Ninilchik seniors bring high school to a close

Teachers learn from graduating students

Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Editor's note: Peninsula Clarion reporter McKibben Jackinsky, a longtime Ninilchik resident, acted as both reporter and speaker at the Ninilchik High School graduation ceremony.

Applause and the whoops and hollers of families and friends provided a thunderous background Sunday afternoon as Ninilchik High School's graduating seniors brought their high school years to a close.

Like many of their classmates, valedictorian Gretchen Garroutte and salutatorian Bridgette Cuffe have been friends since kindergarten. Standing together at the podium, they combined their comments to the class, pairing words from "Oh! The Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Seuss with the class motto "We cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore."

Lights dimmed in the school's multipurpose room as slides showed scenes from school events, birthday parties and field trips. In the darkened room, parents and grandparents wiped away tears as they watched the 15 graduates' smiling faces age from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Making their way across the stage, the seniors shook hands with school counselor Rich Redmond and Kenai Peninsula Borough school board members Al Poin-dexter and Joe Arness, and Assis-tant Superintendent of Instruction Ed McLain before finally receiving hugs and diplomas from principal Michael Wetherbee.

As their commencement speaker, I also had the honor of being on the stage and wishing them well before they slipped past me and into their futures. From that vantage point, I saw a sea of smiling faces, teary eyes and flashing cameras. A community proudly celebrating the reward for years of commitment and caring.

In the wake of Sunday's celebration, teachers and parents reflected on the Class of 2001 and the lessons they had learned from, rather than taught to, the departing class.

"I've had some of these kids since they were kindergartners," said Jerry Byrne, who teaches physical education. Byrne and his wife, Susie, the home economics teacher, also were the senior class advisers.

"It's a neat experience to watch them grow from kindergarten to 12th grade and see how they have matured," he said.

Byrne had a unique opportunity to show the students more of the world when he accompanied them to Washington, D.C., on a Close-Up trip.

English teacher and yearbook adviser Penny Vadla was teaching in Ninilchik when members of the 2001 graduating class entered first grade.

"These kids are innovative and have an incredible amount of energy," Vadla said. "Because of their individuality, they have a lot of positive attributes. They are totally individuals and will be assets to whatever community they go to. They're a good group of kids. I'll miss them all and wish them well."

Eric Skjold, who teaches math, said, "This class, like any senior class, teaches the teacher to have a certain respect for their students.

"When you realize that these kids are no longer students, but young adults, you approach them in a different way," he said. "They're developing a sense of trust and respect for their fellow citizens. They are stepping into that world of adulthood and you cannot approach them as kids anymore. You have to approach them as young adults."

Newcomer Chris Hanson, in his second year of teaching science at Ninilchik, said the seniors taught him "doing teaches more than telling."

"In some of the lab work we did, these kids proved to me that it's a lot better to get in and do stuff with your hands than sit in a classroom reading and talking," Hanson said.

Proof of that lesson is displayed inside the school's main entrance: a skeleton of a harbor porpoise. After the remains of the porpoise were found on the beach, Hanson's class cleaned and reassembled the delicate skeleton.

Like Hanson, counselor Redmond is completing his second year at Ninilchik.

"The biggest thing that this class taught me is that my actions, be they on the job or off the job, affect the students that look to me for guidance," Redmond said. "That was a big thing in my life this year."

Dan Leman, coach of Ninilchik's award-winning girls' basketball team, said having seniors Courtney Hansen and Jessica Russo on his team taught him the value of give and take.

"You have to be willing to listen and be flexible," Leman said. "At the same time, you have to let them know that they are responsible for their actions. And they made me, as a coach, responsible for mine, too."

Leman said Hansen and Russo "did everything that I asked of them. It's those kinds of players that the other kids on the team look up to."

Mentioned by several graduates as the teacher having the greatest impact on their school years, the class' fifth-grade teacher Marina Bosick said she held her breath Sunday.

"As they were coming down from the stage, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, did I do my job?' I just sat there and hoped that they were prepared, that I had filled my piece of the puzzle," she said. "They were my first fifth-grade class.

"I always knew I had an important job, but watching them graduate made me think more about how each year is so important."

Michael Cuffe said he valued his daughter Bridgette Cuffe's courage and honesty.

"Her courage has been reflected in the choices she's made," he said. "Every parent has a lot of worries and concerns of what you fear might happen, but I feel she's been honest with us."

Reflecting on the slide presentation at the graduation ceremony, Cuffe said, "I got the feeling from it that, boy, they have demonstrated a sense of unity. They're a cohesive group. And they're respectful of each other and helpful."

Patsy Bushnell, Garroutte's mother, said she is inspired by her daughter's bravery.

"She wore a bikini under her gown yesterday as a dare to graduate in her bikini," Garroutte said. "They just do what they want to. They're braver than we ever were."

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