POTSDAM - The 105 members of Potsdam Central School’s Class of 2014 received some advice and a history lesson on Friday before walking across the stage at SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall and receiving their diplomas.
The advice came from several speakers - class President Rian McFadden, salutatorian Nathan Gingrich, co-valedictorians Zhenhao “Andrew” Hou and Ke Alexander Wang, Principal Joann Chambers, Superintendent Patrick H. Brady and social studies teacher Philip Foisy, who was elected by students to give this year’s commencement address.
In his speech, Mr. Foisy spoke to the students about many things that may seem normal to people from Potsdam, but not so much so to people from other parts of the country, His list included vinegar on french fries, cheese curd, poutine, riding your bikes in the hall, getting hit in the leg by a teacher with a hockey puck, jumping off bridges and Glazier hotdogs, which he described as the filet mignon of the hotdog world.
And, of course, Mr. Foisy spoke about north country winters.
“All of you will one day be able to truthfully tell your children and grandchildren that you went, and in some cases walked uphill, to school when it was 30 below zero and on days after a foot of snow fell,” he said. “Of course, when you tell your children and grandchildren this, they likely won’t believe you because global warming will have likely taken care of winter by then. So be prepared to have them look at you strangely, just like you do when your parents tell you about their childhood.”
Mr. Foisy also gave students some untradtional graduation advice, telling them that quitting, and he wasn’t talking about smoking, is OK.
“One last piece of advice is not to underestimate the value of quitting,” he said. “Okay, I know at graduation I’m supposed to speak about the value of perseverance and breaking down walls in going after your dream, but the fact is time is scarce so you need to use time efficiently and sometimes that involves quitting.”
He continued, “Quitting does not mean you failed, in fact, in many cases not quitting is more of a failure. So remember, you are never stuck in a major you don’t like, you’re never stuck in a school that doesn’t fit your needs, you’re never stuck in a bad relationship or undesirable job; you decide what you want to do and if you don’t like your situation you basically have three choices,” he said. “Stick with things the way they are and accept it, change the way things are to something acceptable to you or quit and do something else. Life is short, and you need to make choices as to what is truly important to stick to, and what you should stop doing.”
Mr. Foisy told the students Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Wozniak, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs all quit college, yet still became very successful.
“Even though these people dropped out of school, they all continued to learn and grow,” he said. “Quitting doesn’t mean dropping out, it means you’re moving on.”
Two of this year’s student speakers didn’t actually spend their senior year at Potsdam, something one of them, Mr. Hou mentioned in his speech.
“There will be no mention of senior memories, because quite frankly, I don’t have any,” he said. “In fact, when I went to our senior awards banquet one of my classmates approached me and said, ‘Congratulations Andrew, you’ve won the award for the least number of appearances this year. That’s some superlative.”
During his three years at Potsdam High School though, Mr. Hou said among the many things he learned was that he has some very talented classmates.
“My class is pretty darned talented,” he said. “I’m sure many of you have seen at least one or two of the recent high school musicals. I remember my reaction after the performance of “Little Women.” It was something along the lines of, ‘Well, there is no way I could do that.’ And then I remember the time when one of my friends got into the AIME mathematics competition, which I could never qualify for. I reflected again and thought, ‘Well, I’m not quite that good at math.’ And then I saw some of the paintings that my classmates could create and thought of my not so skillful works. Let’s not start with sports.”
Mr. Wang told his classmates to remember where they came from, jokingly adding because no one else will.
“Whatever it is you end up doing, wherever you are, remember us and remember Potsdam, because no one else will,” he said, before he went into a story about being from Upstate New York.
“When I tell people I’m from New York, they assume I’m from the city for some reason and I sure as hell don’t have a Brooklyn accent. When I tell them, no, I’m from Upstate New York. They think of Albany,” he said. My point is that very few people outside of the north country know about Potsdam. But as the Class of 2014, it’s the place we know best. It’s the place that nurtured us and gave us opportunities to succeed. It’s where our teachers and administrators took time out of their daily lives to help motivate us so that we can become better human beings. Each of you will make our mark on the world, and in the process, help us out a little, and remember the people who helped you and worked alongside you.”
Friday’s graduation ceremony was the rare commencement with no Dr. Seuss quotes. However, replacing the standard words of wisdom from the man also known as Theodore Geisel, was a reference to Khloe Kardashian, who apparently turned 30 on Friday.
Mr. Gingrich did the honors to start his speech.
“Thank you for joining me tonight, to celebrate the momentous occasion of Khloe Kardashian’s 30th birthday,” he said, before diving into the meat of his speech.
“The kinds of relationships people make in high school can influence the rest of their lives,” he said giving the example of befriending several members of the drama club his sophomore year.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in the musical aspect, but I found myself interested in being in crew, ended up the stage manager, and long story short I’m going to college majoring in theater,” he said. “I’m sure the same has happened elsewhere with other people. Maybe in the same club, or in art class, or maybe they really liked their chemistry teacher.”
And the variety of interests sparked in the halls of Potsdam was something Mr. Gingrich said was one of his favorite things about the school.
“Sure, some people are jerks, and you can’t help that, but for the most part everyone is incredibly friendly and willing to befriend someone new.”
The evening’s first speaker was Mr. McFadden, who spoke a little bit about what made this year’s class unique and the impact it has had on its life.
“Everyone of you has impacted my life in some way, it may not be as major as some others, but the lessons I have gained have made me a stronger person,” he said. “We have had our heart to hearts, our fights, and the social media blasts everyone sits back to enjoy. I can say that this class is very unique in many ways.”
He continued, “This year alone everyone’s egos showed during class meetings or later that day on social media. We weren’t exactly the class that listened to rules as we were told on a Friday that there would be no senior skip day and that following Monday strangely seniors didn’t show up for school.”
The ceremony also included Ms. Chamber’s traditional address in which she shares at least one memory of every student in that year’s graduating class. In addition to those memories though, she also shared a quote from Albert Einstein.
“Education is what remains when one has forgotten what one has learned in school,” she said, quoting Mr. Einstein. “That might be a funny way to start a graduation speech, but bear with me. As educators, I think we know that you may not remember the details of the battle or the quadratic equation, but we know for sure there are many lessons in high school that you will never forget. For you really have learned more than you realize, and it’s only upon reflection that you will come to understand how you have grown and been shaped by the experiences of the last four years.”
Mr. Brady, who introduced Mr. Foisy, also gave the students one final history lesson wrapped up in a few paragraphs about how the people sitting on stage Friday night will be the people who change the world in the years to come.
“I have been thinking a lot lately about Freedom Summer, no not what lies ahead of you after you receive your diploma this evening, but the year 1964 and the courageous efforts of young people across this country who traveled to the Deep South to stand up against discrimination and bigotry. It seems hard to believe that just 50 years ago the color of your skin could determine what bathroom or drinking fountain you could use, where you could live, or if you had the fundamental right to vote in America. But that summer and shortly thereafter in places like Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, names forever chiseled on the stones of history, young people would rise up and change this nation forever,” he said.
“Today, much will also be asked of your generation to find solutions to issues that you will face in this lifetime - the widening gap between the rich and poor, the crippling burden of college debt, gun violence, environmental degradation, and global terrorism. But as I stand here tonight, I have great confidence that you are up to the challenge. There is every indication that this generation is more optimistic about the future, committed to public service, and have better means through technology to make our country and planet a better place to live than ever before.”