Learning, persistence themes at BBA commencement

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MANCHESTER — Education, and the responsibility that it imparts, was the underlying theme of Burr and Burton Academy's 185th annual Commencement ceremony, held Friday night at the school's Frelinghuysen Field.

Headmaster Mark Tashjian opened the ceremony by welcoming family and friends from near and far, before graduating senior Eric Vaughn took to the stage to perform The Star Spangled Banner on cello. Retiring English teacher and longtime soccer coach Peter Mull then shared the poem "Two Set Out on Their Journey" by Vermont Poet Laureate Galway Kinnell, "as an expression of our deepest desires and prayers" for the graduating class.

As Board of Trustees chair Seth Bongartz congratulated graduates on behalf of the board, he also took the opportunity to share his own path — interwoven with that of Burr and Burton — and lessons he's learned along the way.

"When I graduated in 1972, Burr and Burton was much smaller but it was still a special place, because it served and cared deeply about its communities, and those communities recognized that and had a deep well of support for the school," said Bongartz, noting improvements in disciplines like the creative arts, travel opportunities, and school infrastructure.

"Those connections, that two way loyalty between school and towns, has only deepened in the intervening years as the generous support of our communities, and generous support of donors, has made it possible for Burr and Burton to provide those opportunities and to open doors for students that nobody even dreamed of in 1972," he said.

Salutatorian Tobias Lepecki, who plans to study history and political science at Brown University this fall, then took to the stage to espouse the important of education — and gratitude towards those that support it. To illustrate his point, Lepecki shared the story of his mother, and her steadfast commitment to providing the best education possible.

"My mom has given my many things in my life, but the most important thing that she gave me — and the thing she has sacrificed the most for me to have — was an education," Lepecki said. "You don't have to be a mom, you don't have to be a parent, you don't have to be older or wiser than the other person, but if you can find someone, anyone, that you care enough about to support them as much as my mom did me, then I know that not only will you all be successful but you will make the people around you successful."

Valedictorian Tyler Jager echoed that supportive sentiment, and also urged his classmates to have faith in their generation and the future that they will create.

"Every year across America thousands of students sit through events to celebrate their achievements and receive their diplomas, but this year — for the first time in American history — students born in the 21st century are graduating," Jager said. "We have known no other world than one with the song `All Star,' by Smash Mouth in it; one in the shadow of 9/11; one where social media is a given rather than a new toy; one where the United States has always been at war We are the natives of a century for which our parents are the immigrants. It is our world, and perhaps because of that there's been something in the air in 2018."

Jager went on to examine his own brushes with failure — such as attempting to parallel park during his driver's license test — and the ways that those failures shape us as individuals. He also asserted his passion for reading, and his belief that books — and the power that comes with them — have an important role to play for his generation.

"Without reading we are destined to just remain an army of children, waiting to be given someone else's words," said Jager, who will be pursuing a degree in global studies at Yale University. "This is our century, and as we graduate we must speak with our own words — and do it for something greater than ourselves. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but we will reach further than ever before."

Before Assistant Head of School Meg Kenny delivered her faculty address, senior Margo Grapshi presented the senior class gift of speakers to continue Burr and Burton's popular "music in the halls" program. Appropriately, Kenny's address provided students with a mixtape bearing songs like "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen and "You've Got the Love" by Florence and the Machine, and concluding with "Nobody Knows" by the Lumineers.

"I made you this mixtape, and I call it homegoing: it's for knowing where you came from, and for finding where you're going," Kenny said. "You're poised at the edge of the rest of your life ... and as the closing lyrics of the final track say, nobody knows how the story ends. Live the day doing what you can. This is only where it began; nobody knows how the story ends."

Academic Dean Jen Hyatt then presented a number of senior awards before keynote speaker Rebecca Holcombe — Vermont's Secretary of Education under two governors prior to her resignation this year — reminded students of the responsibilities ahead, and the grit they've already shown in the face of that responsibility.

"Your generation has found its voice, and you are going to change Vermont. You held our leaders accountable for action, and your voice was consequential," Holcombe said, highlighting student action both at home and in Montpelier following the Parkland school shooting in February. "This years unprecedented action on school safety and on racial bias owes no small debt to the active engagement of young people from all across the state. As one legislator told me, the world belongs to those who show up. This year, you showed up. As you move forward, don't forget to show up."

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