'Fearless' grads leap into future while reflecting on life at Ledyard

Ledyard — Surrounded by family members, friends and faculty, almost 200 excited Ledyard High School seniors on Saturday morning were treated to sunny skies, cool breezes and inspiring words that bridged their years of walking through elementary hallways to a then unknown future as graduates.

For Ledyard Scholar Savannah Houdeshell — one of several top-10 students who spoke before the 191 members of the Class of 2019 tossed their caps into the air over Bill Mignault Field — the commencement marked a milestone when graduates "start making our own decisions," whether heading to college or trade school, working or joining the military, or chilling in "your parents' basement."

The goal, Houdeshell argued, was to not regret those decisions.

"The best way to avoid a deep-seated, painfully vengeful sense of regret later in life is to fearlessly be active participants in our lives," she said. "You won't find the world hiding under your bed."

Principal Amanda Fagan encouraged students to be mindful of the present on the beautiful Saturday, no matter what the future holds. She celebrated the moment with a bit of creativity, abandoning her previous inspirational-speech standbys of Gandhi and Col. William Ledyard to channel her inner Marshall Mathers, the hip hop artist Eminem.

"I communicate, I don't perseverate, I'm here to watch you graduate ... you took the test, and all the rest, now you're out here like the best," Fagan rapped to raucous applause, later joking that she may not have a future career as a rapper, and while she's not positive what anyone's future is, she was "sure that we are all sharing a very blessed present."

The principal added that she had "the heart of a Colonel" that "swells with pride at your victories ... and breaks a bit when you struggle with disappointments and injustices that are an inevitable part of life sometimes. That's one of the beautiful things about growing up or going to school in a relatively small town. Everywhere, there are folks, like me, who know you, who want to see you succeed and who encourage you to get back up when you fall short."

Fagan told students to appreciate this and every period in their lives, and to remember that "nothing will ever be like any one thing forever," whether high points or lows. "No mistake is permanent. No state of mind is unchangeable. No situation is static."

Class President Virginia York said that while students were excited to move on, within six months, a year or five years, "we will miss this."

"No, we may not miss physics class, or getting on a school bus at 7 a.m., but somehow I get the feeling that ... we will miss who we are right now, in this time and at this place, because we will never be this way again," she said, adding that students shouldn't take for granted the wide-ranging changes and technological advances that have come about during their lives.

Senior Bryce Gubbs paid tribute to classmate Zack Salomonson, who was fatally injured while a passenger in a single-vehicle crash in May 2017.

"When it came time to start high school, I chose Ledyard over the tech schools ... partly to continue the Gubbs family name here and partly to stay with my brother-in-arms, Zack," Gubbs said, noting that Salomonson helped him with his grief when his own brother died just weeks before Salomonson's accident. "Zack was ... the kind of person who would stand by you in good times and bad. Many of us still miss his smile, his goofiness, and the genuine way he interacted with people."

In a poem titled "Memories of Yesteryears," class Poet Laureate Payton Grace Edwards explored students' journeys from hopping on an elementary school bus with "small eyes overwhelmed by the imposing gray rows" to "rushing out onto the blacktop" in recess to the high school stress of heavy bookbags, "no break time, no fun day in the sun."

But in high school the students still learned new things, took risks and made new friends, Edwards wrote.

"We leave here with a dazzling kaleidoscope of memories," she wrote. "Fidgeting in your chair, all your nerves ricocheting around. Feeling the time trickle by like honey, waiting for this moment to end. Because you know you have a new journey ahead. Your story does not end here, it continues on in the next chapter. What it holds is unknown, but you can look at the previous chapters and know, no matter how difficult it seemed, no matter how drained you felt, now matter how close you were to surrendering to defeat, you don't. You make it past the tides of the tumultuous seas and swim into the daylight, a victor."

b.kail@theday.com

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