Below are the speeches from Haddam Killingworth High School graduation, which was held on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 behind the school on the track, under sunny skies. Seniors sat in the stands, while families stayed in small groups on the football field.
Morgan Yazmer sang, “The Star Spangled Banner,” and then the Leadership Team welcomed everyone with the following:
Welcome and Freshman: Matthew Jennings
“Welcome and good afternoon. We would like to first extend our deepest thanks to Dr. Hageman, Ms. Hayward, Mrs. Flint, Mr. Apicella, faculty, dignitaries, and all of our friends and family for joining us this special afternoon. We offer a warm welcome to First Selectwoman Catherine Iino, members of the Board of Education, and Board Chairperson Suzanne Sack here on stage. On behalf of the Haddam-Killingworth High School Class of 2021 and the Class of 2021 Officers and Advisors, welcome to this year’s commencement ceremony.
“We know that this past year has been far from normal. But we feel it would be an injustice to dwell too heavily on the many new experiences we confronted in just one year, from Google-meeting to class to reimagining our athletics, without giving due time to the new experiences we faced throughout our entire tenure as high school students. So, please join us, and maybe even sing along, as we glance back at our four years of high school.
“Freshman year, we were all in our feelings. Maybe this is because we were beginning a new chapter in our lives, and that was scary; or maybe, it’s because Drake told us to be. The first year of high school is defined most memorably by the friends that we made. Drake perhaps put it best when that year he sang, ‘Kiki, do you love me? Say you’ll never ever leave from beside me.’ It’s a sentiment we all shared with our friends, some new after the transition to high school and some old, spanning well into the middle school we left behind. But new friends we did make, because it was impossible not to. Maybe you met someone while fighting over a lunch table the first days of school; maybe it was by the dunk tank at Street Fest when you met your special person; or maybe still, it was in the dark, sweaty mass of dancing bodies, formally known as Homecoming, when you knew you’d have a bestie for life. No matter your story, it was not lost on any of us that the road ahead would be bumpy. After all, this was written in the stars of 2018: Serena lost the U.S. Open; Cardi B threw her shoe at Nicki Minaj. But together, as classmates and as friends, we found ourselves ready to take on the next challenges of high school as a united front.”
Sophomore: Kaleigh Rakowski
“In the words of lil nas X, ‘can’t nobody tell me nothing’ sums up all of us as sophomores- thinking we have authority over the entire school because we are no longer freshman. Although at this stage we have endured half of high-school, we still had a long journey ahead. We were oblivious of the challenges to come the following year and spent most of our time supporting the cougar den at various functions. Thanks to Deibert and Kohs who created an HK Instagram account, that helped to bring back school spirit at HK. It would be hard to miss the kids who started driving by the lanyards hanging out of the boys pockets or the Vera Bradley wristlets every single girl had. We shared memories and lots of laughs from the memes about the PSAT we all took for the first time, mainly because we didn’t have to worry about the SAT yet. However, sooner rather than later, that time came. Now here we are, all grown and receiving diplomas, we are ready to head down the old town road as HK alumni.”
Junior: Ethan Chester
“The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ broke on the music scene in 2019 and was instantly a hit. Except when the song said, ‘I’m blinded by the lights’ I don’t think he was talking about the struggles we would encounter in the near future. We started with EEE… where we would borderline bathe in bug spray before walking out to our cars at 6 o’clock. Friday night lights turned to Saturday mornings, and after the first freeze finally came along, left us all thinking it would only be up from there. We were in for a treat. We realized the SAT was in a couple months, and college and life after high school was not much of a distant thought anymore. But life was great. We were driving, junior prom was around the corner, winter sports came to a close and we started prepping for the spring…*pause and be disappointed*… you can finish the narrative.”
Senior: Lizzy Celano
“No words can resemble the past year that we endeavored. A constant throughout this year of confusion has been the different means that we’ve learned to express ourselves. Surpassing most, we have turned to music – both listening and creating. From top songs ‘In My Feelings,’ to ‘Old Town Road’ to ‘Blinding Lights,’ we’ve ended our senior year paralleling the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s 2021 hit song, ‘Rain on Me.’ Gaga expresses herself through the lyrics, ‘I never asked for the rainfall, at least I showed up. It’s coming down on me, I’m ready, rain on me.’ Each and everyone one of us have experienced both physical and mental rain – and even snow during Halloween, but it’s made us closer as a class in bonds that can never be broken. From bringing home several Shoreline and state championships to us all wearing black on the last day of our spirit week; We are united. Although our whole year has been centered on coming together, the last few months of our senior year have been defined by goodbyes. Saying goodbye to your childhood friends, goodbye to your favorite teachers, goodbye to your favorite classes. Today is your final goodbye, and as the day you leave comes closer, we can’t count the days, but make our days count.”
Future: Malin Nystrom
“In the words of Hannah Montana ‘I always knew this day would come.’…A decade after Miley’s graduation, we are here today, standing in the same shoes. Through all the memories we have together, going crazy at homecoming to mo bamba, watching the solar eclipse through holes in boxes, seeing random people renegading for three months straight, we have been waiting for this day. To be honest, we carried this school. Like Hannah said, ‘Yesterday’s gone, we’ve gotta keep moving on.’ Tomorrow, for the first time in our lives, we are going to look back at Graduation, look back at High School, and look back at our childhood. We’ll always remember our time at HK, looking back. But today is a day to look forward. Shoutout to the barbz in the audience, shoutout to the girl bosses, shoutout to cohort b, shoutout to the entire senior class. To all of the future nurses, teachers, artists, physical therapists, engineers, businessmen, women, and people, rappers, and don’t forget the zoologist: good luck.”
Then Salutatorian Julian Spector, spoke:
“Dr. Hageman, Ms. Hayward, Teachers, Parents, Families, and Fellow Graduates of the Class of 2021, Good Afternoon. Take a moment to pause and look around you right now. Look at all of the people! We’ve come a long way since last year’s graduation and I’m so grateful that we are able to be here together today. It’s an honor to be up here. I want to thank my Mom and Dad, my grandparents, and my siblings, Jonah, Quinn, and Ella, for their ongoing support. Even though sometimes I’m too busy or stressed to show you, I want you to know how much it means to me. Thank you for teaching me to see the good in others and that kindness and compassion are the most important things. I want to thank my friends. You guys have taken this roller coaster of four years with me and I hope I was as good to you as you were to me. I especially want to thank Cal, who has been my friend since kindergarten. Whether it was almost destroying my bike in that pothole or sitting by the fire-pit in the middle of winter, we’ve been through a lot together. Thanks for always being there for me.
“Today I want to talk about happiness. We strive for a lot of things in life because we believe they will make us happy. Human nature often leads us to search for perfection, achievement, dominance, power, victory, position, the list goes on. We, as a collective, always seem to want something. And I know that many of you are expecting this speech to be about that drive and how I have realized that drive is the ticket to some utopia that we all seem to picture when we hear the word “success.” But, what I really want to say is that, sometimes that drive causes us to put so much pressure on ourselves that we begin to tear ourselves down, to tear each other down, and to bring the opposite of happiness into our world.
“This has been a difficult year for all of us. For me, it brought some things into perspective. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with ADD and an auditory processing disorder. That basically means it takes me twice as long as other people to finish my work. I have always struggled to keep up with the workload in my classes, but this year I felt like I was drowning – like I was bailing water out of a boat with too many holes in both the boat and the bucket. And I realized that I was not happy. So, I started writing music again and playing the guitar more. And that made me happy. I reconnected to music, friends, family, art, which boosted my spirits and helped me see that my struggle for success had missed the point. What I needed, I already had. If we stop sifting for happiness like it’s gold, we can begin to see that it’s all around us.
“Why are so many of us unhappy if we are all looking for the same thing? We often get lost on the way to happiness and find ourselves clinging to control or perceived superiority. Poor substitutes, I think we can all agree. The truth is that achievement-based happiness is hollow and addictive, but sometimes people abuse it because they are scared it is the best they can get. We often lose sight of what truly brings us happiness and end up looking for it in dark places. We hope that just this once, we’ll find it tangibly and hold onto it for dear life. We all need something to hold onto. But the sooner we learn to let go of the fragments and memories we find in the dark, the sooner we can begin to hold on to one another and find a light that will lead us out of the darkness.
“I try to see it like this. Everyone has a candle. The flame is life. The flame is happiness. But sometimes we go around blowing out other people’s flames because deep down we are afraid of being the only ones in the dark. We are afraid of feeling empty, or less-than, or ugly, or insignificant. We are afraid of being alone. So we tear others down on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, immigration status, lack of education, height, athleticism, popularity. Anything we possibly can, in order to feel some false sense of control. Maybe even prove to ourselves that we are not the only ones in pain. At some point we have to ask ourselves what this accomplishes. It costs us absolutely nothing to share our flame. We will never run out. The more we give away, the more there is in this world.
“Some of you know that my younger brother and sister are South Korean – our family adopted them when they were toddlers. Their flames burn so bright – they bring so much joy and love to our family and to everyone they meet. When he was 7 years old, my brother was told by a classmate to ‘go back to Korea.’ Why? That second-grader didn’t really even know what he was saying. But he had heard it. He had learned it. We need to do better. We need to set a better example for the kids coming up behind us. We are adults now. Soon what we say will be repeated by our own children. Why would we choose to teach them to hate? What could possibly come of that? People are listening now, let’s give them something real to think about.”
Then Valedictorian, Max Cozean, spoke:
“Before I begin, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude for the teachers and staff here at Haddam-Killingworth, coaches of the cross-country and track and field programs, my peers, friends, and most of all my family. Without all of you in my life, I would not be the person standing before you today. So, truly, thank you.
“If you had asked me four years ago where I would be attending high school, Haddam-Killingworth would not have been my answer. For quite some time, my sights were set to go elsewhere, and honestly, I rarely considered the opportunity of beginning a future here. That was, until roughly the last week of eighth grade, that Haddam-Killingworth finally factored into my high school equation, and soon became my solution. At the end of the day, I had no reason to prematurely leave a community that had treated me so well. Ask me to reflect upon that decision today, and I’ll tell you with certainty that I have never made one any greater thus far.
“With my left elbow cocked and my wrist perpendicular to the rest of my arm, I wrote my way from kindergarten until the tenth grade. As time progressed, and my wrist further contorted, my once bubbly letters grew rigid, while gaps between words compressed to slivers of paper. If you happened to look closely, however, perhaps by holding the paper just inches from the eyes, you would have seen that not only did I dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ but I wrote in a meticulous and uniform italic. On paper, nothing was out of place.
“You see, the process of learning that as a kindergartener once fostered a sense of wonder had depreciated into a fanaticism of its most superficial component: the letter ‘A.’ Like paper I was bound to the page, bound to the grade, with my temperament just as stiff as my wrist and my mind just as robotic as the words that I wrote. My existence revolved around everything from polynomial functions to atomic theory, for all I wanted was to earn that letter ‘A.’ So, I played the game, I played it well. It consumed me, but did it define me? Did it give me direction?
“Though my left pinky still callouses from grazing paper, I no longer press so deeply into the page nor grip the pencil with an iron fist. In prying my head out of textbooks, I relearned to love learning, and rewrote a new me. I recognized that my self-worth extends far beyond the shallow letters of a transcript and that my integrity is not confined to the bounds of paper, the bounds of a grade. Sitting at the dinner table proved to be more of a learning experience than polynomial functions after all. I tossed my notecards aside, and picked up conversations instead.
“If I’d gone anywhere else, I cannot help but think that I would have reached this lesson too late, been outplayed so early by a system that teaches us to value letters over learning, to prioritize our grades over our goals. Haddam-Killingworth has opened my eyes to an academic arena in which we can be the engineers of our own education, and for that gift, I am grateful to have stayed. Still, Class of 2021, I fear that the culture of today has warped our minds into viewing learning as merely a prerequisite, rather than the prize that it truly is. I fear that our potential will be wasted because we are forced to produce without reason, to exploit ourselves and our education without knowing why.
“At this moment, some of us may know exactly our purpose, and many others, like myself, may have little clue at all. But I speak to everyone, in saying that we will never be able to alter our world for the better if we enter it equally tired and uninspired. I stand here having played the game well, having dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t,’ for that was the expectation, yet I still do not know what path I want to follow, what reason to give my life to. I wish that you all shoot for the ‘A,’ though never forget that without a purpose, you are depleting yourself in the pursuit of nothing, competing in a race that leads to nowhere. Allow passion to guide your learning and free-handedly write your story as today, we turn a new page. Leave Haddam-Killingworth ignited with curiosity, and allow that flame to illuminate your path ahead. Our world needs us now more than ever. Let’s not burn ourselves out before we can fix it. Thank you.”
Next, the Graduation Choir sang “I Lived.”
Then, Principal, Donna Hayward, addressed the class:
“Hello, seniors – and hallelujah, we made it! Well, that was a rough ride. While no year is exactly as we imagined it would be, your senior year has been one for the record books. While Covid provided quite enough challenge for any year, we quickly saw added to the mix contentious political waves, personal losses in our community, and flaring societal issues. There has been lots of struggle for this class. But today, we celebrate you, your arrival to this milestone (despite the struggle), and we close an extremely busy year. I think we could all use a break.
“I, for one, will be getting on a plane. I am outta here – headed to some tropical island to forget, to rest, and recharge. Which is great except, of course, I have to fly and I am a nervous flier. It’s all about the turbulence – which completely stresses me out and usually finds me bargaining with God somewhere around 30,000 feet. But I want to go places, so if I’m committed to the destination, I have to get on the plane. Several smart friends and even a pilot or two patiently explain to me the physics of air chop and flight and remind me that turbulence is actually no big deal. In the wide open sky, you can’t see turbulence coming. But you can predict it, rely on it even. So you just have to be ready. And although the bumps may lead to a spilled complimentary beverage, frazzled nerves and tired airline attendants, turbulence doesn’t usually take planes out of the sky. To get through the flight, I compare the bumps in the air with the bumps in life and focus on the fact that planes are built to withstand the rough ride, with sturdy wings that are designed to be flexible. Having much more life experience than flight hours, I reflect that humans are much the same way.
“This year, we have all had to have strong and flexible wings. Teachers have changed the way they teach; you have changed the way you learn, celebrate, even how you experience rites of passage. Air chop on our flight this year included a very different schedule and learning arrangements which changed regularly. We were hybrid, we were full-in. We ate outside. We learned how to contact trace even at a late hour on the weekend, how to tolerate masks on our faces most hours of the day. We also learned how to win the most Shoreline championships in school history, even while wearing those masks. We danced outside under the stars instead of in a banquet hall for prom, and live-streamed concerts and the musical to stay connected to the community and our own personal fan clubs. We mastered how to keep physical distance from people we love because we love them. Our wings have flexed. We are all built, as it turns out, to withstand turbulence. That doesn’t mean we didn’t feel every bump. We all were exhausted, mentally, and physically, and were desperate for things to return to normal. But all things considered, there is no faculty or student body I would rather have been with on this crazy flight than you.
“In addition to strong and flexible wings, however, I would like you to consider that the key to getting through turbulent times is captured in the concept of the power of one — meaning that there are a few critical things that, if you have them, make all the difference in your travels. In the air that power of one is most likely one skilled pilot. But carried to a broader, analogous context, we often rely on the power of one to calm and navigate tough times. Perhaps it’s one person, one God, or one ideal. Throughout human history the greatest changes – for better or worse — have so often been brought about by the actions or influence of a single person. Think: Albert Einstein; Mother Theresa; John Wilkes Booth; Rosa Parks. Closer to home, the power of one may be found in one parent, one team, one teacher, one classmate, one friend. Consider for a moment how single individuals have already profoundly and irreversibly impacted your life, and changed the very trajectory of your life path.
“A single white rose, and a tassel rests where one of our own was supposed to be this afternoon. Jenna touched so many lives, leaving her own ripple effect and as we had to let go of our friend and student too soon, I know many of us felt her power of one. When our school felt loss, I considered the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an expert on grief who wrote ‘People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.’ There is a light in each one of you and in each one of us, so there is light inside our school. I saw your light many, many times over these last four years as you have woven your way to this day. I personally believe this light is ignited the day you are born and grows in luminosity depending on what you feed it: your thoughts, your passion, your intentions, your acts. Among you is at least one person (in reality, often multiple) who makes me laugh every single time I see him, one record breaker who overcame ridiculous odds to prevail, one committed activist, one gifted peacemaker, one soul-stirring musician, one concerned friend who came to me to the get the conversation started school-wide about mental illness. There is so much light in this class. With that, I remind you that this day is a gift. Don’t waste it.
“And speaking of gifts, I return to the list of things that – if you have them – will ensure that you get where you’re going. I wish these three things for each of you in your life. Although more is great, just one of each is enough. That’s how powerful they are. I wish you…
“One friend: May you have at least one friend in this life who is with you no matter what. Who takes your side always and unconditionally, but who will also tell you when you’re wrong and help you adjust. One friend who you can completely relax with, laugh with, cry with, who will do whatever it takes to right the wrongs in your life. Who would put themself in harm’s way to defend you, and for whom you would do the same. I hope each of you finds a friend like that.
“One team: By this, I mean one group that you belong to, for which your contributions and presence really matter, really further the cause. I can’t help thinking of my faculty whose one collective goal is to help raise good humans who have a strong foundation of knowledge and skills with which to set out and save the world. A couple of weeks ago on a particularly beautiful spring day, I had the pleasure of catching a Cougar baseball game. What a perfect example of the power of one team. I watched as the boys watched their coach carefully for his signal, as each took their place at bat or in the field, and I noticed that no matter how well or not each had performed at any given moment in the game, each one was quick to cheer the others on. The hilarious and continuous jabber from the Cougar dugout in what can only be described as a purely adolescent male form of support is a force to be reckoned with. The Cougars won, as they often do – as another in Coach Brookes’ 700 wins. And after the game, I watched in wonder as the team looked more like family than not. Each boy jumping up to care for the field, raking the lanes, and evening out the playing surface. I watched as Coach quietly talked to his team about their game, and as Raye Brookes brought out her signature baked goods to distribute to the team and then to the umpires as she shared her helpful guidance on their missed calls of the game. The boys whistled while they worked — actually whistled! Each was content. And I understood in that moment, why this team wins. Winning coach, winning team. Strong family.
“And last, but certainly not least, I wish for you
“One thing greater than yourself: perhaps an ideal, a life purpose, a divine energy. You need this so as not to get thrown off course when you hit life’s bumps. So that you believe in brighter days when you’re living your darkest ones. So that you can find your way home when all seems lost. This has been critical to me when I have faced challenge in my life which is a bit longer than yours as I turned 29 again on Sunday. I leave you with a few truths I know for certain which are all about building and protecting one strong community:
- Stop blaming others when stuff goes wrong – because stuff will.
- The world owes you nothing – you are going to have to make your own way.
- Cancel culture isn’t it. As humans, if we each got canceled, discarded, discounted and scorned whenever we make a mistake, we’d all be canceled in the space of a week. Communities don’t work like that.
- Own your stuff. Take your place. Apologize if you screw up.
- Tell the truth. Always. Even if it doesn’t serve you or further your agenda. In this way, you keep your light strong and help illuminate the path for yourself and others as you travel through this world.
“So as you head off to 68 different colleges in 22 states, one of you to the military (thank you and be safe) and 17 to the world of work, know that we send you off with every good wish. Don’t be thrown off course or particularly troubled by turbulence. It will happen. Trust your power of one, shine your light and remember that your wings were designed to handle this flight.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to be your principal. Thank you for all you have taught me. Godspeed.”
Then Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Holly Hageman, spoke:
“It is now my turn to congratulate and recognize the Class of 2021.
“With a worldwide pandemic affecting both your Junior and Senior years, we could choose to think about what a long, strange trip it’s been. And there are two main reasons why it would be a mistake to focus upon the challenges that COVID-19 presented during the past eighteen months. Instead I want to highlight the breadth of your experiences, K-12, as so many of our graduates have lived in this community and attended elementary and middle school here before proceeded to HKHS. You have become skillful readers of information, effective communicators, both as writers and speakers and through the sophistication you have developed through the years in the school system and with the support and guidance of your loving family, have developed perspectives, opinions and voice. You have been able to actively influence the quality of your personal experiences and pathways while in school and that of your classmates and the school overall. You have made a difference by being a member of this school-community. You have invested yourself in clubs and service organizations, the arts, music and athletics, honing your talents and contributing to something larger than yourself. In addition, you have explored studies in science and mathematics and are leaving high school prepared to learn more and gain deeper training in the college, career or vocational path of your choosing. I want to recognize your hard work, over many years, your partnership with your teachers (the best!!), and the support your parents and loved ones have provided. I hope your journey has been joyful and rewarding while preparing you for your next venture.
“What the COVID experience highlighted is how truly capable you are. How you are able to rely on your work habits, your self-advocacy, your technological collaboration skills in order to achieve your learning goals. You were able to pivot and persevere. I do believe this experience will serve you well as you head off to college or into the workforce. You will be adaptable while focused, while being a contributing teammate. This experience may have accelerated the need to have these skills in place, you are stronger for it.
“So as you leave HK, work hard, get even smarter, and do good things. Each of you matters and will make a difference in whatever you do. We are proud of you; we celebrate you and we wish you nothing but wide open spaces to be your best self.
“Congratulations and best wishes to you all.”
The diplomas were handed out by Chairman of the Board of Education, Suzanne Sack.
Photo by Sharon DiMauro.