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When Ari Rothman sat at his own high school graduation, he was sure that the next four years of his life would serve as a springboard to a writing career. That his 18 years of life could seamlessly be fashioned into riveting tales which would move his readers toward a greater understanding of the human condition.
Once he arrived at Lake Forest College in Illinois that fall, however, Rothman found that this particular human—he himself—was not yet conditioned to have truly learned anything.
“I faced the realization that the greatest work of fiction I could ever produce was my own omniscience,” Rothman said to the 315-member New Canaan High School class of 2019, gathered at Dunning Field on Wednesday afternoon as its keynote speaker. “I learned all too quickly that a skillfully wielded shovel was the most useless of tools. That I would not succeed by merely being a proficient student—I had to become a skilled learner.”
Assistant principal at New Canaan High School since 2003, Rothman is a man long fascinated by history. So he spent his four years at college taking courses that allowed him the opportunity to feed that passion. Courses which offered an infinite supply of stories that involved real people and events that shaped his world.
“I was not simply assigned books to read or provided information to memorize,” Rothman said when recalling that time of his life. “I was confronted with questions that mattered and held accountable for my words and ideas…The reading of history was not allowed to be a passive activity—it demanded a judicious mind. The epic battle to comprehend and then deconstruct cause and effect proved exhilarating and I jumped at every opportunity to read, discuss, dissect and debate ideas. I found in the study of history, actions and behaviors that resonated with me, making the intellectual endeavor a personal, introspective journey.”
And as the graduates finish one chapter and begin another, Rothman implored them to become a student of history—especially their own. That they have the skills necessary to continue to learn and develop an honest understanding of who they are and why they are themselves.
“Inherent in every question about the universe, about the Earth, about how people act toward each other and about how people within a society should interact, is a question about oneself. In pondering the who, the what and the why, as well as the where and the how of yourself, your personal history and the history of those who comprise your world cannot be overlooked or denied.”
Having been witness to the class of 2019’s history, Rothman has watched this class face everything the real world has thrown at it. One which has been “accosted by realities no mortal should ever have to confront” Rothman said. And even when faced with such adversity, Rothman has been in awe of this class’ ability to still chart and follow a path which moves them forward.
“When our paths cross again, and I hope they do soon and often, I would like to hear that you are happy and well. That you have surrounded yourself, personally and professionally, with people you value and ones who value you; that you are engaged in work that you find meaningful and about which you are enthusiastic; that you have made your history one from which others can learn.”
Rothman addressed the hundreds of students, family members and friends gathered at Dunning on a drizzly, overcast afternoon. The graduation ceremony included the singing of the “The Star Spangled Banner” by NCHS Madrigal Ensemble, Pledge of Allegiance, NCHS String Trio members playing Mark Revell’s “Into the New” and a recessional, “From Lambs to Rams”, composed by Oliver Crookenden, Teddy Manges and Jordan Paterson and mixed by Ryan Kurtzman.
Several others addressed the families and friends of the graduates at the stirring ceremony. Here’s some of what they said:
- Student Coalition Secretary Kiera Russo: “To all the parents and guardians here to support your loved ones, I wish to commend you. Thank you for selflessly taking on a role that can often appear thankless. Your leadership and kindness do not go unnoticed. To all the faculty and staff members, I applaud you for your uncompromising enthusiasm and perseverance. You have each taught us what it means to be an unstoppable force in this world. To my peers graduating today, because of you I have learned what it means to embrace the fullness of my story. You have demonstrated what it means to be in a community that welcomes one another as a gift. You embodied a lively, heroic spirit during our karaoke lunches in the cafeteria. You demonstrated the admirable sacrifice of resilience and leadership as part of our Student Coalition. Through these examples and countless more, I have learned that we must hold ourselves not to the standard of idealism, but to the standard of celebrating our own branch of excellence. My wish for all of you is to tread your own wide-ranging, rewarding path to prosperity. As you have fearlessly taught me in a matter of 720 days, the road to success is one not measured by intangible acclaim or asset, but one solely determined by our devotion towards one another.”
- First Selectman Kevin Moynihan: “For most of you graduates, New Canaan will always be fondly remembered as your hometown—whether you were born here or moved here. I moved here 38 years ago, and New Canaan now feels like my second hometown because New Canaan is where I raised my two children, both of whom are proud graduates of New Canaan High School.
You graduates are very fortunate to have New Canaan as your hometown because New Canaan is a special place. New Canaan is special because we are a community filled with educated, talented and generous people. New Canaan is special because we are a community that values public schools with great administrators and great teachers. New Canaan is special because we are a community that values achievement in the classroom, on the athletic field, in the arts and in volunteer activities. New Canaan is special because we are a community that values diversity and is welcoming to all regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. New Canaan is special because we are a community that cares for and respects one another and we celebrate each other’s successes. And New Canaan is special because of graduates like the Class of 2019. You have worked hard and achieved. New Canaan is proud of you and, on behalf of our town, I congratulate each and every one of you for your accomplishments and honors.”
- Principal William Egan: “I would like to share the wisdom of A.A. Milne—the creator and author of Winnie the Pooh. Here are some great quotes from Winnie, Piglet, and the gang that are not only great life lessons, but perfect to describe the wonderful roller coaster ride your parents have experienced raising you. ‘I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.’ You can never imagine the joy and sheer terror it is to become a parent. Joy for when you were born; terror as you leave the hospital or adoption agency and realize, wait. They’re just going to let me take this baby? ‘Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.’ It wasn’t easy getting you through toddlerhood, as you discovered your own likes and dislikes and asserted your independence and will. Some days you were a total weed. Remember to get to know the weeds in life. Sometimes they really are a flower waiting to flourish. The world is wonderful and exciting when you are in elementary school. Just like this sentiment from a conversation between Pooh and Piglet. What day is it?’ asks Pooh. “It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet. ‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh. Young kids have that enthusiasm for life. Try to recapture that as you go through life. Next came the dreaded middle age. Tigger may have reflected the tough honesty of middle school kids everywhere when Pooh said to him ‘Oh, Tigger. Where are your manners?’ Tigger replies, ‘I don’t know, but I bet they’re having more fun than I am.’ Now I hope high school was a time of growth and discovery for you. As Pooh said, ‘You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.’ We at NCHS feel like we saw you come out of your corner of the forest. You’ve grown so much as students but more importantly as people. You are embarking on a new uncharted stage of your life. It’s exciting for you and probably a little bit scary. Just remember, it is incredibly scary for your parents too. You’re leaving the nest. Be patient with them. Don’t be too busy for their call. After all, as Pooh said, ‘Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.’ Your parents love you with a ferocity that is impossible to explain and can only be understood by a fellow parent. Watching you leave is never easy, but in my last words from our old childhood friend Winnie the Pooh, ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’”
- Senior Myles Baliotti: “As a toddler I was diagnosed with autism. Autism is a world of complication and challenge. Ordinary things like making friends, playing a sport, or simply getting a haircut can be very difficult for me. Since I was born, I have been fortunate to have family and friends to help me navigate this world. My dad was a member of the class of 1988 here at New Canaan High School. Through my years in New Canaan, I ended up being friends with all the kids of his friends. I got to play for the legendary Lou Marinelli, and be part of a brotherhood that will last my whole life. I also got to play varsity lacrosse this year, and a number of my classmates helped make that happen. The last time I played lacrosse was in fourth grade, but my friends and coaches worked tirelessly to make my dream come true. I ended my high school lacrosse season with an FCIAC Championship and was given the Coach’s Award. Coach Buzzeo said he gave me this award because I showed what New Canaan Lacrosse is all about. My high school friends have also helped me with prom dates, social interactions I find difficult and with the many confusing situations I can find myself in. You would be surprised how much these simple gestures of friendship have changed my life. Class of 2019, you all have done that by making NCHS a school of inclusion and acceptance. Sometimes all you need is one good friend. I am very fortunate to have found so many.”
- Senior Kathleen Reeves: “It seems like yesterday we came here aiming to foster the flames of curiosity that claimed our brains. Ready to learn, to grow, to play the game. We became new people in this short time frame; identified passions with which to define our names; sought to remain our true selves, but never leave the world around us the same. That is why I hope we remember, as we move on to all that awaits, that it is the obligation of those who were given great opportunity to create opportunities for others. My classmates, with all of your talents, so many incredible things wait beyond these gates. Start rotating your view of the world, and appreciate seeing it upside down. Collaborate with those who demonstrate they too can abdicate the throne of their own mindset, and let all of your ideas culminate into something that will stimulate imagination. Never separate a decision from the people it affects—always be someone who doesn’t just demonstrate they can do something but who dedicates themselves to something. As you become people who gravitate to so many meaningful careers, refuse to terminate your dreams because never trying is always worse than trying too late. As you leave this ceremony and start a clean slate, remember to appreciate what you came from. Remember that you came here to do more than graduate. You came to radiate kindness, to orchestrate change, to navigate the seas knowing it is more than just your ship. Class of 2019, our time here was finite. And even though it would be polite to tell you that you will all accomplish amazing things on your own, that wouldn’t be quite true. Because despite how talented you all are, what I want you to remember most of all is that to do anything great, we must unite. You are all like shining lights, but combined we shine brighter. Combined we can solve the problems we all have our sight set on solving, combined we can raise valleys to new heights, combined we can make what’s wrong, right. Class of 2019, we have power inside and among us that we are ready to ignite.
- Senior Michelle Siegel: “In our time at NCHS, we’ve all received multitudes of grades —homework grades, test grades, participation grades—most of them tend to blend together. However, the one grade that has always stuck in my mind was my first quiz from Honors Biology where I started off the year with a whopping 50 percent. That 50 percent was my most important grade—not because it was good, but because it was the first time that I had ever genuinely failed. At the time, I thought that my life was over. But looking back on it now, it was just the start of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned—failure isn’t fun. It’s bad, it’s hard, and it made me feel awful about myself. But it was important for me to understand what it felt like to fail, because it was what finally made me see what I was lacking by not putting in all the effort I could into my work. It’s easy to see success as just a high percentage written at the top of an assignment, but I’ve come to realize that success means absolutely nothing without a personal drive and a strong motivation to back it up. Like many other people I know, change hasn’t been the easiest thing for me to grapple with. In a lot of different scenarios, I have found it much more instinctive to try to hold on to the past rather than putting faith in the future. But just looking back over the last four years, I have assimilated to change more than I ever thought was possible. When I think about what I was like my freshman year—a short, shy, and scared girl with nonexistent public speaking skills and a massive preference for books over people—I can see now that I was trying to avoid change because I was terrified of losing a version of myself that I had become so comfortable with. Looking at me now, still short and still with a strong affinity for reading, but now am one who can manage to speak in front of an entire stadium full of people. It’s so clear that I was really able to accept change and accept the possibilities of who I could be because of the incredible community we have been surrounded by over the last four years. Thinking about the future and the different ways I know I will change still is a frightening thought. But knowing how positive and important change could be for me in my past, I know that I have no reason to fear the changes in my future.”
- Senior Grant Mellinger: “On March 26, a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I was admitted, not to college, but rather to the Yale Pediatric Oncology Unit. I was not feeling particularly well that week but thought all I needed was a typical dose of antibiotics. I would quickly learn that was not the case. As I was lying there, with an IV in my arm and monitors stuck to my chest, I contemplated the possibilities to come. My mind kept wandering to the darkest question, ‘Am I going to die?’ Fear was coursing through my veins. Nobody wanted to use the ‘C word’, but I knew it was inevitable. I spent eight long nights staring at the ugly yellow wall ahead of me, waiting and waiting. I was, ultimately, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Thankfully, I learned that this cancer is curable. So again, during chemotherapy, I found myself staring at the yellow wall. But this time I was not overcome with fear. Rather I felt I had no choice but to face this challenge head-on. I imagined the enormous mountain that I had to climb. I was at the bottom and the only way I was going to go was up. The following Monday I began my climb and could not have imagined the peaks and valleys that I would encounter. Three months and eight seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’ later, I have almost reached the top. Thursday at 11 a.m., I will ring the silver bell, signifying the end of my last chemotherapy treatment. I will ring it loudly. I stand before you today, a bald 18-year-old, ten feet from the peak of my mountain that took months to overcome, excited to look down at all of the possibilities of the future. I am not sharing my story for praise or pity, and I am definitely not trying to make all your moms cry. I want to impress upon you, the class of 2019, that we can overcome any mountain that is put in front of us. We are an ambitious group of young adults that can go as far as our imaginations can take us. I hope that you will have the courage and strength to climb your own personal mountain and attack these challenges head-on. As you enter your new communities, I hope you will remember the one you came from and go build strong new foundations that you can rely on in the future. Class of 2019, we are standing together at a peak. We have overcome all of the challenges of high school and can now look down upon the fabulous opportunities that await. Good luck on your next climb.”
- Superintendent Dr. Bryan Luizzi : “As you take this next step in your lives, if you remain true to what you’ve learned and, more importantly, to whom you have become, you will be remarkably well prepared for the exciting future that lies ahead of you. Remember to work hard, be kind, have fun and to share your gratitude with those around you. If you do these things, you will be successful. We are all extremely proud of your accomplishments and, more importantly, that you have grown into the wonderful young men and women here today. Congratulations.”
- Board of Education Chair Brendan Hayes: “It takes a village. You graduate today as a result of your own hard work, but it has also taken the support of your parents or guardians and many others. This village—this town of New Canaan—has given you a foundation from which you will be launched to do great things throughout your life. This wonderful community exists to raise and educate its children. Your success has been made possible by everyone you have in your mind right now, and countless others behind the scenes. I want you to know that this community’s support for you and your progress does not end today. It will continue well beyond your graduation from New Canaan High School. This community network is strong. I urge you to tap into it as you go out into the world and seek independence. This village wants your success to continue and all you need to do is ask. New Canaan High School has given you the tools that you need to succeed. Your excellent faculty and staff haven’t just prepared you for the path that you have chosen, or will choose. They have prepared you, and you have prepared yourself, for absolutely anything. The tools that you now have at your fingertips can be used to solve virtually any problem and help you lead happy and successful lives. Use them to their fullest.”
Rothman has been fortunate enough to have many people—among the thousands he’s worked during his decades-long career in education—be ones he enjoys having by his side and learning from daily.
But it is his most recent chapter of his professional career that has been the richest and most personally fulfilling.
“Because I have been the administrator for the New Canaan High School Class of 2019,” Rothman, emotionally, said. “As individuals and as a class, I have been captivated by your talents and enchanted by your creativity…I have savored the warmth felt in passing you in the hallway or engaging you in conversation. Whatever I may have done for you as your administrator, you have done tenfold for me—giving me the inspiration and motivation to do my best on your behalf. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2019, I am grateful for these years we had together and for allowing me to be a small part of your history.”