Wrangell High School graduates 17
The 17 graduates of the 2014 class of Wrangell High School will be headed as far away as Florida.
In the coming years, they will study mathematics, combination welding, physics, art, and film. They will attend institutions as diverse as the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, Gonzaga University, and the Academy of Art University. Others will head out into the world to spread faith and good works.
Regardless of academic direction, scholarship or not, they were all in the house Friday night for the 2014 graduation ceremony.
Graduations in general are wedged firmly between the end of a shared experience and anticipation of a new stage of life, a fact several speakers, like salutatorian Calleigh Miller, acknowledged.
"Individually our experiences here are unique, but together we share a common bond as members of the class of 2014 and soon-to-be graduates of WHS," she said.
That sense of being between two eras permeated Miller's speech.
"As a class, most of us have been together for 13 years, and we have all spent countless hours in this high school awaiting this day," she said. "Now that I'm standing here, my feelings are mixed. I'm thrilled to be graduating high school, but I also have feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. This community has given us the groundwork for our future and it has been a haven of comfort, security and happiness."
"When I was young, I would never have predicted the impact Wrangell, Alaska and its people ... would have on me," she added.
Miller also paid tribute to community parents, many of whom lined the inside of the gym holding handkerchiefs and, eventually, bouquets of flowers distributed with grateful hugs.
"They have witnessed us mature into responsible adults," she said. "We thank them for that."
Many of the students in caps and gowns had witnessed previous years' ceremonies, like valedictorian Matthew Covalt. This year, he traded an unobserved seat in the rear corner of the gymnasium for a podium in front of the assembled hundreds.
"The only thing I could think about was how could they possibly make a graduation handing diplomas to 30 kids last for three hours?" he said. "Or at least it felt like three hours the first time I was there."
With the change in perspective came a change in attitude, Covalt said.
"As I now partake in this ceremony, which involved decorating this room for the past two days ... I have come to greatly respect this ceremony and the people that put it on," he said. "I thank you all.
"Graduating high school is the greatest investment into your future that people of our age can make for ourselves," he added. "We'll be finishing that within the hour, and I think that's pretty cool."
Covalt also thanked hard-working parents.
"This accomplishment is not through just our efforts alone," he said. "Every mother and father who woke us up on those Monday mornings that we really didn't want to get up, made us breakfast, drove us to school, picked us up after school, drove us back home, only to bring us back to our evening practice, where they would pick us up again, bring us home again, and then make us dinner. I know we've had a lot of days like that and for that I say thank you to all the parents."
Other relatives also deserved thanks for fundraisers and support, as did teachers and other education personnel, Covalt said.
"To every member of this school that made it your personal agenda to learn the troubles of the kids, whether they be at school or at home, and to collaborate with other people to fix it," he said. "I've seen this numerous times throughout this school and it inspires me to do more every time I see this."
"So basically, to everyone in this room, and the community of Wrangell, and our families, I say thank you," he added.
While some students may feel the urge to decamp for the wider world, Covalt said he felt no pressure to leave.
"This is due to the fact that I truly realize what has been given to me by everyone here," he said. "Once again, as words are not merely enough, I would like to thank everyone."
"I certainly hope that with everything my fellow classmates are feeling, someday we will all look back, give thanks, and give back to those who supported us," he added.
Faculty speaker and retiring principal Monty Buness added some levity to the proceedings.
"If some of you were wondering why the guys weren't smiling on the way out, we tried smiling earlier in the practices, but they kept falling down," he joked. "They couldn't walk and smile at the same time. So we just made them walk. The girls have been practicing since they were 11. They had it down."
Buness said he was honored, touched, and surprised when asked by Erica Smith and Robbie Marshall to speak at the ceremony.
"Initially, I asked them if they were really serious about having me talk, and then one of them started to tear up, and Erica and I hugged Robbie," he joked.
"As I pondered making the speech, I realized I have sat through close to 30 commencement addresses," he added. "I wish I would have paid attention."
The class of 2014 has a diversity of interests and destinations, and shares the graduation experience, Buness said.
"We have lots of kids going to different places," he said. "We have students going on a church mission. We have students going into nursing, education, engineering and construction. We have students entering the work force. Such a wide range of interests and eclectic group of seniors."
"They definitely have one thing in common," he added. "They all decided to wear the cap and gown tonight. They all have big plans, big dreams, and lofty aspirations."
Like the graduates, Buness – retiring along with four other teachers – will soon depart Wrangell High School.
"I am excited to see the seniors graduate this year, because in a way I am graduating with them," he said.
Success is a journey, Buness said.
"Success in life is not complicated, and it's not quite measured in the way that you think," he said. "It's not how much you make, it's not what kind of car you drive, it's not based on how fancy a house you have or what kind of grades you get. Although if you are successful you may have all of those things. It's more about the way you arrive at the destination as opposed to the destination itself."
He related experiences from his own life highlighting the virtues of hard work, persistence, positivity, integrity, responsibility, gratitude, and balance.
"If you're feeling now like things aren't going your way, I would suggest you find a cause," he said. "It doesn't have to be a big cause. Find someone who's less fortunate than you, and you will be glad you did."
"Things may not be easy for you guys out there," he added. "You'll have some hills and valleys, you'll have some rains and sunshine. No matter what your circumstances, try to find the best in your situation. And remember, you can always come home. Wrangellites can always come home."