North Stonington — Fifty-one graduates of the Wheeler High School Class of 2012, the school's 56th graduating class, swept across the sun-dappled grounds of Wheeler Library in maroon and white robes and received their diplomas Friday evening, capping off their four years at the smallest public high school in the state.
The class shared the day with outgoing Superintendent of Schools Natalie J. Pukas, who will retire at the end of the month following 38 years with the district, the last 12 as superintendent.
This class of Wheeler Lions roared as the group from "the tiny school with the tunnel" became "more prepared for their next steps in life than most of the 3.2 million other students graduating from American high schools this spring," class President Trevor Stefanski told family, friends and classmates.
"I haven't been out into that complex and changing world just yet, but I can tell you that I personally feel like I have definitely been properly prepared for a life overflowing with accomplishment and satisfaction," he said.
That accomplishment will come, Board of Education member Darren Robert told the students, but first, he said, "I hope you fail."
Robert told of students getting beaten to the goal by opponents in lacrosse and basketball, and of one student who rode a sled down a pile of sawdust into a puddle. Each failed, Robert said, but learned from their mistake and came back stronger, more determined and improved.
"That is what we look for in education. That is what we look for in life," he said. "Failing is a milestone that will help each of you wherever you go."
The school does not award a valedictorian, but rather, recognizes the top 10 in class rank. Those students, and the more than 25 awards and scholarships handed out Friday night, proved the class has seen its fair share of successes.
The first award presented was to Ashley Iorio, who was given her certificate of appointment to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in the fall. Iorio was nominated by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and was one of 1,200 selected to attend the military academy out of 20,000 applicants.
The class showed its musical prowess as well, with a performance of the Green Day song "Time of Your Life" by the senior ensemble. Class Vice President Connor Yakaitis performed "The River," a song he wrote for graduation and played on the guitar Friday.
The 51 graduates walked across the lawn and received their diplomas along with a single rose before Pukas certified the class as official graduates of Wheeler.
But first, Pukas, who was chosen by the graduates to be the class speaker, shared with them her bittersweet feelings as she officiated her final graduation. Seeing the brimming enthusiasm in the students, though, made it all worth it, she said. She encouraged them to not "sit it out" or settle for anything.
"Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't fulfill your dreams," Pukas said. "We'll all go our separate ways, but the future is bright for all of us."