A Salute to the Graduates: Future Starts Today for Leaders of Tomorrow

Members of the Class of 2019 celebrate their final moments as students at Pierson High School with the traditional tossing of their mortarboards on Pierson Hill. Michael Heller photos

Salutatorian Emily Hallock opened commencement on Saturday with words meant to inspire and advise as the members of Pierson High School’s Class of 2019 readied to embark on the next chapter of their lives.

Hallock reminded students that “the most important thing is to have passion,” and told them to stay true to themselves.

“We are tasked to be the leaders of tomorrow, but our impacts start today,” she said. She advised students to think twice about their language and behavior, reminding them that in the age of social media, nothing is forgotten.

“Be careful what you say and do, and strive to be a good example to those around you,” she said, adding that she had “no doubt” she was “standing among future politicians, performers and business people, many of whom will be in the public’s eye.”

Braving the sweltering heat, Pierson High School seniors, in their last act as students in of the Sag Harbor School District, donned black and scarlet robes and paraded down the school’s lawn to begin their commencement ceremony. As they proceeded down the aisle to take their seats, they proudly greeted friends and family while the community band played Pomp and Circumstance. To avoid the sun’s unforgiving glare, some guests pulled chairs out of the rows and dragged them underneath trees, forming a semicircle around the rest of the crowd and watching from a distance. Others fanned themselves with programs or held an umbrella for shade.

Class valedictorian Hannah Tuma during the Pierson High School graduation ceremony on Saturday.

Hannah Tuma, the class valedictorian, who followed Hallock’s speech, revealed to the crowd that she had Googled ‘how to write a graduation speech’ but the results advised her to choose a single theme, which she said she disagreed with.

“Neither our time in high school, nor our potential for the future can be defined by only one theme,” she said.

Tuma transferred to Pierson in 10th grade. She remembered being intimidated by the homecoming competitions, where there seemed to be “no option but to win.” She defined the class as “risk-takers” not only in the classroom, but “on the field, court, the stage and wherever else you choose to show your talents.” She reminded them to continue taking risks in the future.

Tuma reflected back on some of the experiences the class shared, including camping out on Pierson Hill before the last day of school, risking racoons to hang hotdogs from the trees for their class prank and discovering their shared love of “The Office” while creating their homecoming skit.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to be your valedictorian,” she said. “Class of 2019, I can’t wait to see where our futures take us, and I wish you all the best of luck.”

Guest speaker Carl Bernstein gives the commencement address during the Pierson High School graduation ceremony on Saturday.

As commencement speaker, renowned investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, a resident of North Haven, told the graduates that they weren’t just receiving a diploma, but also “the freedom and liberation that go with it to pursue your own goals and objectives and destiny.”

Bernstein talked about his own high school experience, where he was “considered somewhat of a troublemaker,” skipped class and was failing gym.

“Your life isn’t going to be determined by whether or not you’re the top or bottom of this class,” he told them. Instead, he told students to persist and make the most of the opportunities they’re given, he said.

His generation, remembered Bernstein, created the “greatest meritocracy in the history of the world,” demanded “civil rights for almost all our people” and raised the average standard of living.

But he quickly added that his generation had “forgotten about the common good,” especially regarding economic equality, sharing resources and maintaining clear air and clean water. It is up to this generation to change that, he explained.

“We blew it, in part through our selfishness,” he said. “As a result, your generation has a much more difficult path.”

He told them not to fear rebelliousness, but to embrace it, adding that they should “cause trouble if you think it’s the right kind of trouble: courageous trouble, adventurous trouble.” He reminded the students to “be informed,” and to seek out “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Leyla Dorph-Lowrie leads her classmates up Pierson Hill.

Diplomas were received and after being formally presented a final time as the Class of 2019 by Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols, as is tradition, students sang the alma mater, charged up Pierson Hill and threw their hats in the air.

“It was a nice event and the kids seemed to enjoy it,” Principal Nichols said afterward. “We survived the weather, which I was worried about all day.”

Bernstein stuck around to meet students, take pictures with them and congratulate them on their achievement.

Andrea Schiavoni was there to support her daughter Anna Francesca Schiavoni, who’s headed to George Washington University in the fall for theater. The proud mother thought the graduation “went really beautifully,” and described Bernstein’s speech as “perfect.”

“It was spot-on,” she said. “It was realistic.” She said the graduates are ready to leave Sag Harbor, but Bernstein gave them “kernels to appreciate about their home.”

As the students began filtering out to go celebrate with their families, Tuma said she was happy with how her speech went, although she admitted to being nervousness at the start. She said it “feels amazing” to graduate high school, although she thinks it’ll take a few days to sink in.

Graduates Phoebe Arkinson and Gabrielle Morris both described the feeling as “bittersweet.”

“We’re moving on to new chapters of our life, but hopefully we stay in contact as much as possible,” Arkinson said.  “It’s just amazing to be done.”

Kristin Pettigrew gets a big hug and kiss from Stephen Hesler following the Pierson High School graduation ceremony.