AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

A small-town Alaska high school graduation

Heather Lende

Everyone agreed that it was a very good graduation. The valedictorian, Abby Jones -- who will be playing basketball at a community college in Washington next year and who plans to major in education, communication and psychology -- spoke sincerely, sweetly and succinctly about the best qualities of each of her 24 classmates. Every time she named one you could see them sit up straight and smile. The dads nodded proudly or held up the camera and the moms reached for the Kleenex or fanned themselves with the program, or perhaps fumbled a bit with both and the emotion of it all.

The salutatorian, Blake Hamilton -- who will be attending the Naval Academy and majoring in ocean engineering or naval architecture -- thanked each of the nine Haines High School teachers. He also said that while thousands of commencements were taking place around the country, the Haines graduation was different. "It's hard to find a place so beautiful and with such unique community members," he said, which of course made all of us nod our heads in agreement.

One of the people he was speaking about made it possible, for the first time in many years, to hear what the speakers were saying and the singers were singing. Pastor Mark Jones, Abby's dad, of the Haines Cornerstone Foursquare Gospel Church, had spent the day fiddling with the sound system in the gym so that the ceremony no longer reminded me of the adult voices in a Charlie Brown school special. (You know, the ones that make a kind of underwater, modulated noise.)

The new music teacher saw to it that the choir wore green, white, and black school-colored uniforms, with all the boys in ties, a first, and that they sang a beautiful tune in Swahili, to the beat of a skin drum. It was called "Baba Yetu," and turns out, it was actually the Lord's Prayer. After that they sang a bluesy Motown version of "Somebody to Love," and "Moon River," which made the old people teary thinking about all the proverbial rivers they've crossed since they were eighteen, and all the friends and family who have crossed that final river for good, and how fast it all happened- how quickly their lives took off after their own school years ended, and how maybe, as Abby had said at the conclusion of her address, they too had the changed the world for the better, just a little. Thank goodness for grandchildren.

But that sentimental moment didn't linger. Just then, four senior boys plugged in electric guitars and hit the drum kit and performed "Tell Me Baby" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was so loud, and crazy, and funny, and heartfelt, that they got a standing ovation. One boy (the class was heavy on guys, there were just 9 girls) concluded the evening entertainment with a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar solo. That had some of the elders covering their ears, but everyone else was grinning, in a  stunned kind of way. As the principal said when she took to the microphone to introduce the class honor students, "I'm not sure how to follow that."

What is not to love about a commencement that highlights each graduate and each teacher, and where the kids play the music they like? There's that, and the big gym was full, with noticeably more babies in the stands than in the past.( We are having a mini baby-boom, with -- I think -- 17 new residents born this winter.)

The class chose a local speaker, their English teacher Ms. Martin. She quoted Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"The only thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience," she said, and wished them the kind of courage Winston Churchill meant when he said it takes courage to stand up and speak, and even more courage to sit down and listen when others are speaking. She said to set goals and never give up on your dreams, and used her own life as an example.

Ms. Martin used to be a manager at an Arby's in Grand Rapids, Mich. She came to Alaska one summer, met her husband-to-be, and managed the Bamboo Room restaurant here for ten years before going back to college and earning a BA in English at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She taught for a year in the nearby Klukwan school and joined the faculty at Haines High in 2007, the same fall that this senior class were freshman. Just like them, she is also a 2011 grad, with a new Master's degree in secondary education.

She said she hoped that like her, they would "wake up excited about what you do" every single day. She concluded with a poem she wrote just for them. Ms. Martin has obviously been thinking about what she would say, if she ever got the opportunity, to the youth of her hometown, and she did it with such conviction and good humor that she too earned grateful applause.

When the ceremony concluded, Pastor Jones hit the tape (the school band had played "Pomp and Circumstance" for the procession, but the class chose their own recessional), and nothing happened, so we all sort of stood around in the bleachers a moment, until the Beatles sang "In My Life," and we stepped down to the gym floor and lined up to greet each graduate, standing under their portraits along the end wall, with cards, gifts, hugs and handshakes. Like I said, it was, we all agreed, as we headed out across the parking lot to our cars, a very good graduation. One of the finest in recent memory, and no doubt the best graduation until next year's.

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.