Graduation stays (mostly) dry as Darien says farewell to Class of 2017

Darien High graduates celebrate their 2017 commencement — Bryan Haeffele photo

The commencement ceremony for the Class of 2017 was still held outdoors on the stadium on Friday, as no weather was going to prevent these seniors from having one more beautiful day in Darien.

The commencement itself is always more than simple speeches and thank yous, but a showcase of the talents and achievements that made this particular class so special.

Avery Brook, President of the Community Council, welcomed teachers, administrators, the Board of Education, everyone who works for Darien Schools, and of course the families and friends in the audience to start the ceremony.

Brook said, “it has been an incredibly privilege to represent this phenomenal class as Community Council President.”

Brook also pointed out that this year had record attendance at Homecoming, and record ticket sales for the spring musical, testaments to just how much these seniors do outside the classroom that benefits DHS and the community at large.

• Read Avery’s full speech here

“Congratulations, Class of 2017, you are all truly destined for incredible things,” Brook closed.

Michael Harman, the Chairman of the Board of Education, spoke next.  Harman welcomed everyone on this, “beautiful day in June,” which drew a few laughs. Harman spoke about the long journey to this day for the students, and about all those along the way who made that journey possible.

“For almost half of this class, it began in one of our five community elementary schools as young children and continuing through Middlesex Middle School and Darien High School,” Harman said.

• Graduation 2017: The full list of graduates

“Thank you to our teachers, coaches, support staff, and administrators, especially to Principal Mrs. Ellen Dunn, Assistant Principals, Dr. Jake Greenwood, Mrs. Ellen Sparks, and Mr. Michael Sullivan, Athletic Director Mr. Chris Manfredonia and Music Director Mr. Rick Sadlon, who supported them through the last leg of their journey,” added Harman, making it clear with each additional thank you just how much support the school system offers to each student in the district.

• Read Harman’s full speech here

Following thank yous, Harman turned his vision toward to the future for the seniors. “You are an extraordinary group of young women and men who are departing from Darien High School with a vast array of accomplishments and talents,” Harman said, adding, “share these on your next journey, but also take full advantage of the new opportunities and challenges that you will face and embrace them.”


Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner spoke to the class next, and opened with a special thank you. “One generation plants the tree, the next enjoys the shade,” said Brenner, before inviting all the grandparents in the audience to stand up, be acknowledged, and be thanked.

Brenner then recalled a writing prompt these students did years ago as a grade, titled “This I Believe,” and shared what he believed about education.

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“There is nothing that substitutes for passion and curiosity, this I believe,” Brenner said. Brenner then turned to the current landscape of the world of education, citing how it has recently become driven by standardized testing.

• Read Brenner’s full speech here

“In many ways we have fallen prey to a test-driven culture where everything must be measured by a number. State testing now occurs for children as young as 8 year olds,” Brenner said, repeating the second sentence to highlight the absurdity that there is an emphasis on having college ready 8 year olds.

“In an effort to increase standards and inject more rigor into our curriculum, many of our educational policy makers have lost their way. Teaching children to think, to question, and to seek out information is our true task, not teaching to them ask the age-old question, ‘Is that going to be on the test’,” said Brenner, pointing out that if the material is not on the test, many students simply stop listening.

Brenner has traveled to China on more than one occasion, and has said that teachers in China who he has spoken to are actually envious of American teaching styles, and wonder what American educators do to teach creativity. “We start by teaching young children to be curious about what they study.  We encourage them to ask questions.  We want them to get excited about what they learn. We want them to be passionate about learning.  We fend off indifference and hopefully the temptation to teach to the test,” Brenner said.

“DHS has prepared each of you to be a success academically.  My wish is that you bring your passionate self to your everyday life because that is the key to happiness and success.

This I believe,” Brenner said as a closing congratulations to the class.

With the remarks from administrators finished, a true showcase of student talent began. Juliana Mazzotta and Margaret Skeats performed a guitar and vocal duet of The Show, by Jason Reeves. Friends of Jacob Velasco-Navarro and JR Schoen offered words of remembrance for their friends who, though were not at graduation in person, were there in spirit. Tianjia Du performed a flute solo as well. The class gift was next, and senior class officers were in charge of that.

The gift is a trophy case, which one would think might not be in short supply given the athletic achievements at DHS. This trophy case, however, is exclusively for trophies earned in academic competition. Many of the clubs at DHS compete, in some cases all over the country, with other schools, and have gained remarkable recognition, but their is not enough room to display the trophies and honors they have earned. The class of 2017 looks to show off those achievements.

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Indira Flores, the Salutatorian, was the next speaker. Flores, an aspiring surgeon who has already had internships in the medical field, urged her classmates to always advocate for themselves. “I’ve had fascinating eye opening experiences doing internships in the medical field,” said Flores, and added that when it comes to succeeding in, or even obtaining, those opportunities, “persistence is key.”

Flores acknowledged the ability to speak for yourself, and to tackle challenges with confidence, has flourished after her four years at DHS. “Ask questions when you’re unsure. Speak up when uncomfortable,” Flores said, adding that when it comes to opportunities and challenges, “Put yourself in the running.” Flores offered a special thank you to her mother for teaching how important it is to self advocate, saying her mother always told her, “if you’re not on your side, why would anyone else be.”

Komal Dhull, the Valedictorian, was the final speaker of the commencement. Dhull recalled piano lessons as a child, and learning to read music. Music was thought of as a specific list of instructions that, if followed perfectly, produced a beautiful piece of music. “It’s easy to get caught up in the view of life as a journey with a destination in mind, to believe that if you follow a specific series of steps you’ll find a lucrative career, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, or whichever definition of success it is you prefer, waiting for you at the end,” Dhull said, before adding that neither music, nor life, is formulaic. “ Although we cannot always control what happens, each and every one of us has the power to shape what we take away from our experiences,” Dhull said.

• Read Komal’s speech here

In her closing, Dhull urged the class of 2017 to keep learning and growing as they leave DHS. “Do the sorts of things that would surprise the people who knew you in high school,” Dhull closed, before congratulating the class of 2017 and urging them to make each of their experiences their own. Following Dhull’s speech, Avery Brook and Jordan Kaloyandies sang I Hope You Dance, by Lee Ann Womack.

With that, it was time for the main event. Principal Ellen Dunn took to the podium and spoke about the long standing tradition that each graduating senior hand her a small token when they receive a diploma, and that this year’s token was a small paper butterfly.

“A butterfly is a perfect symbol for this occasion. Your childhood dreams were carried on the wings of these fragile creatures and you let your imaginations wonder at their flight,” said Dunn, adding,

• Read Dunn’s full speech here 

“The butterfly appears for a moment and is gone. If we are not careful, we can miss its presence. As we look upon you tonight, your parents, teachers, and friends, we feel that, like the butterfly, you have only been here for an instant.” Dunn then spoke about the way a butterfly goes through a metamorphosis in four stages. Dunn compared these stages to the changes that the class of 2017 had gone through in their four years at DHS. Gathering information and knowledge, meeting new people, overcoming challenges, and emerging stronger than before. “When we look upon your butterflies, we will remember you fondly for the impact you have had on this place. We have learned so much from you. You have changed us for the better,” said Dunn, before presenting the class of 2017 to receive their diplomas.

A few raindrops began to fall while diplomas, but no one really seemed to care. A few beach balls were being swatted around, a testament to the spirit of the day.

Despite some clouds a raindrops, this class was determined to enjoy itself one more time. The DHS Commencement is special because of the way it showcases the students themselves. From the very opening, when every member of the class yells, “WAVE” at the top of their lungs during the national anthem, to musical performances, speeches of remembrance for classmates who have died, speeches from students, even students introducing each other, the day feels as though everyone else simply has a great seat from which to watch a spectacular show. Commencement shows off the very best of all parts of this class’s education, not just on an athletic field, in a classroom, or on stage. Congratulations, once again, to the Class of 2017.

Editor’s note: Salutatorian Indira Flores did not release her speech to The Darien Times. 

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