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Old Saybrook High School Celebrates Commencement with Heart and Laughter

Published June 17, 2019

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The sun shone on the Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Class of 2019—literally. Just before commencement exercises began on June 14, the overcast, chilly weather broke as the seniors began their descent from the bleachers to receive their diplomas—boys in bright blue robes, girls in white—out came the sun.

The proceedings were notable for their joy and levity, beginning with Principal Sheila Riffle’s and Associate Principal Joseph Anastasio’s banter, which was punctuated with shows of emotion.

“Thank you for raising such good-hearted human beings,” Riffle told the parents and guardians of the graduating students. “We love them, and it has been an honor for all of us to be a part of their village.”

The two school administrators embarked on a misty-eyed and witty reminiscence of the year that had just concluded.

“What did they used to call that one Friday towards the beginning of the school year?” asked Anastasio. “Now it’s known as Senior Friday and this class really knew how to do it up.”

“Remember the play money they bought and wrote ‘Rambucks’ on them before handing them out to the 9th graders as a joke, telling them if they took them to the office, they could get special prizes?,” Riffle responded.

“We actually enjoyed giving those kids prizes when they showed up in the office with those Rambucks,” she continued. “We’re going to use that going forward. Thanks for the idea, you change makers.”

Riffle went on to tell the class, “You have consistently demonstrated kindness, perseverance, growth, and reflection and we could not be more proud of the class and young adults that you’ve become.”

“I think for me it is the ability of so many of you to reflect and view situations from others’ perspectives that has made the deepest mark,” she continued. “As one of your very own classmates said in a letter to me—which I will cherish forever, by the way—’The reward from forgiveness is much greater than the pride of wanting to be right.’

“Seriously, if that’s the type of wisdom you are taking with you from little old OSHS, you really are going to go out there and change the world,” she said.

Five Prestigious Scholarships

The two administrators then revealed the recipients of the Harry E. and Florenc G. Malcarne Memorial Scholarship. The award is “for high school seniors who have been accepted into a post-secondary education program based on academic achievement and... demonstrated interest in pursuing a career in nursing or a medical field,” Anastasio explained.

“Each year,” Riffle said, “the recipients are selected by medical professionals, faculty, and administration using a scoring rubric. Each awardee receives a $10,000 scholarship to be paid directly to their post-secondary institution over the course of the first two years of college.

“And, up until this year, we were given the guidelines of selecting two recipients per year. We were recently informed, however, that now that the trust has been settled in probate, we are graciously allowed to give five awards per year.”

The 2019 recipients were announced as Abigail Lafreniere, Tenzin Kunsel, Timothy Jacoboski, Maeve Foley, and Kearney Capuano.

Transcending Hardship

Salutatorian Elaine Yang and Valedictorian Tenzin Kunsel continued the spirit of playful repartee in their remarks, but they also offered words of advice. Following Yang’s focus on the importance of getting enough sleep, Kunsel shared her and her family’s experiences in Tibet and the United States to illustrate that it is possible to transcend even the most arduous of circumstances.

Kunsel’s grandparents fled Tibet for Nepal in 1959 upon the Communist Chinese takeover of their country.

In Nepal, Kunsel said, “it was very hard for many Tibetans to practice their own culture and language. There was no freedom, and more than a million people had been killed as a result.”

Her grandparents “settled in a remote village... worked as farmers and herders, and raised 10 children in hard circumstances,” she said.

Her grandmother was in the audience as Kunsel spoke.

“In the 1990s, my aunt came to America and settled in this town under the U.S.–Tibetan settlement project. Since then, she has been able to bring about 10 other members of my family here.”

When Kunsel moved to Old Saybrook from Nepal in 2015, she experienced culture shock, but she has found that perseverance is the key to overcoming difficulties.

“Back in Tibet, the hardships our fellow Tibetan brothers and sisters continue to face are far more severe,” she said. “They do not enjoy any of the basic human rights, and all together more than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in order to practice their own culture and religious beliefs. These difficulties are beyond the imagination of many people who are fortunate to have these rights.

“I am very lucky to have received such a great opportunity to attend one of the best schools in the country in college next year,” Kunsel continued, referring to Yale University. “I hope to bring changes in the world by following what my religion has taught me.

“As our spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, says, ‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. With them, humanity cannot survive.’”

Class Gift Honors Custodial Staff

John Gabelmann and Kearney Capuano announced the class gift, a bench in the OSHS science wing in honor of Tim Stenz, also known as “The Smoothie King,” who worked in custodial services at night and in the cafeteria during the day.

“Everyone knew Tim,” Capuano said.

“He showed that he really cared about each and every one of the students in OSHS,” said Gabelmann. “He was a man who embodied the character and empathy that the Old Saybrook school system strives to promote. School is not the same without his radiant presence and constant smile.”

Describing the custodial staff as “unsung heroes” and “an incredibly selfless and caring group whose work we do not want to overlook,” the students announced that, thanks to the generosity of the community, the OSHS custodial staff will receive free lunch at Mindy K Deli & Catering every Friday for the 2019–’20 school year.

Advice from a Beloved Science Teacher

Guest speaker OSHS science teacher Karen Carlone began her speech by dashing from the podium to strike “power stances” in front of the bleachers holding the Class of 2019, then returning to the microphone to admit that power posing isn’t really effective. Her speech was poetic, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally scientific.

“There are few times in your life where the end is marked,” she said. “Mostly, the end is unpredictable and often unclear, but you knew today was coming. You have anticipated it.

“I bet there are feelings of happiness and sadness. I bet you feel accomplished, and scared. I bet there is gratitude, relief, disbelief, and hopefully, hopefully you feel ready to go,” she said.

Carlone reminisced about her love for the students, saying her favorites were those who found good in every situation and those who work hard.

“First, you try,” she said about hard work. “It does take courage and strength of self, because you might fail. Failure is the best, though. It gives you a reference point. Use it as the North Star.

“I always say, even if you are wrong, you still learn,” she continued. “It’s the great benefit of trying and failing. Trying and achieving might be more fun, but that does not mean it is more meaningful.

“Some people will tell you to follow your passion to find happiness,” she told the students. “I say bring passion with you. Most times you don’t know what you’re passionate about until it finds you. The best things in life have a way of seeking you out.”

She ended with a few “random” bits of advice.

“Always try free cake. It might not be good, but it’s worth taking that chance.”

“Shake off heartbreak; more good things are coming. And if you are having trouble shaking off the heartbreak, walk in the woods—the earth heals.”

“Listen. Listening negates invisibility. It empowers. It makes the world a better place.”

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