AVELLA, Pa. - Avella Area High School held the 88th annual commencement exercises for the Class of 2014 Thursday at the school's football field.
Maria Villotti was the valedictorian; Alayne Johnson was salutatorian; Connor McKenzie was the student-elected speaker; and Emily Rush presented the class poem. Principal Cyril Walther gave the introduction and presented the class.
"Seniors, you have begun to write your own stories, and every story is important," said Walther.
TOP OF AVELLA — Avella Area High School Class of 2014 Valedictorian Maria Villotti addressed the class and guests during the school’s 88th commencement Thursday at the school’s football field. -- Summer Wallace-Minger
Walther told the students he looked forward to seeing what decisions they would make, adding that each decision was important and led to the next. He encouraged them to make decisions that would support their life purpose. As the students progress through life and reach milestones and goals, they will need to reassess and readjust their goals and purpose.
"You all have purposes, and they're all important," he said. "You are all where you are supposed to be."
Johnson noted the day of graduation isn't an ordinary day, but one of many emotions and memories.
"Most importantly, it's a day of moving forward," she said.
Each student has plans and will have to overcome trials and tribulations in order to accomplish them, but those trials and tribulations help make them who they are, Johnson said. She reviewed the class' accomplishments and noted, no matter how far they had come, they were about to go their separate ways and strike out on their own. There is nothing the class can't do or achieve, she said.
"Live life to the fullest potential, because we have a lot of it, but stay humble, because we all meet the same fate in the end," she said.
McKenzie said he was disbelieving when asked to be the class-elected speaker, but decided to research great speeches of the past, noting many great speakers, from President Abraham Lincoln to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to President Ronald Reagan, employed catch phrases.
"On further research, I found that all these great speakers had been shot," he said. "So much for catch phrases."
McKenzie spoke about the class' shared experiences growing up in the age of social media, before pausing to take a "selfie" at the podium.
"Social media: Giving us the information you never knew you wanted to know," he said.
He was once jealous of those attending large high schools, but now realized the benefit of attending a small, tight-knit school, comparing the class to a family.
"We're a family," he said. "A dysfunctional one."
During the class' tenure at the school district, one superintendent, two principals, eight teachers and countless students had moved on, he said.
"What is it about our class that makes everyone want to leave?" he said. "I can't think of another group I'd want to graduate with. We've gone through a lot together."
Villotti playfully noted she had spent "the better part of 13 years waiting for (the teachers) to stop talking," and it was now her turn to talk. In preparing her speech, she asked her grandfather, the Class of 1957 valedictorian, for advice.
"He said his speech was short and to the point, but unfortunately for you, it doesn't run in the family," she said.
She compared the class' time at school to that of a group waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster, one that had become tired of waiting and was ready to "move on to the main attraction."
"We had some fun and adventure waiting in line for the main event," she said.
She reviewed the class' history at the district, from dealing with disappointments, learning to socialize with one another, learning new rules, fundraising, going on class trips, participating in sporting events and extracurriculars and attending school dances to achieving milestones.
"Senior year? Senior year was big for us," she said. "It all led to and brought us to where we are today - ready to get on that ride."
Villotti compared the next stage of life to a rollercoaster, noting some classmates may be tempted to close their eyes and cautioning that, unlike an amusement park ride, life doesn't allow "do-overs."
"Go through life with your eyes open," she said. "Don't rush yourself to your end goal."
She thanked those who had supported the class through their school days, including parents, teachers, family and friends.
"You helped us get to where we are today, even if you had to drag us kicking and screaming," she said.
The class would all go their different ways now, Villotti said.
"'Good luck' may be the last thing some of us say to one another," she said.
"It's been an honor to have you as my classmates and friends."
Superintendent Janell Logue-Belden spoke about the technological and social media advances that had taken place since the class had begun school.
"You are adaptable, flexible and eager to try new things," she said. "That's why I know each one of you will be successful and do good things for your community."
Logue-Belden noted the class had learned much in preparation for the next stage of their lives.
"There is nothing limiting your success," she said.
School Board President Corey McConn compared live to trying to navigate home in a storm - the way may be blocked by high water, stalled vehicles or fallen trees or they may encounter dead ends, but they would eventually find their way home.
"You just have to be willing to travel some unfamiliar roads," he said.
The high school band performed the processional and recessional under the direction of Nicholas Deutsch and the Alma Mater under the direction of Maria Villotti.