Cortland High School valedictorian Daniel Ruggiero wasn’t in town Friday night, but his words were.
Ruggiero, who shipped out for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, two days ago, left a printed speech for School Resource Officer Robert Reyngoudt to read in his absence.
It was short and sweet, and mainly an opportunity for the audience to honor the six graduating seniors going into the military, National Guard or Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, as well as current military service members and veterans. The applause was heavy and loud in the stifling SUNY Cortland Corey Gymnasium, as hundreds of parents and students settled back into their chairs to fan themselves with their commencement programs.
In his speech, salutatorian Alexander Ryan, who will also soon enter a service academy — West Point — urged his fellow graduates to “never lose sight of those who have helped you along the way.”
Nate DeRado, 17, who will major in music this fall at Onondaga Community College, said he was glad to be graduating Friday, but had no immediate plans for this summer, other than to keep practicing his instruments (drums and bass), and playing bass in Rogue Sound, a local alternative rock band.
Kayla Smith, who just turned 19 in April, was lucky to be at graduation at all. Smith said she just survived five months of chemotherapy for mixed germ cell cancer found in her stomach; she had a 3.5 pound tumor removed earlier this year.
The cancer was discovered in February after she slipped on ice and fell on her side; the fall burst the tumor, which doctors then discovered and diagnosed as cancerous.
Smith walked the stage with all her other classmates, although just two weeks ago she was still completing the last of her treatments. In her robes, she blended in with the purple sea of other gowns, except for the gold tassel on her mortarboard, and the word “survivor” written in glitter on top.
“I’m doing good,” said Smith. “I’m recovering.”
She plans to take a year off before applying to Tompkins County Community College.
School board President Janet Griffin, in her remarks, suggested the students “try new things” and open themselves up to new experiences and a lifetime of learning.
She also told students to always “give more than you take,” and suggested that whenever confronted with the choice of “being right and being kind,” to choose being kind.
Finally, Superintendent Michael Hoose emphasized the swift passage of years, as he related the bewildering changes he’s seen in his own lifetime since graduating high school in 1974.
He stressed the need for lifelong education and adaptability in the face of change. One of the crucial adaptive tools he learned from his teachers, he said, was “how to think, not what to think.”