MANCHESTER — Burr and Burton Academy welcomed 167 new members to its community of alumni Friday, June 3, as the class of 2016 received their diplomas during the independent secondary school's 183rd commencement exercises.
For the fourth consecutive year, the ceremonies were held in the Riley Rink at Hunter Park, instead of on one of the school's athletic fields. The possibility of rain in the weather forecast prompted school officials to shift the venue to avoid a replay of 2012, when the ceremonies were interrupted midway through by a thunderstorm and had to moved into the school's gym.
"Since 2012, we've been a lot more cautious," said Meg Kenny, the BBA's assistant head of school, earlier in the day after the decision was made to not take chances with the weather.
As it turned out, the sun was shining and the temperatures were warm enough inside the rink when the ceremonies began at 5:30 p.m. to warrant pressing the graduation programs into service as impromptu fans by both the graduates and the large audience of family members and friends who filled the rink to overflowing in order to watch the graduating class make its final bow.
The graduates and audience heard Colby Halligan, the commencement speaker and an alumna of the school's class of 2011, encourage them to follow their hearts and see vulnerabilities as hidden strengths.
"My advice to you, having graduated five years ago, is to not expect others to give you the answers, to tell you what your passions are or tell you what you should do with your life or what you need to achieve in the next five years," Halligan said towards the end of her speech. "Ask questions — big questions. Go out and create the answers."
Halligan was the youngest ever commencement speaker in the school's history, having graduated from Elon College in North Carolina last year. She traveled extensively during her college career, while overcoming the sorrow of the passing of her mother. She now works in northern California as a research assistant and bio-intensive farmer with Ecology Action, an international nonprofit organization.
In part from her extensive travel, which included large amounts of time in Vietnam and parts of Africa, she developed an insatiable curiosity to learn as much as she could about the world, other cultures and self-motivation.
"You must have the courage to be empathetic and adventurous," she told the audience, even when they may be unprepared for confronting unfamiliar and unexpected situations. Playing for small stakes means reducing the chances they will make significant contributions to the world and their own lives, she added.
"Let regret and failure and remorse be the birthplace of empathy, and get serious," she said.
Before Halligan gave her address, the graduates also received advice from Dr. David Spero, a science teacher at Burr and Burton, who delivered the traditional faculty address. Spero, the first in his family to finish high school, attend college and get a doctorate, recounted his early childhood of overcoming indifferent academic experiences and coming to spend a summer in Manchester at the Ormsby House, where the school maintained a summer program and boarding house for young boys. It was there he learned the importance of connecting with others, a value he urged the graduates to embrace as they moved forward in their lives.
"The key to overcoming obstacles is to connect with people who can get you past those barriers," he said. "My advice to you is to be receptive to, and learn how, to make connections."
This involved some risk, but the rewards are great, and also involved being vulnerable, he added.
To drive his point about risk and vulnerability home, Spero recited a rap lyric he composed for the occasion, complete with sound track, which drew a loud round of laughter and applause from the audinence.
"As you walk up on the stage to receive your diploma,
Try thinking about the words of the philosopher Homer,
Embrace your learning, get a good education,
That's what you will need to save our nation," Spero rapped in part, amid allusions to being a former hippie prepared to "blame it all on Nixon."
Graduates also heard from their class valedictorian, Emily Williams, a National Merit Scholar, who will be attending the University of Chicago following a gap year.
She spoke of seizing this time to confront the question of what did they, the students, want from life, and how they would go about accomplishing their goals.
"What it comes down to is that it's all right to be a little selfish right now," she said. "Take advantage of any opportunity the world offers you to take you where you want to go. Sometimes we need to be brave, and think of things we aren't entirely certain of, and take the chance."
"Leap, and the net will be there," she added.