfort in the fact that these past four years at Wilton High School will always be a part of us and that I will always share them with you. For this, I will forever be grateful. Thank you.

William Heffernan – Hard work will be needed to achieve your dreams


Principal O’Donnell, Dr. Smith, Members of the School Board, faculty, family, and friends, I am honored to speak to all of you today on this happy occasion. And to my fellow graduates, congratulations! We made it! It feels like only yesterday that we walked into Wilton High School for the first time. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we learned of the “pool” on the fourth floor or had to sign into Study Hall during our free periods. Much has happened in the four years since then and we have created memories that we will cherish forever: happy memories, like the perfect June night and amazing outdoor venue for our Prom; exciting memories, cheering our sports teams on to tremendous success, highlighted by so many FCIAC and state championships over the past four years; memories of the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the culinary room. We will even look back fondly on the bizarre moments, like when that turkey flew through Ms. Cherico’s window.

But as we remember the times we’ve shared, let’s also look to the future. Each and every one of us has wonderful opportunities in store, opportunities to do great things. And we are more than prepared for these opportunities thanks to the education we received from our esteemed teachers here at WHS. So strive for excellence. Don’t settle for the ordinary. Challenge yourselves. T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” So take those risks. Find out how far you can go. You will probably end up surprising even yourself.

The journey will not be easy, but then again, nothing of importance ever is. Hard work will be needed to achieve your dreams. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.” He was right. You need to fight and persevere, even when there are setbacks. Never give up. Most of you probably aren’t aware of the inspirational story of Glenn Cunningham. When he was eight years old, Glenn was caught in an explosion that badly damaged his legs. Doctors told his parents that he probably would die, and at best, would be crippled for life. However, Glenn was determined to walk again. Every day, he would exercise his legs using his picket fence as a support, and eventually he was able to stand unaided. Through hard work and persistence, he gradually regained the ability to walk, and then to run. Ultimately, this amazing boy went on to set the world record for running the fastest mile. So never stop fighting. Set goals for yourself and pursue them relentlessly. Invest yourself entirely in your dreams. In the end, the triumph will be all the sweeter because of it.

Once again, congratulations Class of 2017! I can’t wait to see all of the great things you will accomplish. Thank you.

Introducing the graduation speaker


B: Good evening. My name is Brooke Amodei and I’m the student body vice president.

P: I’m Pippa Gosden, and I’m the class of 2017 secretary. We are absolutely thrilled to be introducing the graduation speaker, who was chosen by you: the Senior Class.

B: Our graduation speaker has worked at the high school for many years, and you would be hard pressed to find a faculty member, student, parent, or administrator who doesn’t absolutely love her. She has countless students of all ages enter her room who leave feeling happier due to her infinite wisdom and love that she has to share with everyone. This woman is kindhearted, selfless, positive, and absolutely radiates the light that a high school so desperately needs. It seems that there is nothing she cannot do to lift spirits and leave any student better than she found him or her.

P: Having worked with over a hundred of us, many for multiple years, she has become a beacon for our class. She pushes all of her students to be the best they can be, and we are all the better for it — even if it means the occasional bad grade. With an undergraduate degree degree from the University of California Berkeley, a master’s in teaching from Columbia University, a master’s in journalism from New York University and Ph.D. in literature from Fordham University, we can all safely assume she must know what she is talking about.

B: I have had the pleasure to work with her for four years as our Class of 2017 co-adviser alongside the incomparable Jean Brey, and taken two of her English classes, both sophomore and junior year, and she has taken me under her wing and made my whole high school experience so much better.

P: Although I have only known her for two years, it was extraordinarily simple to grow to love her. She was only my teacher for second semester of senior year, but I feel like she has been a major support system for me throughout both years.

B: But enough about us, this woman’s done it all. She’s toured the world as a professional dancer before becoming the teacher we all love so much; she is also married and has two boys, one in college and one a recent graduate...

P: ...yet she still found time to become a deacon at Southport Congregational Church for four years, and tutors at the ABC house in Westport. And in addition to all her commitments, she still manages to get up before 6 each morning to run five miles.

B: Without further ado, we are so honored to introduce to you your graduation speaker for the Class of 2017: Dr. Kristina Harvey.

Kristina Harvey — Be the light for others to navigate by


Hello class of 2017! Thank you so much for this opportunity to give you one last lecture before you embark on the next big adventure. Before I start, I want to say a quick “thank you” to my co-adviser for the class of 2017: Mrs. Brey. She has worked tirelessly behind the scenes for four years from bake sale fund-raisers to ensuring a senior prom to remember. And I would like to recognize our two presidents: Emma Braten and Jackson Walker. Emma, I’m wearing my Converse sneakers for you. You taught me that you don’t have to wear high heels to be a class act and that a true leader has her feet firmly planted on the ground. And Jackson – I was going to wear my mix-match socks in honor of your unique fashion sense, but it was too hot, so I brought them anyways. You’ve taught me that being true to yourself opens doors and inspires others.

And that introduces the subject of this speech: gratitude. And more specifically, the importance of adopting an attitude of gratitude as you go out into the world. A quick mini lesson — gratitude derives from the Latin “gratus,” which means pleasing and thankful. Well, guess what? Gratification also derives from the same root. In this crazy, fast-paced, cyber-hyperaware, need-it- now-can’t- stand-not- knowing-everything-or- not-getting something world, we have traded gratitude for self-gratification.

Everything is go-go-go. Hurry up, finish this, turn this in, deadlines, due dates, Google Classroom notifications, Remind pings, and let’s not even talk about the red or green arrows that show up on your phone every time a teacher puts in a grade.

Everyone wants a quick answer to even the most complicated of questions. In our haste for answers, we risk losing something integral to a good life: gratitude. It is easy to slip into a cycle of wanting more for ourselves rather than giving to others. However, practicing an attitude of gratitude proves not only the kinder way to go through the world, it is actually better for you in the long run.

I have read several scientific studies on the effect of gratitude on the brain, also called the neuroscience of giving thanks. Let me clarify. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of your situation. It is not a comparison. It’s a perspective shift. Researchers found that subjects who showed more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which has a large influence on your stress levels. Feelings of gratitude also directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which feels good.

Studies have shown that doing something as simple as writing down what you are thankful for will rewire your brain to feel good for an extended period of time. Yes, it’s easy to believe this when everything is going smoothly, like when you aced that test, or caught the game-winning ball or got that promposal you were dreaming of, but what about when you failed a test, were late to class, forgot to do your homework, did not get a role in the fall play?…or even worse, found out that someone you love was sick, or, worst of all, lost someone close to you?

You might wonder why you should even feel grateful in moments like these. So here comes the metaphor (which is the downside of having an English teacher give the commencement speech).

Full disclosure: I live in a family of sailors, so we are a little bit crazy when it comes to the weather and especially the wind. I have learned over the years that headwinds can be frustrating, yet there is a benefit in a force that causes you to alter course, taking you into waters that you weren’t necessarily planning on sailing. A sailor knows that sometimes the direct line between two points is not the fastest. If you’re sailing into a headwind, you have to tack or zigzag your way to the finish line. This can be extremely frustrating, especially when you are young and want to get places as quickly as possible.

Which brings me to the headwind/tailwind asymmetry phenomenon; science has proven that we feel challenges (headwinds) more acutely than the positive forces that encourage us. We can’t ignore obstacles in our path so we adapt, but in that process of adaptation, we often forget the tailwinds. We tend to forget the people and events that have encouraged and nurtured us that we leave behind in our wake. We need to practice a life of gratitude so that while we may focus on the headwinds, and the fact that they demand that we adjust our course, we also need to appreciate those who have been gently pushing us to this moment.

So what does it mean to live a life of gratitude? It means having the words “thank you” on the tip of your tongue; it means leaning into the headwinds to build your resilience; it means a dose of courage, and it means recognizing all of those who have helped you get to this very moment. Gratitude comes from recognizing the good in your life and then thinking about how you can transfer that good to someone else. Here’s a quick anecdote, call it a cautionary tale.

Two years ago on Christmas night, I was felled by what was later diagnosed as a complex migraine. At the time, I had every symptom of a stroke – I’ll spare you the details, but the most frightening effect was I lost the power of speech. I remember the ER doctor holding a pen in front of my face and asking me to name it. I knew the word rested deep in the recesses of my brain, but I couldn’t access it; all I could do was shake my head. I was aware that I had lost a critical part of my identity: language.

Eventually, my brain “rebooted,” as the neurologist called it, and the first words to come back were “thank you.” My family and I have committed to living a life of gratitude.

Since the boys were little, my husband has asked them every night before bed to list what and whom they were thankful for. And when words failed me, literally failed me, those were the first words to resurface because I had practiced them daily.

Henry David Thoreau said that to create a path in the woods, you have to walk it every day. The same goes for changing the way you think or act. To adopt an attitude of gratitude, to live a life of gratitude, you must practice each and every day.

OK class of 2017. It’s time to practice. I want you to think about the headwinds you have experienced, those people or events that have made you push harder, dig deeper and grow stronger. I want you to think about all of those people who have been your tailwind, those who have encouraged you, loved you and inspired you: friends, family members, teachers, and coaches. I want you to think about those loved ones who are not here to celebrate with you but who are in your hearts. Take a deep breath, and after I count to three I want you to yell “thank you” to all of those people who have loved you, encouraged you, and challenged you. 1…2…3! Thank You!

Remember,  it is always as simple as one action and two words: Show up and say THANK YOU. Lean into those headwinds, adjust your course so you zig even when you wanted to go in a straight line; you never know who you will meet or what adventures are in store for you because of your new direction. Adjust your thinking to see the headwinds as something to be grateful for and never forget all of those who cheer you on and who feel profoundly grateful for having been part of your journey as we wave from shore while you sail away.

Life is beautiful and fragile. Treat it with care and gratitude and be the light for others to navigate by. I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to this amazing class. It’s been a privilege to be a part of your lives. Class of 2017, we love you.

Emma Braten — Find your passion


Hello, everyone! Thank you to all the friends, families, staff and students who came today to make this such a wonderful graduation ceremony. Also, thank you to the students and staff whom I have had the pleasure of working with to make today possible. Can we please give them a hand? Thank you.

Before we leave today as high school graduates, I would like to share a story. For my internship these past six weeks, I had the privilege of working with my former kindergarten teacher, Mr. Giaimo. We were coming back from a field trip one day and I was sitting on the bus with two of the children, a little boy and a little girl. Since this was towards the beginning of internship, I asked them both what they wanted to be when they grew up, in an attempt to get to know them better. The little boy took quite a while to think of what he wanted to be. So here I am, waiting for him to yell something like dinosaur or astronaut, but instead, with a big smile on his face he finally tells me “a dentist.” He wants to be a dentist. Of course, I didn’t expect something so practical from a kindergartener, and I was taken by surprise. Then the little girl says she doesn’t know, so I start listing ideas for her: a cook, an artist, maybe a dinosaur bone finder. She decided on an artist. But as I’m listing my ideas, the little boy decides he wants to be those things, too. So I say, “a cook” and he says, “Oh, I want to be a  cook, too!” And this goes on for every job I describe.

What really struck me was how much passion he had for each job. It didn’t matter what it was, but his excitement told me that he was going to love each and every one of those jobs. After that day, I saw passion everywhere. It seems by the time we graduate high school, we start to lose some of that passion we all had in kindergarten, and life seems a little less magical. My hope for all of my fellow classmates is that you can find that enthusiasm again in college or work or wherever you decide to go. These next years are yours; they belong to you. So go out and be a dentist or an artist. Find your passion and make it work for you. Thank you.