The 100th graduating class of Pierson High School made its way along Pierson Hill under a sweltering sun Saturday afternoon —Â the last trip there the 65 students would make as undergraduates. Among them, said class valedictorian Lucie Wawryk, were future doctors and lawyers, as well as artists and fishermen.
Wawryk and Josephine Thiele, the class salutatorian, and commencement speaker Ryan Horn, struck several similar notes during their speeches on Saturday, including the change and transformation the students sitting in caps and gowns in front of their alma mater were soon to experience.
“Thirteen years ago we were swaying in the elementary school gym singing ‘Side by Side,’” said Thiele referring to the school’s theme song that every Sag Harbor grade-schooler learns by heart. “Now we are grown and shaped into independent, intelligent individuals.”
Thiele spoke of the influence her classmates have had on each other, and, in equal measure “parents, teachers, custodians and the rest of the community.”
Hers was a “genuinely nice class,” she said, noting they had all become friends. Their kindness, she predicted, “will spread across the world,” as her classmates grow and travel.
And quoting Dr. Seuss, she advised them: “You are the one who will decide where you go.”
Wawryk cautioned her fellow graduates to not be too concerned about the definition of success.
“Your path may be marked by materialism; but your idea of success should be personal,” she advised. Many times, she observed, it appears people are forced to decide between two choices, to be wealthy, or simply happy.
“If you want both, you can,” she said, saying that happiness would come from striking a balance.
“You can do well in school, and still have fun,” she said; “You can be financially successful and still be happy.”
“We want our passions at full potential, but need a balance,” said Wawryk; “let’s strive to find that balance.”
Like Thiele, Wawryk said the individual students were now responsible for making their own way.
“Believe that you can find your own path,” she told them. “Believe in your self.”
“Life is only what it means to you; but it is what you make of it.”
Horn began by recalling the old World War II film, “The Great Escape,” where allied prisoners of war wondered what lay beyond the trees outside their prison camp.
As a graduate of the Class of 1998, and using the film as a metaphor, he said “I can tell you what’s just beyond the trees.”
That year, when he started his collegiate career at Cornell University, he had left the tiny school at Pierson to be one of 13,000 on the Cornell campus.
“There were more students in my psychology class than there were in my entire hometown,” he said.
The comforting thing about entering a larger world is that there are “dozens if not hundreds who share your interests and fears.”
Horn said he remembered picking up a copy of “Catcher in the Rye,” when he was still at Pierson, and remembered hearing it was a “dangerous book.”
He was intrigued by the adventures and challenges of protagonist Holden Caulfield, a student himself in the novel.
“But after finishing college I couldn’t believe what a slacker and a bum he was,” laughed Horn.
Returning to Sag Harbor after college he noted the village and the community was changing.
“I knew something had to be done,” he said, and started to listen to groups and associations that had sprung up in the village who were trying to save Sag Harbor.
But, he said, “the advocates were saying something different.”Â
They were talking about what a “diverse” community Sag Harbor was, and how we had access to arts and culture.
“And I noticed that none of them were Pierson graduates,” he said.
He recalled last October’s centennial celebration for the school, and how the village was full of returning alumni, and what a wonderful spirit there was, and he recognized that, like Thiele did earlier, that it was “families, friends, coaches, teachers and volunteers,” that helped form the individual.
He also gave praise to Pierson and its guidance staff. When he graduated in 1998, four other Pierson seniors would also be attending Ivy League schools. That year each was given a small ivy plant from the late Arthur Cleveland, who headed up the school’s guidance department.
Horn produced an ivy plant from behind the dais. It was a clipping, he said, from the original he had received ten years ago. And presenting it to the school’s guidance counselor Linda Aydinian, said, “I can think of no better place for it to live than the guidance office at Pierson.”