Teacher's Notes: Memorializing High School, a Rite of Passage

What local students said in 2015, and where they're headed next

It is the rite of passage in America: Donning a robe and a square-topped hat, walking across a stage, and getting a leather-bound folder that promises your high school diploma is in the mail. More than anything, this is what symbolizes the transition into adulthood. I still remember as the 18-year-old speaker at my graduation let out a huge sigh and uttered the first four words of his address: “Man, I feel old.”

When adults think about high school graduation, they think about what comes next for those seniors, all the classes, careers, travels, and life that these young adults will go seek out. Brent Klein, the principal at Mariner High school in Everett, put it bluntly, asking his graduating seniors, “Did you see all those incoming 8th graders? We need room! It’s time for you to GO!”

But for seniors, graduation is all about memorializing the past. College and beyond is still a mystery, Student commencement addresses often give generic lip service to ‘the future’ before moving on to what students really wanted to talk about: the community of teachers, peers and friends they are leaving behind. Whether part of a huge graduating class at a traditional high school, a small private or an alternative school, students all brought the conversations back to their treasured school communities.

“I love TJ,” Daanish Khazi, said of Thomas Jefferson, his Federal Way high school, this spring. “Students want to be here. They want to get involved in clubs and activities.”

Bishop Blanchet

“The community!” This was Anthony Pangelinan’s immediate and enthusiastic answer when asked why he attended Blanchet. “The first open house was really welcoming, students were happy to be there. It felt completely right. My class was really, really nice. There were no cliques. I was never, ever bullied. I love it because of the community.”

One of five 2015 valedictorians at the private Catholic High School, Pangelinan was the only senior to love Blanchet so much that he was never tardy or absent for any class during his entire four years. Pangelinan looks forward to his academic career studying computer science at University of Washington but will miss days of running cross-country, participating in Knowledge Bowls and attending daily geometry parties in Mr. Freeman’s class after school.      

Secondary Academy for Success (SAS), Northshore School District  

Emily Rich, Luis Estevez, and Elias Nelson were the chosen graduation speakers at SAS in Bothell, a small Northshore school which accepts students who want an alternative from larger schools in the area.

“We all came to SAS because we were failing at something,” Rich reminded her fellow graduates. “I had lost all hope, and when I came to SAS that changed. This school is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.” 

Nelson echoed Rich, saying that “attending SAS was the best educational decision I made for myself.” He spoke of struggling in middle school, often missing entire months of classes. This cycle came to an abrupt end at SAS, where he “actually wanted to be at school.” Nelson’s speech recounted four years of memories, including an ill-fated field trip in which he was tripped (or was pushed — the details remain controversial) and sustained a head injury. “But that’s what I love about SAS.” He said over the already laughing audience. “It gives you the opportunity to make friends with the people who gave you a concussion.”

Between the two of them, Rich and Nelson racked up over $9,000 in scholarship money to continue their education at Cascadia and Shoreline community colleges. “I’m so proud of my fellow classmates,” Nelson said. “They are the family I can go back to for years and years to come.”

First in family to graduate

For many students, high school is family. Estevez’s commencement speech was preceded by an introduction by Tony Olney, his social studies teacher. Olney called Estevez “the Godfather of SAS. He’s who people come to for advice and approval.” The Godfather’s speech recalled how his initial doubts and insecurities about school melted away as he became more and more determined to leave his mark at SAS and inspire others to do so.

“No one from my family has graduated from high school,” Estevez said. “I wanted to change that. I wanted to do it for my younger siblings.” All Estevez’s family members — his immediate family, his extended family, and school family — whooped and cheered throughout his speech.

Tiffany Hiliker graduated from Mariner High School in Everett with a similar story. She conquered her fear of public speaking by auditioning for the spot as commencement speaker for Mariner High School, and her speech exuded not fear but excitement.

“You made it!” she exclaimed, before admitting, “I never thought I would.” Hiliker recalled the constant references of her destiny to fail and how the community of teachers and students at Mariner helped her push past that narrative. Like Estevez, she cited her younger siblings as the motivating factor to graduate. “I wanted to make a difference in my family, prove that I can be more than what they expect.” Hiliker closed out her speech by gesturing to the crowd and reminding fellow graduates that “this is your family.”

LW Transition Academy

The Lake Washington Transition Academy is a small learning community of post-high school students who have developmental disabilities. These young adults learned to safely and independently navigate their through their community, secured paid employment, and built relationships. Nearly all of the 11 graduates took the stage to present their own story. The evening was kicked off by Almah Johnson, who danced across the stage, blowing kisses to the crowd before launching into her PowerPoint guided speech that described all the success she had found at the academy. She closed by thanking her family, employers and friends, saying, “I really enjoyed coming to school and meeting new people.”

Other graduates kept the crowd laughing and smiling as they recounted two years of inside jokes, made fun their teacher’s basketball skills, and pledged to find success in the future by “wearing cool sunglasses and using charm.” The evening ended with promises to keep in touch and never forget the lessons learned and relationships built at the academy.  

Community is important. So many of us parents strive to connect with those around us by shopping at local markets, connecting through Facebook groups and parent meetups, and by attending events in our neighborhoods. But there are still disconnects. How can we make our Seattle neighborhoods the close-knit communities that TJ, Mariner, SAS, the Transitions Academy and Bishop Blanchet are? Maybe these graduating seniors will be those ones that bring us together. Mukilteo Superintendent Marci Larsen hopes so. In her speech to Mariner graduates, she discussed all the service projects students had initiated and then urged the graduates to “go and make the world a little more like Mariner High School.” 

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