By NICOLE ANTONUCCI
FONDA -- The Fonda-Fultonville High School class of 2014 was full of pent-up energy Saturday afternoon, as they gathered in the gymnasium an hour before the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" would usher them from these hallowed halls and into life's great abyss.
Some grabbed a basketball and began to shoot hoops. Others gathered in groups, talking and admiring the decorated graduation caps, which ranged from messages of hope and photograph collages to a 3-D dinosaur display. A few were seen practicing their speeches while others took a few moments alone to calm jitters.
Yet, the energy only heightened when they donned their maroon caps and gowns, pinned each other's corsages and boutonnieres, and walked down the hallway one last time.
"It's the start of a new life and new beginnings," Kayla Wood-man said, as she stood in a group with her friends Kerrigan McCaslin and Jenna Kasza.
McCaslin remarked how fast the time had gone, and recognized the future is filled with many more graduations.
The energy and excitement seemed to have spread to the auditorium where excited family members and friends filled the seats, waving to those they knew across the room, or stopping to say a few words to others.
Then the lights dimmed, revealing two lines of flickering candlelight making its way along both sides of the room, stretching the length of the aisle before stopping. As the band struck up the familiar notes of "Pomp and Circumstance," the 118 graduates made their way to the stage.
The 61st annual commencement ceremony had begun, which state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, described during a speech as one of many milestones to come. After congratulating the graduates, she took a moment to recognize the teachers and family members who had a hand in helping them reach this day. She turned to the graduates and asked them to join her in thanking them.
"Your family members were your first teachers, standing beside you as you learned to walk, to talk, to read, holding your hand, guiding you, encouraging you, pushing you to do your best," Tkaczyk said. "We watched you grow and now we are watching you walk out these doors one final time."
However, before they left, Tkaczyk advised them that if they follow their dreams and love what they do, they will go far.
"When I decided to run for state senate, many of my close friends and family members thought I was crazy. No one thought I could do it. People laughed at me," She said. "It was what they thought. It wasn't what I thought."
She also told them not to be afraid of failing, because it would help them grow; never give up, because persistence is key to accomplishing goals; and be kind others.
"You have opportunities that many of your grandparents and great-grandparents can only dream of. Use them wisely," Tkaczyk concluded. "Go out and change the world because you can and I believe you will."
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, also offered advice, but first reflected on their educational journey, which not only provided them with knowledge, but the tools to find an identity.
"You now know yourselves, graduates of 2014, more than you did when you boarded that bus as a 4-year-old," Tonko said. "You know your strengths, abilities, desires, skills, passions. Take those ingredients that are unique to you and make them work."
Tonko said it was important to not only use those ingredients but to do so while making a difference on the world.
"There is a lot of unfinished business out there. There is injustice to turn around, challenges to conquer, mountains to climb. Go out and do it with gusto. Go and conquer the world," Tonko urged. "It's all about you, class of 2014. Go out there and do. Let them know who you are."
Before receiving this advice, however, the graduates heard from their peers, beginning with valedictorian Monica Derby, who delivered a speech called "Learning." Derby explained that she had planned to write about what she had learned as a student at F-FCS but instead she could only think of memories. Memories that included hitting her first softball, riding her first bike, changing a nephew's diaper, and more.
"It compelled me to take a step back in order to really look at the big picture," Derby said. "Just because our high school education is coming to an end, it doesn't mean we're finished learning; we have only just begun."
She told her peers that everyone has something to teach, but they would have to be patient enough to listen. Rather than try to achieve as much as they can as fast they can, she told them to step on the brake.
"I challenge everyone in this auditorium today to be a sponge, allow yourself to learn a lesson or discover something new as often as possible," Derby said. "Let your chores and mundane tasks wait until tomorrow. Instead, revel in the gift of today, of those around you. And don't forget that everyone else is learning from you as well. What do you want to teach the world?"
Salutatorian Jeananna Warner was next with her speech, called "Reflections," in which she looked back on the past 13 years, starting when she boarded the bus for her first day of school as a 5-year-old, feeling nervous.
"Ironically, what first seemed scary quickly turned out to be the beginning of a fun and exciting journey," she said, reflecting on the class trips, school plays, and athletic events that would ensue.
Warner said time has flown and now many are wondering how their lives are going to turn out and what their next steps will be.
"The future is no longer a distant reality. It begins here. It begins today," she said. "We first entered this building as small children. But today, we're leaving as adults. I encourage you to embrace the opportunity before you. Take what you have learned over the past 13 years and put it to good use."
Gianna Mancini, who was the third top student, added that it is important to never give up. In her speech, "Words of Wisdom," Mancini spoke about famous authors, entrepreneurs, athletes and inventors, who, before achieving success, had many failures.
"The greatest artists aren't preoccupied with what the critics say. They enjoy the journey, despite the obstacles, because they are doing something that has meaning in their lives," Mancini said. "If we can learn to never give up and dare to fail, there is nothing outside of our reach. Only we can limit our possibilities."
In a speech titled, "The Rest is Unwritten," Carly Littlejohn told her peers that while they can't control what happens in life, they do have choices that can affect the outcome.
Littlejohn said over the years, they taught by by teachers and guided by friends and family, but the future lies in their own hands.
"As we walk out of these auditorium doors for the final time as graduates and into the next phase of our lives, we choose our own path and direction," she said. "We have the pen to write the next chapter in our lives. The rest is unwritten, so make it unforgettable."
The list of speeches concluded with Superintendent Raymond Colucciello, whose parting words were touched with humor, and had the audience in a fit of laughter. It started when he made fun of his age, telling the students that his advice was old-school. But he said he would not talk about "traveling to school for miles in both directions, in snow 12-feet deep with my friend Abe Lincoln."
However, before bestowing his words of advice, Colucciello revealed a secret that graduates seemed to be hiding.
"I know that some of you are anxious to get to that river spot I have heard all about," he said, which drew laughter and "uh-ohs" from the crowd. "So I am going to make very few remarks, because I already know where it is, guys."
Once the laughter died down, Colucciello passed on to them four values that they need to remember in order to succeed: hard work, believing in themselves, honesty and integrity, and giving to others.
He said these are values that they have been following for years and it was why F-FCS has consistently ranked among the top 25 percent of the 85 school districts in the region. It is also the reason why the district has been able to award more than $100,000 in scholarships, he said.
"Oh, I forgot one more," Colucciello said before pausing. "Always wear clean underwear. I know you knew that, but keep that one."
The audience burst into laughter and applause. The scholarship presentations were next and then it was time for the graduates to receive their long-awaited diplomas. After that, it was time to exit the auditorium and enter the next chapter.