There was a contingency plan for Batavia City School District’s commencement ceremony Friday evening, just in case the clouds — which threatened all day long in grumpy gray masses — gave way to thunderstorms.
But by later afternoon, it was all systems go as the school of blue and white opted to move forward, not long before a short blip of rain came down to tempt the Blue Devils’ steadfastness. The Class members of 2023 lived up to a word repeatedly attributed to them in the evening’s speeches: they were resilient.
With clear umbrellas in hand and some rags to wipe off the makeshift stage and nearby awards and diplomas, school officials and students strolled through graduation with every bit of pomp and circumstance, albeit with a few raindrops here and there out at Van Detta Stadium field.
It seemed only natural for how they began as ninth-graders.
“I want to congratulate you on your graduation this year. As freshmen, you experienced the beginning of the pandemic and have shown resilience to get to where you are today. I am very proud of all this class has accomplished,” High School Principal Paul Kesler said.
He listed several of those accomplishments, including the band’s “outstanding” ratings in several categories during a recent competition, the Mr. Batavia event that raised more than $5,000 for multiple charities, the musical “Les Miserables” and its stellar reviews at Stars of Tomorrow, plus the myriad sports championships and academic feats for the 148 graduates.
There were 29 National Honor Society students, six Genesee Valley BOCES National Tech Honor Society members, seven Tri-M Honor Society, and five National Art Honor Society members, he said, and 62 percent of the class earned more than $2 million in scholarships for higher education.
Of those students, 42 are planning to attend four-year schools, while 46 are geared toward two-year schools and six toward post-secondary schools. Another 39 are headed to the workforce with offers for employment, and four are on the road to military service, he said. A hefty 141 students earned a Regents diploma.
So with all of those accolades, what was left for him to say? Especially given that this will be Kesler’s last year as high school principal before he moves back to John Kennedy.
After mulling the possibilities for a speech, he landed on three key takeaways from significant people who have impacted his life, Kesler said.
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Photos by Steve Ognibene
A 90-year-old veteran who often checked on how Kesler was doing in his school leadership role taught him lesson number one: to “encourage people.” His father doled out one of life’s greatest gifts, and that taught Kesler about lesson number two: “Be kind.”
And Kesler couldn’t help but include those oft-repeated words of the late city school district substitute teacher, mentor and friend Jim Owen about not accepting setbacks. So that’s lesson number three: “When you have a setback, you can come back and recover from obstacles,” Kesler said.
“I am so thankful to have had a front-row seat to see many of you recover from obstacles to get where you are today,” he said. “So today, I want to let all of you know how proud I am of you. But most of all, continue to be young people who come back when you have a setback, encourage others, and be kind. It has been a great honor to be your principal. Congratulations, Class of 2023.”
Guest speaker and English teacher Kim Przybysz encouraged this group of anxious, soon-to-be academically free young adults not to be defined by one aspect of their life, warning against the “danger of a single story.”
“It might be easy to allow the whirlwind that was lockdown, or hybrid learning, or the mayhem that is all of those years combined, to dominate your narrative. But that would be a woefully incomplete story. I want to challenge you to rewrite the story right now. What have you worked hard to overcome? What have you been proud of? What have you shared? How can you change that narrative, that single story?” she said.
“Let me help you. Class of 2023, I can tell you, you have lots to be proud of. When I think of you, I think of your resilience. Your perseverance. Your ability to overcome adversity. Your sitting here tonight is evidence of that.
“When I think of you, I think of your compassion and heart. I think of your altruism; so many of you have given back to your school community and the Batavia community at large. I think of the ways you’ve gone out of your way to help others -- be it underclassmen, each other -- I think of your honest care and concern.
"I, personally, have often been on the receiving end of that kindness, and I am so grateful for it. When I think of you, I think of your passion. You are fierce advocates, for causes dear to your heart, for your peers, for yourselves," she said. "Continue to harness your voice to demand action, to seek to make the world around you a better place. You are powerful change agents. Believe that.”
The words of advice were plentiful, including from students Jack and Noah Pickard, who ended their jointly given speech with a quote from ultra-marathoner David Goggins, that “most wars are won or lost in our own heads,” capped off with their own: “you are the only person that can make your success happen.”
And from student Clara Wood, who acknowledged that change can be absolutely terrifying, and moving on from high school “is certainly a monumental change.”
“But as a class, we experienced more insanity, hardship, and unpredictability compared to what is usual, and we have to somehow use this to our advantage. We need to somehow realize that we are more than the worst things we have ever been through. We need to somehow recognize that every day is an opportunity to rise above the challenges we are forced to grapple with, and somehow we need to allow ourselves to be proud of everything we have accomplished despite those challenges,” she said. “In the future, when we look back on our high school years, our view will be very different than most. My hope is that we will be able to look back and not have sadness by the feeling that arises.
“My hope is that we will reflect on our time in high school and remember the fact that no matter what, there will always be struggle and uncertainty, but that sometimes hardship is essential for us to realize all that we are capable of,” she said. “Struggle allows us to realize how good the happiness that follows truly is.”
School Superintendent Jason Smith’s message came from a fictional tale, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse.” It weaves through various lessons from each character while on a journey, including the value of compassion, the way in which we react to things, and honesty.
It ends with Smith’s favorite part, he said, and a lesson for graduates and audience members alike. That is, to take the next step.
“That is my final message to you, members of the Class of 2023: take the next step when challenges come your way. Keep moving forward,” he said.