The Paonia High School Class of 2016 chose philosopher Ayn Rand to provide their class quote: "The question isn't who is going to let me, it's who is going to stop me."
Not much has stopped this class from achieving lofty, if not downright mind-boggling goals. As salutatorian and Rockwell Cup recipient Marisa Edmondson noted, during their four years the school had "seven state championship banners applied to the wall," and PHS was named a Top 500 school in the nation by Newsweek magazine.
That's just the beginning of the story for a class that garnered more than $453,000 in scholarships. Of the 39 graduates, 97 percent plan to attend college.
Somewhere in Western Colorado, on the wall of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, is a photo of the seniors on their senior trip. It's there, explained Principal Randal Palmer, because the staff said the students were "the best group they'd ever had."
Edmondson described Monday night's graduation ceremony, which packed the gymnasium like an Eagles wrestling dual or basketball playoff game, "the day we close the door on our high school years and open the door to what is coming next."
Among the graduates, two will enter the military, seven will attend trade school, and two will attend both a trade school and a college or university. Five have signed to compete in college sports. Of those planning to attend school, 23 will remain in-state.
Their chosen professions include hospitality management, criminal justice, business, agriculture, animal sciences, cosmetology, human resources management, political science, music, engineering, education, ecology, journalism, air traffic control, medicine, entrepreneurship and gunsmithing.
Commencement speaker and Spanish teacher Will Forrest told students he was very concerned that he couldn't give them the kind of speech they deserve, the kind that they see on YouTube videos telling them things he wishes someone would have said to him eight years ago when he was in their place and mapping out a future.
"I want you to take what you have here from Paonia, to college, to the workforce, to the military, whatever you do, because you do live in a special place," he told them.
Forrest talked about the "Paonia attitude ... It's hard to explain to those who aren't from Paonia," he said, but it's one of "excellence, perseverance and resilience. This attitude encompasses every part of your lives," including sports and academics. That attitude is something that is unique and it's special."
Of their classmates, he said. "There is no one who will ever know you better. Moving forward you're going to make all kinds of incredible friends. You're going to meet new people, you're going to have new experiences, and it's all going to be new and exciting. That being said, no one will ever know you better than your graduating class."
He urged graduates to not fear failure and take those "opportunities in disguise" known as risks. "I don't mean foolish risks like driving too fast and then arguing with the police officer about why you shouldn't get a ticket. You need to look at your life, and if there's something wrong with it, change it."
Lastly he urged them to travel. "Paonia, Denver, even Delta will be there when you get back. I promise. There's a whole wide world out there for you guys to explore and I'd hate to see you limit your opportunities because you're afraid."
In presenting annual awards, the coveted Rockwell Cup for outstanding male and female student, a tradition began in 1908, went to Cameron Van Vleet and Marisa Edmondson. Considered the highest achievement for a PHS senior, recipients are selected by their peers.
The second annual Denise Kossler Fine Arts Award, in memory of the Paonia native and arts and music teacher, went to Bailee Campbell, and The P Blanket for outstanding athletes went to Ashley Van Vleet and Taylor Walters. Both are state record setters who have signed to compete at the university level.
Edmondson urged her fellow graduates to "laugh, cry and ponder the meaning of life. I realized that this crazy, insane, stressful, tearful, life-changing and amazing adventure we call high school has finally come to an end."
Class Valedictorian Chelsea Meilner reminded graduates that they didn't do it alone and thanked their many supporters for believing in them. "The success we have accomplished as a class could not be possible without community support," said Meilner
Meilner, who became the fourth PHS senior in school history to be named a Boettcher Scholar, also told classmates that they have many more opportunities to do great things as they travel the tracks of life. "These years at Paonia High School have no doubt been some of the greatest years we have experienced, but they are far from being the best of our lives."