News and Views




Life and Work


Submit your news

Submit commentary

Support us

Become a member


Print advertising

Web advertising

About us

Contact us

Privacy Policy

The Commons
Photo 1


Bellows Falls Union High School prepares to graduate its senior class.

Voices / Primary Sources

Hats in the air

A few recent high-school graduates from our region offer parting thoughts to their classmates and communities

As we often do this time of year, we present excerpts from a few of the speeches given by some of this area’s graduating seniors at their respective graduation ceremonies. We at The Commons offer our congratulations and best wishes to all Windham County graduates.

Originally published in The Commons issue #414 (Wednesday, June 28, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.

Ryan Taggard

Valedictorian, Brattleboro Union High School

A little disclaimer: I’m dramatically under-qualified to give life advice to anyone. I’m not up here because I’ve got everything figured out or because I’ve got some vast reservoir of life experience.

And to clarify, some people might think this is me being humble. They’re wrong. So take everything you hear today with a grain of salt.

There’re a few things I’ve got down solid, though.

We’re going to focus on risk taking — but not the kind of superficial, no-upside, what-in-the-world-were-they-thinking sort of risk taking that makes its way onto YouTube fail videos. I’m talking about stepping clear outside your comfort zone, trying something that scares you, and maybe, just maybe, finding it isn’t quite that bad after all.

Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

So get out there. Stop waiting. Realize that inaction, like any other path forward, is a choice. There’s no such thing as avoiding a decision; if you don’t choose to either seize or let go of an opportunity, life is going to choose for you.

But “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” doesn’t at all imply that you make 100 percent of the shots you take.

Just look at Gretzky — undoubtedly, the greatest hockey player ever. He shot 17 percent for his career, which means he “failed” 83 percent of the time — hardly an encouraging statistic. It’s just that even the greatest fail a tremendous amount of the time.

So embrace it. You’re going to fail. Maybe a little at first. Maybe really bad shortly thereafter. You might invest heavily in dehydrated water or helicopter ejection seats.

If you mess up real bad — and I mean real bad — you might find yourself telling cringeworthy jokes to a group of confused BUHS freshmen and questioning your career choice.

Just kidding, [Principal] Mr. [Steve] Perrin. We all love you.


But even if you find yourself being roasted by a lanky kid in a purple wizard costume, know that you’re doing all right. Because everybody, at some point, screws up spectacularly. And that’s just what it takes to succeed.

My junior year, I took speech and argumentation with Mr. [Robert] Kramsky. We categorized ourselves based on how we confront things that scare us.

Those of you who have had speech with Kram will likely remember the scale I’m talking about. The first category — the avoiders — do everything in their power to maintain their bubble. Life for these people is, I’d imagine, very uncomfortable. It seems paradoxical, but the harder you try to run from what scares you, the less you learn to deal with it and the more bothersome it becomes.

Next, we have the resisters. These people will, on occasion, face a fear, but only with some outside prompting. There’s a tremendous number of people in here, and I think it’s the most natural of the categories.

Third are the acceptors. They’re not hunting for any scary experiences, but if someone tosses an intimidating responsibility in their lap, they’ll give themselves up, sometimes with hints of helpless resignation, to the fact that they must deal with it.

But the final category, the seekers, differ from the other three. Avoiders, resisters, and acceptors are all characterized by their aversion to risk. Seekers, as the name implies, actively try to find such situations, and they thrive on adversity and challenge.

This is where you want to be. Seekers, by facing full on what scares them, by seizing the moment, by taking the shot and being unafraid to miss, find themselves pushing their limits.

And after a time, they look back, and see that what used to scare them is now planted firmly within their newly stretched comfort zone.

If I can impart one thing to you tonight, let it be this: Be the seeker.

Caleb Thibault and Emma Urbaska

Valedictorian and Salutatorian, Leland & Gray Union High School

Caleb Thibault: When we started writing this speech, we realized that we had no idea what we were doing.

Emma Urbaska: But we know that at events like these, people will usually remember the last thing they hear.

C.T.: We’ve decided to give our speech first, so you’ll forget it quickly.

E.U.: In fact, in the spirit of senioritis and procrastination, we decided not to prepare a speech at all!

C.T.: We decided to just wing it!

E.U. Well, not really—

C.T.: It’s gonna be “huuge.”

E.U.: — but “just winging it” is what got us through high school at times.

C.T.: And miraculously, we made it through okay.

E.U. We aren’t trying to give you the secrets of success and life in this speech.

C.T.: Trust us — we’re both just as hopeless when it comes to that.

E.U.: But, as we’ve done for the past six years, we’ll get through it.

C.T.: The fact of the matter is that learning how to calculate the degrees in a triangle isn’t going to help us learn to pay bills and balance a checkbook.

E.U.: And writing a term paper about a rich guy in the 1900s isn’t going to get us a job.

C.T.: We can aspire to be famous actors, athletes, and billionaires all we want.

E.U.: But not every school is like East High in High School Musical, where pursuing your dreams always works out in the end.

C.T.: Yah, it is. Think of all the times we have broken out into song in the cafeteria!

E.U.: None?

C.T.: Well, let’s start now! [Clears throat.] We’re all in this together...

E.U.: Oh, god, no — not like that!

C.T.: Should I try a different song?

E.U.: How about we move on?

C.T.: I guess we’ll have to settle for a quote from a famous person.

E.U.: This is one from some guy named Abraham Lincoln; he sounds boring.

C.T.: Um, Emma, he was the 16th president.

E.U.: Oh, right. There goes my chance at a 5 on my AP U.S. History exam.

C.T.: Anyway, here it is: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

E.U.: Obviously, we can’t have an axe on school property.

C.T.: And we weren’t planning on cutting down any trees.

E.U.: But we found that this quote applies to our class in two ways.

C.T.: And we are here to talk about our class.

E.U.: The first way is procrastination.

C.T.: I mean, we all know two hours of homework can’t be done without first watching four hours of Netflix.

E.U.: Writing a term paper just won’t happen without enjoying the outdoors of southern Vermont until the sun goes down.

C.T.: And working for two hours on a project is simply impossible without taking a four-hour power nap first.

E.U.: Damn, high school sucks. [Pause.] I think we’re getting a little carried away.

C.T.: You’re right. Our point is that cutting down a tree in six hours—

E.U.: —or rather, completing our assignments—

C.T.: —probably won’t happen until the very last minute.

E.U.: But there are positive benefits to taking your time.

C.T.: Of course, our class knows that; at least I hope they do.

E.U.: Our classmates have dedicated massive amounts of time to this school.

C.T.: Our school is a special place for being able to provide so many opportunities to its students, despite its size. And luckily, we have great support from the rest of the community as well.

E.U.: You may be wondering what all of this has to do with sharpening an axe for four hours.

C.T.: Well, with all of the practicing and rehearsing we do for all of our activities, we’ve racked up a pretty high number of hours.

E.U.: All of these hours contribute to the important moment, whether it’s a big game, performance, exhibit, test, or anything else, and likely the moments of practice are just as important as the moments of performance. In terms of our class, we’ve put in much preparation, and it has led us to achieve greater success than we would have had we not done so.

C.T.: Four hours of “sharpening the axe” really means four hours of putting in the extra time needed to prepare.

E.U.: I’m not sure if that’s exactly what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he was chopping down that tree,

C.T.: But that’s what we’re going to tell you he meant.

E.U.: And anyways, our president’s words never have any other alternative meanings.

C.T.: Well, there was that time that Trump said—

E.U.: Let’s not talk about that.

C.T.: Probably a good idea.

E.U.: Instead, we’ll get a bit sentimental.

C.T.: We’ve come a long way from playing each other on the elementary-school sports fields, and seeing each other once a week for band.

E.U.: We’ve gone from rivals and strangers a town over to close friends in our tightly knit community here at Leland & Gray.

C.T.: And now we have to say goodbye to each other and our school.

E.U.: Although, I’m sure time will reunite many of us in some way.

C.T.: But until then, we thank each member of our class for spending the last six years with us.

E.U.: We also gratefully acknowledge all of our teachers and faculty members, who have helped guide us to where we are now: moments away from graduating.

C.T.: But most importantly, we thank our parents and families, who have been alongside us the whole time, for better and for worse.

E.U.: Admittedly, we lied when we said Abe’s quote applies to our class in two ways, because there’s a third—

C.T.: —very corny—

E.U.: —meaning behind it.

C.T.: As we graduate today, instead of sharpening the axe to cut down a tree, we can think of ourselves as growing a new one.

E.U.: And spending the extra time it takes to ensure that our future endeavors flourish as a sapling does with the proper nurturing and care.

C.T.: Now that she’s done being sappy, it’s time for us to branch out,

E.U.: And beleaf in ourselves.

C.T.: Puns intended. And later on, when you can’t remember exactly what we talked about on the morning of June 17, 2017, recall it being a great speech.

E.U.: Thank you for choosing us to speak today;

C.T.: Hopefully, we fulfilled your expectations.

E.U. and C.T.: Congratulations, class of 2017!

Lila Shaw

Compass School

As we become “adults,” whatever that may mean, we begin to realize that things don’t get easier; however, I wouldn’t say they get harder, either. They simply change.

We acquire more responsibilities, but also gain freedom. Our futures are a bit ambiguous and terrifying, but with that ambiguity we are blessed with endless possibilities of pursuing whatever our hearts lead us toward.

Often in life we find ourselves on the brink of large decisions. This is particularly scary because it feels as if our futures are entirely dependent on making the exact right choice. The reality is, there are no right choices. There are times when our choices result in something great, or result in consequences, but in any situation we’re able to learn from our experience.

This means that all of life’s experiences are a win-win situation. There is no right destination, there is not one set pathway we are required to stick to. If there was one destination that we were meant to reach, there might be a few paths we would need to stick to in order to get there. We have so much power over our realities.

The teachers at Compass embrace our individuality by understanding our differences and allowing us space to move freely as we learn about ourselves. The task of learning about oneself is never-ending. Adolescence is a time of deep self inquiry and discovery, along with many mistakes — or, as I like to call them, learning experiences.

Our teachers aren’t just being compassionate towards us, they are teaching compassion to us and leading by example. The school’s value of community provides us with skills we will take with us everywhere. No matter where we choose to take our lives, we will be prepared with the ability to understand others, to be leaders, team members, good friends, and to choose what to do to best impact a group rather than just oneself.

Compass does an excellent job of showing us how to behave with a group mentality, and also how to fiercely pursue our individuality. We’re trusted with a lot of choice in our learning, which allows us to follow and explore our passions.

Without autonomy, we’re not able to offer our greatest ability towards the world beyond ourselves. If we aren’t able to care for ourselves, we become a bare, sandy desert. Self nurturance is the ability to allow rain showers and sunshine, which causes us to grow into a bountiful garden. With this nurturance, the soil bursts with an abundance of growth and life.

I hope each of us gives ourselves what we need so that we have a bounty of life within our gardens to offer the world.

Ali Fox

Valedictorian, Bellows Falls Union High School

Our class has been called one of the most egotistical on several occasions. In our defense, we are also fantastic. And while we may occasionally take it too far, I think that overall a little egotism can be a good thing, because it comes from a place not just of being proud of our own personal achievements but also of deep admiration for each other.

The truth is that being part of a so-called “egotistical” class can be oddly humbling, because a fundamental part of that egotism is looking around you and realizing how incredible every one of your classmates is. It is coming to terms with the fact that your weaknesses may be someone else’s strengths. It is the knowledge that we work better together and that we can learn from and be inspired by each other.

More than this it is the realization that we did not get here alone. We might have high opinions of ourselves, but the fact that we are so hilarious and adorable and intelligent is certainly not some innate quality. We owe so much of who we are and what we have achieved to our families, our friends, our teachers and, occasionally, just chance.

It was pure luck that we landed in a school like Bellows Falls, because for many of us it was not a conscious choice. We just had to go to high school and this is the district that we happened to live in.

So we didn’t realize immediately that we were showing up to a school where our principal leads Simon Says every year at Winter Carnival. We didn’t realize that we would soon be bonded by the shared memories of hearing Macbeth or 1776 blaring from another room as we stifled laughs and tried to pay attention. We didn’t realize that, in coming here, we were getting the best teachers that anyone could ask for.

So I’m not going to pretend to be humble up here, because personally I think we’re pretty great.

Instead, I would like to offer a sincere thank you, to my incredible class and to the people who have supported us and changed our lives for the better. There is no one else with whom I would rather have spent these past years.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.