"Saving the best for last" was the motto of Ninilchik High School's class of 2012. That's exactly what the May 24 commencement exercises were if you consider "best" to be:
* Praise for the class from the principal and student speakers;
* A guest speaker not only well liked by the students, but also recognized for his contributions to the school;
* Scholarships totaling $71,000;
* And, finally, diplomas as testimony of the students' hard work.
"Congratulations. You deserve it," Principal Jeff Ambrosier praised the 12 graduates, six young men and six young women clad in white caps and gowns. Turning to the parents and family members, he added, "And I definitely congratulate (you) ... for your support of these grads."
Salutatorian Destini Riley kept the mood going with more praise for her class. Citing a statistic that only 67 percent of Alaska students graduate from high school, Riley said, "Well, class, we've already beat the odds."
Valedictorian Stephanie Blank encouraged her classmates to "never stop learning." She closed her comments with lyrics from "Breathe" by Pink Floyd: Look around and choose your own ground / For long you live and high you fly / And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry / And all you touch and all you see / Is all your life will ever be.
Guest speaker John McCombs was no stranger to the students at Ninilchik School. In September 2010, at the celebration of the school's 100th birthday, the former head janitor received a service award recognizing his 25 years of service. His familiarity with the area came through in his comments to the graduates.
"Time and tide wait for no man," said McCombs. "(Whoever said that) must have known about clam digging. And in a few hours, these grads could be as happy as clams."
In the "when I was your age" theme, McCombs used the following comparisons to describe how the world had changed since he was a high school graduate and to underscore the importance of continued education.
"Gas was 35 cents a gallon and now it's $4.71. A Mustang was $4,400 and now it's $34,000. A postage stamp was 6 cents and now it's 44-cents. A candy bar was 10 cents and now it's $1.10. The average income per capita was $12,000 and now it's $44,000," said McCombs. "The world has changed. ... A four-year degree now takes five years. And if you take a year off, you're a year behind."
Wrapping up his comments with a reminder that drew laughter from the crowd filling the school's gym, McCombs said, "Some of your parents called me and said to tell you that soon you will be on your own. Very soon."
Five of the graduates -- Stephanie Blank, Justin Klapak, Andrea Oskolkoff, Destini Riley and Robert Self -- were recognized by Project GRAD executive director Mike Peterson for having completed the program's scholarship requirements. By maintaining a 2.5 grade point average or above and by participating in two Project GRAD summer institutes during their high school years, each of the students will receive $4,000 scholarships, $1,000 for each of four years of postsecondary education.
Other scholarships included:
* American Legion scholarships, $1,000 each to Justin Klapak and Andrea Oskolkoff;
* Ninilchik Domestic Engineers' Community Service Award of $500 to Andrea Oskolkoff;
* Erling Kvasnikoff College Scholarship Fund totaling $25,000 divided by semester to Tiaya Waggoner;
* Golden Rule Scholarship in memory of Matthew Encelewski, $500 each to Angalic Herd and Tiaya Waggoner;
* Hilcorp's "Future Leaders of America Scholarship" of $10,000 divided by four years to Destini Riley;
* Ninilchik Native Association's scholarship of $500 each to Andrea Oskolkoff and Anthony Shell;
* Ninilchik Traditional Council's scholarship of $500 to Andrea Oskolkoff;
* University of Alaska Scholar award of $11,000 to Stephanie Blank.
And then it really was the best saved for last: the awarding of diplomas celebrated with cheers and lots of flashing cameras.