New Canaan High Principal Tony Pavia's Commencement Speech
Published 10:36 am, Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Dear parents, colleagues, families, friends, distinguished guests and most importantly, the Class of 2011:
First, let me tell you what an honor it is to be chosen to speak to you today.
I begin tonight in the same manner I have for the past eight years, by bidding farewell to some very special graduates who are also with us tonight -- five outstanding people who have given most of their adult life to New Canaan High. In fact by my calculations, they have given over one and a quarter century to the art of working with young people.
Charlie Otto, when you served your country in the U.S. Navy you were an officer and a gentleman, now, you have been a teacher, a friend and a mentor to your students, a kind and gentle presence not only to the young people in your charge but also to your colleagues.
Hannah Shear, no one has epitomized the term quiet excellence more than you. You have gone about your work with little fanfare or pretense. As a founder of the research program, have given your students the gift of intellectual curiosity, and a relentless search for answers to scientific challenges.
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Barbara Wright, your entire being has centered around helping students to overcome challenges, to become self advocates, to prepare for the world after high school and most importantly, to believe in themselves. Your enormous heart and empathy for others have been your defining quality.
Peter Kingsbury, as a quiet and sensitive artist you have helped countless students to find their voice in art and film. In the final analysis, your career will be judged not only by the many students of yours who have gone on to fame and fortune, but also by the countless students who found true acceptance and a home in your classroom.
And finally, if you put together Aristotle, PT Barnum, the Mad Hatter and Lawrence Welk you would get Attila Levai. No one has represented the love, the spirit and the vitality of this school more than Attila Levai. Whether it is organizing homecoming, Senior Service Day, or a faculty get together or the bonfire, Attila has carried the torch -- no pun intended, of tradition for NCHS. He has been the glue, the constant the link between the past and the future. A seasoned veteran with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager.
I'd also like to recognize my friend and colleague Dawn Bartz who will also be graduating tonight and moving on to a principalship in Pleasantville, N.Y. Dawn, the class of 2011 has been your class as much as anybody's. For the last four years you have been parent, friend, enforcer and mentor to this exemplary class and you should be very proud to graduate with them tonight.
Please join me in showing our appreciation to all of these outstanding educators.
First, let me tell you how honored and humbled I am to have been selected as the commencement speaker. I struggled mightily with what I might say tonight and faced quite a dilemma.
Each year as the principal, I speak about the graduating class. But as the commencement speaker my job is to offer words of wisdom, an inspiring theme or a message that will elevate you to a higher calling.
Accomplishing both is a tall order but I will give it my best. I'd like to start by talking about something that is close to my heart.
Over a five year period a few decades ago, I interviewed and collected the stories of WWII veterans. Each night I'd go into people's homes with my notebook and tape recorder, and sit motionless as I heard the personal stories of extraordinary Americans. As a history teacher for so many years, I had taught about history but now I was listening to the voices of the people who made history -- the same people who fought to preserve the very system we live in today, the same people who were thrust into an epic battle with the future of civilization hanging in the balance.
Since that time, people have often asked what I learned from this five-year journey and my answer is very simple. These were common, humble Americans. They came from places like Brooklyn, Dubuque, Memphis, Stamford and New Canaan. They came from every race, creed, color and economic class. They were resilient young men and women who came from modest backgrounds and who had survived one of the greatest economic disasters in history, the Great Depression. They were also, prior to the Second World War, considered a "wild, undisciplined and carefree generation." Raised in a society that emphasized individual rights, it was believed that they lacked the fortitude to defeat highly disciplined, well-trained soldiers who were raised in totalitarian regimes.
Yet, this group, when faced with a monumental crisis, rose to the challenge. At this moment of history, these ordinary Americans became extraordinary. The average rose to greatness. This diverse, undisciplined group of common citizens came together to build modern America and give us the life and the freedom we enjoy today. And because of this, we refer to them today as the Greatest Generation.
So what did I learn? I learned that history is made, not by captains and kings, but by common ordinary individuals who rise to the challenge of their times. I also learned what Edmund Allenby said a century ago -- that "every generation produces the heroes that it requires." And that when called upon, they will meet the challenge.
And that brings us to you -- the Class of 2011. Your generation, too, has been judged by social critics. You have been characterized in many of the same ways as your grandparents and great grandparents. But having worked with you these past four years, I do not have a single fear as to your place in history.
Time and time again, you, the Class of 2011, have demonstrated the power of the ordinary individual to be extraordinary. You have demonstrated the power of one person to elevate others in their midst. You have shown us the strength of one individual and then another and then another to come together and change their environment. You have demonstrated that respect, love, civility and consideration for others trumps pettiness, incivility and meanness every single time. You have shown that leadership need not come in the form of loud, grand or dramatic gestures. That leadership can come in the form of persistent civility, single acts of kindness or courage in standing up for others.
You have also shown that the only real number that defines you is the number of lives you've touched; that the only volume that matters is the size of your heart; that only one final grade counts, and that is the legacy of change that you've given to NCHS; that the only true wealth one can accumulate is the love of family and the closeness of friends.
And so as I close here tonight, I have absolute faith that the Class of 2011 is like that group of young people some 70 years ago. At some point your country will call upon you and you will produce the heroes that your times will require, and while the circumstances might not overtly seem as dire as those that faced the country during that time 70 years ago, they will nonetheless demand great leadership, great character and great courage, attributesbthat you possess and attributes that will energize this nation's pride, its sense of purpose and its role as a moral leader in the world. And you are up to that task.
And finally, if you will indulge me a final and very personal sentiment.
It has been an honor and a privilege working with all of you for the past nine years, and there hasn't been a single moment that I was not proud to be a Ram. Thank you for the greatest of all gifts you have given me, your trust, your friendship and your love.