Tiverton grads lauded as welcoming, challenged to more widely empathize

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Photos by Rich Dionne From left, Jackie King, Toula Karakatsanis and Nicole Johnson take a seat after receiving their diplomas.

Photos by Rich Dionne
From left, Jackie King, Toula Karakatsanis and Nicole Johnson take a seat after receiving their diplomas.

TIVERTON — In addition to the 142 graduates, it seemed as though the whole town turned out for Tiverton High School’s 2013 commencement ceremonies on Friday, June 14. The gymnasium bleachers were packed with friends and family, nearby streets were lined with cars, the parking lot was jammed.

Fortune smiled; after days of rain, the early evening weather was sunny and mild.

Promptly at 6 p.m. Tiverton High School Principal Steven Fezette welcomed all who’d gathered, and began by lauding the class of 2013.

“Individually, you are a National Merit Scholar, Special Olympics Diplomat, Rhode Island Foreign Student of the Year, a Rhode island Philharmonic musician, Becca’s Closet National Scholar, or the student with up to four Advanced Placement courses on your resume,” he said, and then listed many more individual and group accomplishments of the graduating class.

Class Valedictorian Theodore Tsiongas mixed humor, irony, and seriousness in his address to the class.

He used John Donne’s 1642 essay “Meditation Seventeen” as his theme, which he quoted in part to the class: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

“A lot of people like to use the first part of the quote to hate on loneliness and the last part of the quote to hate on war,” Mr. Tsiongas said.

“Oftentimes people are quick to hate, betray, ignore, ostracize, insult, belittle, or take advantage of other people because they don’t have the empathetic capacity to think of them as another human being,” he said. They can’t empathize with all people, but rather only with a small group —”with humans who are more like them,” he said — with whom they selectively empathize.

Mr. Tsiongas, referencing John Donne, called this “The erosion of humanity.”

“I find it helps to think of all people in the world as a family,” he said. “Simply expand this sentiment to the global scale. Foreigners, strangers, swindlers, businessmen, the homeless, the drunk, the dependent. They’re your family. Humanity is a team.”

“So the next time,” Mr. Tsiongas said, “you find yourself in an opportunity to hate, betray, ignore, ostracize, insult, belittle, or take advantage of someone— take a step back and do not do that. Maybe this means hanging out with someone you don’t particularly care for. Maybe this means actually having to listen to someone you would rather dismiss out of hand. And yes, it’s very inconvenient. But the little behavioral changes are what make things better.”

In her comments to the class, Megan Lusignan, Class Salutatorian, spoke about a special quality of the class, that others including Principal Fezette noted.

“In my opinion,” she said, “our class is probably one of the most welcoming that I’ve seen in this school while I’ve been student here. I also think that the vast majority of us are very friendly and pleasant people to be around. I believe that just the atmosphere that we’ve created has allowed us to accomplish all that we’ve done.”

Ms. Lusignan continued: “We’ve been instrumental in making everyone feel included in the school because of our large involvement in Special Olympics here in town, the Youth Activation Committee, and PHN [Peer Helping Network]. We have all kicked butt musically, with both of the bands and Select Chorus earning superior ratings in competitions just this past year. And even though we don’t always get along, we’ve been able to work well together when necessary, which led to us having one of the best senior variety shows that the school has ever had.”

Senior Class President Marni Burk spoke briefly to the class and introduced the commencement speaker, Robert A. Murray, the schools athletic director, who had been chosen by the students to deliver the address.

“We are a unique and diverse class with many strong opinions,” Ms. Burk said. “This collection of different people however is what has made us such a strong force in the school. We always find a means to work together and strive to do what is best for the school and our class.”

She spoke of the faculty “who genuinely care about their students,” and who “have not only taught us the books, but also valuable life lessons.”

Mr. Murray, she said, has been coaching at the school since 1976, is in the Rhode island Football Coaches Hall of Fame, and has been “awarded head coach myriad years in multiple sports, but most importantly is an indispensable member of our school and community.”

Breaking with tradition, Mr. Murray took a hand-held microphone, and stepped down from the podium to stand directly in front of the class on the floor of the gymnasium to deliver his remarks. Though he had prepared comments, he spoke extemporaneously, in a style that had to compare with talks he’d given over the years to teams before games.

He was greeted with cheers and whistles. “To all of you, I say, thank you very much,” he said, gesturing to faculty seated behind him, to administrators, town officials and school committee members and guests, and to family in the bleachers.

To the class, he said, “the strength of the academic performance of this group of students is just outstanding.”

Mr. Murray spoke of characteristics he believed were crucial to success in life.”The first is faith, belief in oneself, a belief that I can,” he said. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.”

He gave the example of “Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies, who gets paid $25,000,000 to make seven outs every ten times to the plate. In that failure is a learning lesson.”

Mr. Murray said other characteristics necessary in life were patience, motivation, and community.

And be humble, he said in his prepared remarks. “When your success grows, savor it, but don’t flaunt it,  Share it with others.” Departing again from his prepared comments, he said, “become a teacher of the process, so someone else can learn.”

Class ranking, he said, tells you how you did during the years in school. But, “over the next 50-70 years there will be no published rank. The measurement of your success will be how you take advantage of your opportunities, and how those life experiences will make you happy. Each of you will have a different definition of happiness. Work hard to find that definition for you.”

Mr. Murray closed to applause, with the exhortation that “we are the Tigers of Tiverton and we are proud of you.”

In an interview the day before the commencement ceremonies, Principal Fezette said of the graduates, “this is a class that certainly made a difference. We’ve had a hard core over the years concerned with tolerance and diversity, but this year we’ve had a focus on individuals with challenges.”

Noticeable to all during the ceremony Friday evening were the much improved acoustics in the gymnasium. In his welcoming remarks, Principal Fezette noted the generosity of the current graduating class, and of the Class of 2012 that preceded it, that together “provided us with the outstanding sound system we are listening through this evening.”

In closing his remarks to the students at Friday’s ceremony, and to applause, Principal Fezette said, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We are greatly appreciative of the difference you have made at Tiverton High School, and we are a better school for you.”

Unlike previous years, Tiverton School Superintendent William Rearick did not address the graduating class.

As tradition always dictates the ceremony was punctuated by music played by the Tiverton High School Band. The Star Spangled Banner at the outset was co-conducted by graduating seniors Maya Bergandy and Mariah Caldwell.

The band also performed “The Gathering of the Yeomen,” by Robert W. Smith, following the commencement address, the processional “Pomp and Circumstance,’ and the recessional ‘Capital Square March.’ All were conducted by Music Director Michael Alves.

Last year 148 students graduated from Tiverton High School, and the year before (2011) the number was the smallest in years, at 121. There were 167 in the Class of 2010 and 154 in 2009.

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