As the sun set with a golden glow over Panther Stadium, the future began for 147 graduates of the Montezuma-Cortez High School Class of 2018.
More than 1,000 parents, friends and family members gathered Thursday evening for one of the larger graduating classes in recent memory, which included eight juniors who graduated early. The Class of 2018 was born at the dawn of a millennium and was the last class to attend the old high school.
Local dignitaries including Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek, the Re-1 Board of Education, and Ute Mountain Ute councilwoman Juanita Plentyholes were present for the ceremony. The school choir and band provided upbeat and patriotic music, and the Native American drum group Red Sky performed prayer songs.
“I wish for you a sense of adventure, and an educational pathway to a successful future,” said Re-1 Superintendent Lori Haukeness. “Hold onto your sense of wonder, and keep humor in your life, even when you make mistakes. Go forth and conquer the world.”
Special recognition was given to 17 Honor Roll students, who completed a rigorous academic program, including enrollment in college classes. Resigning and retiring teachers were also bid a friendly farewell.
A diverse crowd packed Panther Stadium and overflowed onto the shaded lawns on both sides of the stands. Everyone seemed dressed up for the occasion and were in a cheery mood in the sunny and breezy weather. Proud moms held balloons and flowers to present to their graduates, while children played at gymnastics on the lawn and chased one another through the crowd.
Popular English teacher Paul Koops gave the commencement speech, full of helpful advice for graduates along with insight from literary giants.
He implored graduates to be kind and forgiving, and remember “that all people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you have had – teachers who taught you well, friends who text you every five minutes and parents who have your back.”
As the Great Gatsby said, “Be careful about judging people,” Koops said.
He encouraged them to pursue big dreams, noting that though they won’t all come true, “only those we dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Have a Plan B, Koops continued, “because life throws curveballs, and those may be the best adventures of your life.”
Education is not necessarily “job training to create robots to do just one thing for the rest of life,” he said. “Education is to teach you how to learn, so you are ready for any opportunity.”
Koops cited John Steinback’s character Slim, in “Of Mice and Men,” who strives to hear more than what is said, as “that is the path to wisdom.”
Of course, be ready for defeat and difficulty too. He referenced author Dave Eggors’ book “The Lifters,” about a dystopia where just few young people remain to save society: “The work ahead will tire us and will frustrate us, and victories will be brief and quickly reversed.”
Koops told graduates that to be truly human, “reach into the abyss, into life’s dirty ugliness, and touch a life, change a life, safe a life.”
The true test of human character is how you deal with those whom you don’t share values or perspectives, Koops said. He urged graduates to be the generation to close the gaps of a fractious society by “being kind, tolerating differences” and avoiding “destructive civil discourse we witness every day.”
You face the test of your life, Koops said. “What are you going to do? Who are you going to be? Go out and ace the test; you have all the advantages. The world needs you. Be a doer not a taker; lift us up.”
Salutatorian Jazmin Rodriguez delivered a message of gratitude for all the support, friendship and guidance from teachers, parents and peers.
“We did it! The moment has come when we’ll turn our tassels and begin building our future,” Rodriguez said. “Each one of us has grown into an adult that for the most part can take on any challenge presented, even if we might need to call our parents every now and then.”
She thanked school staff, teachers, friends and parents. To Mrs. Wisenbaker, “who taught us how to struggle in class,” to Mr. Chandler for guidance on “worksheets and life experiences,” to Mr. Koops for the lesson of meeting deadlines, and to her parents, whom she addressed in fluent Spanish.
She urged her classmates to find your passion and pursue it. “Leave a mark on this world and impact the lives of others. Continue to act on your passion; the world is in need of change.”
Be aware that sacrifices are necessary to accomplish dreams, Rodriguez said in closing.
“Be the change you want to see, and don’t settle for something that is only half of what you want. Life continues even as we fail, so use it as motivation to get back up.”
Valedictorian Trystan Henderson, who gave the closing remarks, encouraged her classmates to embrace life.
“We survived high school. Now the real work begins,” she said.
The lessons learned in school were not all in the curriculum, Henderson said, but are just as relevant and important.
For one, do not try and please everyone. There are 7.6 billion people in the world, with that many opinions, she said. “There is no way to be happy in this chaotic world if you are focused on everyone else’s opinions. Simply be yourself. Use the life you were given to do what you love.”
Avoid comparing yourself with others, she said. Focus on finding the joy in your life no matter the circumstances. “Half of what others portray their lives to be isn’t real anyway,” she said.
Get ready for ups and downs, but finding happiness means focusing on the “good things in life, even if there are few,” Henderson said. “Times will come when the cards are in your favor, and when they are not. Whatever hand you get dealt, enjoy the game.”
Quoting scripture, she advised peers to “be slow to anger” and keep in mind that people may be suffering. “Remember the challenges you have faced and be courteous,” she said.
“Keep your mind focused on the good aspects of your life and help others through the bad aspects of theirs.”
Seeing the good in people makes for a better world for the 7.6 billion people.
“Be a friend, even to those who weren’t one to you,” Henderson said. “By doing this, you will help someone and make yourself a better person. Don’t tie yourself down with the chains of hatred.”
“There will be struggles, pain and tears. But there will also be laughter, hope and love. Choose to be joyous and allow the struggles to advance you to a better version of yourself.”
Graduates walked one by one across a stage decked out in flowers, the American flag and banners of the M-CHS Panther. As each graduate was called out to receive their diploma, family members and friends cheered, blew horns and whistled. Confetti was fired into the air. Passing cars honked their horns.
Then it was finally time to switch the tassel to the left.
“Now you go from children who learn to adults who think. Congratulations, Class of 2018,” said an announcer.
Graduates then faced the crowd, and with a sigh of relief and obvious joy, whipped their hats into the blue sky to applause as rock music blasted from the speakers.