He had no idea what was in store for him as he delivered his commencement speech, but Superintendent of Schools Carlos Colley should have seen it coming.
His own words set the stage.
“Your spirit will live on in the culture of the school that his caring, tolerant, purposeful, dedicated and even fun … For four years you have built something meant to last — that is something I hope all of us are willing to shout from the rooftops.”
With Supt. Colley in mid-sentence, the driving beat of the “Harlem Shake’ shook the auditorium and the Class of 2013 rose as one for a flash graduation dance moment.
Supt. Colley, who earlier had noted that this was the class that started high school the year he arrived in Westport, laughed along with the rest of the audience.
“Go and build a better tomorrow,” he would have continued once the hubbub died down, according to the text of the speech he had prepared. “I will miss you as my own but it is time for you to grow some more, expand. You no longer need us, we are so proud of you — now go. Congratulations and best of luck.”
The big shake, it seems, had been organized by Class President Daniel Marques among others, in cahoots with the person at the auditorium sound system controls. Classmates had learned of the plan the day before and the secret had been closely guarded.
Mr. Marques managed to startle the superintendent and Principle Cheryl Tutalo once more when his turn came to speak. It is customary for speakers to submit their speeches in advance and he promptly tore up the one he had submitted. But there was no cause for alarm — he had another copy in hand — which he stuck to, sort of.
“Just wanted to give Mrs. Tutalo a slight heart attack,” he said. To his classmates, he added that, in their years together, they had become “family.”
Ms. Tutalo called this her “powerhouse” class — one blessed with superb students, natural leaders and skilled athletes who have represented their town and school well over their four high school years together.
Be yourselves, she said. “Remember that sometimes the things you want to change most about yourself are the things that make you very special.”
Valedictorian Jacob Friar said this would be a difficult good-bye.
“No longer will we be comforted by the A/C of Mr. Millet’s room, nor the humor of Mr. Girard. By the glossaries from Ms Silva, nor the kind words from Senhora Farias each Monday “como teu fim de semana?” (how was your weekend?). But we will carry through life the experiences we have had here, the lessons we have learned from these very teachers, and the ideals necessary for success in the real world.”
He told his fellow grads that the days of homework passes and excused tardies are over. “As we go on in life we must understand one thing that is especially prevalent today — nothing is just given to you … We must work to make ourselves stand out, do the extra task … We must be punctual to meetings and interviews … Life is a competition whether we like it or not. Every minute we neglect our duties or procrastinate the inevitable, someone else is working to pass us up.”
He quoted Aristotle — “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.”
“Embrace this moment,” he concluded. “It isn’t often that thousands of people will sit in a crowd and cheer for you. Today is a great day. Today is our day.”
Salutatorian Amanda Nichols told her classmates that she and her siblings had been born premature and doctors questioned whether they would make it — certainly lifelong developmental and learning issues would be concerns. “They may not grow to be average height,” a doctor said. ”
“Okay, so they got me on that last one,” she said to laughter.
“I urge you to ignore those who offer nothing but doubt,” she said. “Focus instead on beating the odds and reaching your potential.” She thanked her teachers for their lessons, as well as others, among them her grandparents “who gave me a lesson of hard knocks, proving that you can survive a hear attack, a stroke, cancer and a world war” and still get on with and savor life.
“Fight to the finish,” she urged her classmates, but also be sure to have fun along the way.
School Committee member Michelle Duarte, herself a Westport High School grad, told the class to expect and embrace failure as a “necessary experience … You will learn things about yourselves that you might never know until you are tested by adversity.”