AVELLA - The Avella High School Class of 2012 has shared learning experiences and grief, but the best is yet to come, said Valedictorian Michael Rush during graduation exercises Wednesday at the high school.
"I'll do my best to make this as painless as possible," he said. "I won't be offended if you fall asleep, wake up near the end, give me a standing ovation, then return to your slumber."
Rush touched on some shared history of the class in learning teachers' quirks and hidden talents, noting several students "were too much for three band directors."
He spoke about the small size of the class and the resulting closeness between classmates. He noted highlights of the high school career, including a football victory over rival Fort Cherry High School, school dances and lock-ins.
"This day has seemed so far off, but now that it's finally here, I have conflicting emotions," he said.
He also addressed some of the losses, including the deaths of two of their fellow students.
"It's been a rollercoaster of ups and downs. We will not soon forget the loss," he said. "The future seemed bleak and empty, but we pulled together and stayed strong."
He added that he hoped high school - including all the exams and testing - was not his and his classmates' finest moment. He urged his fellow class members to follow their own paths and to seek happiness over wealth or fame.
"My hope for every one of you is that your best years begin now," he said. Rush thanked parents and teachers for their support and guidance. "I want to ask - in the words of (former President) George W. Bush - 'is our children learning?'" he asked.
"Thanks to the great staff at Avella, our children is learning and our children is ready for the future."
His speech was met with a standing ovation from the audience.
Salutatorian Abby Sutton said the class had seen many changes since classmates entered the district as kindergarteners, noting the moves from the elementary center to the junior-senior high school and the group's maturation and increasing freedoms.
"The real reminder of how we were growing up was the new crop of seventh-graders each year who got smaller and smaller," she said. In addition, classes became harder and students gained more responsibility in extracurricular activities and after-school jobs.
"We matured from little kids to responsible adults and from high school students to high school graduates," Sutton said.
In presenting the class to the Avella Area School Board, Principal Tim Beck said the class was the "nicest, most respectful" he had encountered. "What a beautiful trait to go into the world with," he said. "Some of you will be challenged when your college roommate comes in at 3 a.m., but remember - Mr. Beck said you were nice and respectful. When you're on the gas rig and you think you're getting some time off, and then you're assigned another 80-hour shift, remember - nice and respectful."
His remarks were met with another standing ovation, and Beck encouraged the graduates to return the applause for those who had supported them during their high school careers. Beck said the class represented the school's mission of academic excellence and responsible citizenship. The class has 12 members in the National Honor Society - the largest in 20 years - and two seniors named outstanding technology students at Western Area Career and Technology Center. The school achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, based on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, he said.
He also numerated the successes of the band and student artists, the boys and girls basketball teams, the cheerleading squad, the baseball and softball teams and the rifle team. He also spoke about the students' community service, listing the achievements of the Community Service Club and National Honor Society, while noting that students were involved in many community services outside the school as well.
"I'm here to tell you that the Class of 2012 has done a magnificent job of fulfilling the school mission statement," he said. He announced 49 percent of the graduates will attend a four-year college, 10 percent will enter a two-year college or technical school and 6 percent will enter the military.
School board President Corey McConn spoke briefly, thanking the school's administration, teachers and support staff and congratulating the graduates. "We know that you will always make us proud," he said.
Superintendent Janell Logue-Belden said she was proud to have the Class of 2012 as her inaugural class, adding the students had been given a foundation of knowledge and skill on which to build their futures.
"There is so much waiting for you," she said. "There's nothing limiting your success."
During the ceremony, several scholarships were awarded. Amanda Kaste received the Leaders of Tomorrow Award; Elizabeth Pompe and Nicole Kinney received the Central Blood Bank Scholarship; Amanda Kaste received the Live, Love, Laugh Scholarship in memory of Jenna Gilmore; and Joshua Graham received the Avella Education Association Scholarship.