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Passport Stamped With A Trip Down Beloved “Country Roads”

ALMOST HEAVEN: Seniors assembled in Titan Stadium last Friday evening for San Marino High School’s 2018 commencement ceremony, where they received a variety of messages and challenges from the speakers including a humorous reference to the school’s diversity. Grads later reveled at a spectacular Grad Night entitled “Passport Around the World.” Mitch Lehman Photo

Emerging from a steady beat of techno, rap and indie rock, the unmistakable opening guitar licks of John Denver’s “Country Roads” immediately distinguished itself from the eight-hour din of preceding sound by both its chord and meaning.

As old as most of the parents who had just a few hours earlier had watched their sons and daughters receive a diploma from San Marino High School, the song is at once about the joys of travel and returning home, and whether intentional or not, the song struck the perfect note when it brought the Class of 2018 onto the dance floor for one final foray just minutes before Grad Night, “Passport Around the World,” wrapped up early Saturday morning. For while the adventures that lie before the students seem boundless, it’s nice to know there is a well-worn robe and a comfy couch waiting when they eventually come home.

But until then, a chamber of commerce evening greeted the festivities last Friday evening after weeks of what meteorologists now call May Gray, and the mood inside Titan Stadium was as sunny as the skies above it.

Seniors Ajay Natarajan, Libby Chang and Michael DuMont put together a poignant, entertaining homage to their many educators and even included a salute to the school’s custodial staff.

“Think of me as your guide for this reflection as you consider your accomplishment of graduating from high school and what it means to you,” said School Board President Shelley Ryan in opening her address. “You already know what it means to your family. I want you, each of you, to fully take in precisely how special this moment is in your life. I want to broaden our tour just a little bit and have you think about where this moment fits in your life journey. That is, today is not only about where you are right here and right now, but today is also where you each started, and also about where you are going.”

Ryan then explained how high school, like life, presents a series of choices.

“As a graduating class you are unique because each of you have arrived at the same place through a wide ranging variety of individual experiences largely chosen by you,” Ryan said. “Many of you have taken advantage of the wide range of academics and the performance arts program. And a large number of you have participated and excelled in our athletic programs. All of you have learned the value of true grit, dedication to excellence, and leadership and teamwork. You’ve traveled to other communities as ambassadors of San Marino High School, whether it was competing on sports teams, in academic competitions, or with the marching band. These have all been experiences that contribute to your overall success. You’ve developed interpersonal skills by interacting with your classmates and teachers, and you’ve learned to enjoy additional freedoms you’ve either earned, accepted or taken as you’ve gotten older and hopefully you are prepared to accept the varying level of responsibility that is connected with each of them. All of the things I have just mentioned are your past. All of these things have prepared you for your next adventure.”

Ryan punctuated that theme by reprising a single sentence throughout her speech: “Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?”

“I tell my own children that San Marino is this great place where you have had many shining moments,” Ryan said. “Combine this nurturing environment that you have received, with a solid educational foundation that you’ve worked hard to construct and you are well prepared to take your next steps in life. As you leave, I ask you to take these intentional steps confidently with purpose and experimentation. Open your eyes and mind, and fill your heart with the love and passion that will help you to have more shining moments if you are open to opportunities and strive every day to do what you do best.

Confetti rained down on the dance floor during the final gathering on the dance floor. Photos by Terry Fouché and Mitch Lehman

So you see your graduation is an ending worth celebrating. But it also foreshadows for all of you a new beginning, and surely, a memorable shining moment on your journey until your next one.

Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss told the audience that his speech was inspired by his five-year-old son, who suggested “Star Wars.”

“As you embark on your life’s journey to college and beyond, consider the wisdom of the great philosopher and Jedi Knight, Yoda,” said Cherniss, striking a chord of familiarity with the teenagers. “You, too, should learn like a Jedi does, to first know yourself, know your own capacities, and learn to practice the self-control that empowers you to do exactly what you want—the right thing. And then, once you have your self-knowledge, and self-control, nothing will be impossible for you. Titan Graduates, “the force with you is strong.”

To open his first commencement address, principal Dr. Issaic Gates acknowledged those who had made the choice to pursue a career in United State Armed Forces.

“It is with courage and honor, that you’ve intentionally selected a path of service to our country, a path that is inherently filled with a measurement of uncertainty,” Gates said. “It is in the sincerest of ways, that we, the community of San Marino High School, stand and salute you, and thank you for your service.”

Just fifteen minutes before the end of Friday’s Grad Night, co-Chairs Cheryl Cabot, Cynthia Ary, Dina McCall and Michele Carter look as though they could do the whole thing over again.

On that prompt, the entire audience rose as one to acknowledge Raye Cheng, a senior who received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, who Gates mentioned by name.

Gates then encouraged the graduates to “design your dreams and avoid the shiny opportunity.”

“When you design your dreams, you intentionally prioritize what’s important,” Gates said. “Usually at the top of the list is happiness. And when you build everything else around happiness, money, power, and influence will follow as byproducts. And when you’re at the zenith of your happiness, you’ll look to contribute to others as they work to fulfill their dreams. You’ll become a dream maker.”

Gates ended the address by encouraging his first class to embrace faith.

“Let your light shine, but be humble enough to believe in something greater than yourself,” Gates explained. “This is important, for it will be faith in something greater than yourself that will help you manage the highs and lows of life that are sure to come.”

When it was the students’ turn, seniors Libby Chang, Michael DuMont and Ajay Natarajan delivered a humorous reflection of their years in the district.

“Passport around the world,” the trio began, before Chang took first crack. “Such a phrase describes San Marino really well. Just look at the last names of our ‘extremely’ diverse graduating class: Chan, Chen, Chang, Cheng with an e.” The audience howled at the reflexive realization. Then it was Natarajan’s turn.

“Liu, Lieu with an e in the middle, Liang, Lee, Li with an i, and after nine years of him being in the school district, we’ve finally perfected the pronunciation of Eshwar’s full name: Aruneshwar Venkatachalapathy.” Again, a roar of laughter, most of which emanated from the eternally good-natured Eshwar.

The group then acknowledged several faculty members and administrators for their contributions and even made a rare but special mention of San Marino High School’s custodial staff.

“You are the sole reason for the beauty and charm that makes our learning environment,” Chang said, speaking for the trio. “And to all the unnamed faculty and staff, you have made indescribable differences in the lives of those around you. For all the pillars that make San Marino what it is, the class of 2018 is forever grateful.”

They extended the the theme of travel and adventure all the way to a final destination.

“Whether we get our next stamp at a community college, liberal arts school, or university, the one thing we do have in common is that San Marino is our home,” Dumont said. “Even though from this moment on we’ll be spread out across the globe, we’ll always have the skills, memories, and friends that San Marino has given us,” Natarajan added, before tossing it to Chang. “So perhaps bittersweet, but for the last time, have a great Titan day,” they said in unison, an homage to Gates.

And then it was off to Grad Night, which was so properly coined years ago by former chair Lisa Sloan as “one last, big hug from San Marino.”

And “Country Roads?” It was the idea of Thomas Ary, son of Grad Night co-chair Cynthia Ary.

“I just really love that song,” Thomas said. “I don’t remember where I first heard it, but it has been sort of a tradition. I like to play it after dances. It has a great message, about traveling and coming back home.”

A message that wasn’t lost on hundreds of his closest friends, who locked arms and soaked in that one final moment together.

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