They did it! Monday evening, the 29 graduates of the Paonia High School Class of 2019 flipped their tassels, tossed their caps, and turned the page to the next chapter in their lives.
Their class quote, by Andy Bernard of "The Office": "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them." Their flower, a red dahlia, and their class colors burgundy and dark gray. Their song, "I'll Be There for You," by The Rembrandts.
Ninety-three percent of graduates plan to further their education. They'll study law enforcement, the sciences, sports medicine, construction management, nursing, law, business, history, the arts, computer engineering, and the rehabilitation of sea turtles. Two graduates have chosen career paths through Technical College of the Rockies.
In their address to their classmates, valedictorians Ethan Bartlett and Jade Ellenberger and salutatorians Taralee Mautz and Poppy Lightfoot paired off, took a step back, and remembered how it all began.
"Remember the days of the Dessert Show, and how Soul (Connolly) always ended up in a dress?" said Mautz. "What about when the guys forgot the lyrics of a song, so Soul and Jesse (Burns) had to step forward and sing what they could remember?" These moments, she said, were really just life lessons in how to act when life doesn't go as planned.
Bartlett recalled the sixth-grade field trip to a museum. "At the time it felt like a coming of age," he said. "We were able to function away from our parents. It was our first sense of adulthood." They got their "first taste of independence" and learned about "representing our small town in a good way."
Through the letters of the alphabet, Lightfoot and Ellenberger traced 13 years of learning and growing and understanding life, attaching a life lesson to each of the 26 letters, from A -- "Adulthood, to Z -- "Zone into your dreams."
Students chose William Forrest, a beloved teacher and coach who is leaving PHS after five years, to give the commencement speech. Forrest, who received a standing ovation, addressed students as "equals and friends," even confessing to writing his speech Sunday night after going for a run, "because you're not the only ones that can procrastinate."
He offered a few pieces of advice:
"Know that there is never a day when you wake up and the adult switch has flipped," said Forrest. Something that would be helpful to know from the beginning he said, is that when it comes to being an adult, "everyone, and I mean everyone is faking it. Your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents just pretended to know what they were doing to make you feel better."
"Be prepared to change, and know that changing is good and natural," he said, urging students to "be open to new and exciting challenges... and be open to paths that you'd never considered. Often times those unplanned paths become defining moments in your life."
"Be prepared to make decisions for yourself... This can be a difficult lesson to learn," he added. But "oftentimes, the right decision is the hardest decision to make."
"And finally," said Forrest, "Don't forget where you come from." As he told the Class of 2016, while some will see high school "as some of the best and happiest moments, and others cannot wait to put Paonia in your rear-view mirror. As you move on to bigger and better things, it is important to look at how special your time has been."
As an outsider who was accepted by both school and community, he said, "I have a unique vision of what it means to be a part of Paonia... a special place that can only be experienced by those who have lived here."
"Thank you," said Forrest, taking a brief pause. "I am not sure you can ever know what all of you mean to me, and how proud I am to send you to the next chapter."
Assistant principal Karla Head presented special awards, beginning with the 111th annual presentation of the Rockwell Cup. This year's awards went to Harley Ewert and Jade Ellenberger. The award is "the highest achievement that a high school senior can receive, as it is an honor bestowed upon him or her by their peers" based on character, leadership, scholastic ability and volunteer service to school and community, said Head.
Poppy Lightfoot and David Lozano were awarded the P Blanket honoring the outstanding female and male athlete. Lightfoot was also awarded the fifth annual Denise Kossler Fine Arts Award for excellence in the arts.
In his introduction, principal Randal Palmer looked back on what the Class of 2019 has accomplished. Among them, Jade Ellenberger was a Daniels Scholarship finalist, Ethan White a Daniels Scholarship finalist, and Calvin Reese a Hagan Scholarship finalists. In the last four years, the school has added Advanced Placement courses, and a grant from Amazon provided new technology. Knowledge Bowl qualified for state for the first time in years, and MATHCOUNTS also qualified for state. Athletes won five state sports titles, and the Choir received all-state superior ratings.
This year, PHS was recognized as a Top 500 school in the nation for academics by U.S. News & World Report. "That's something to be proud of," said Palmer.
And while some graduates grew up in Paonia, "others showed up during the ninth grade year, some just trickled in, and finally, some just came this year," said Palmer. "No matter how you made it here, you will forever be a part of the Eagle family."