AHS graduation returns to music tent; students told to strive to ‘be better’ | AspenTimes.com

AHS graduation returns to music tent; students told to strive to ‘be better’

Longtime teacher, coach Chris Keleher gave commencement address

Valedictorian Gemma Hill, sporting a comfortable onesie in a nod to their remote learning days during the pandemic, talks during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

With a gesture to the seniors seated behind him, Chris Keleher decided to break the No. 1 classroom rule, which is to never turn your back on the students.

But he did so without fear of a spitball or a few passed notes — or whatever kids do these days when the teacher isn’t looking — to share a few words of wisdom, from one departing Skier to the nearly 140 more waiting to receive their diploma.

“Before I really begin, I’m Irish, so there is a real chance I just burst out into tears at any moment. I could also get into a fist fight,” Keleher said to laughter from the crowd that packed the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday morning for Aspen High School’s Class of 2022 graduation ceremony. “I remember every word that was spoken at my own graduation way back in 1986, except for what was actually said. I don’t even remember who spoke.”

Keleher, the homegrown AHS student turned teacher and cross country coach who did find out that noted ski racer Jimmie Heuga spoke at his own graduation, was this year’s commencement speaker. The ceremony signaled an end to the seniors’ time as students in Aspen, but also to Keleher’s 23 years as an educator with retirement on his doorstep.

He reflected back on lessons learned from his own cross country coach and the idea to “be better” in all aspects of life, and how Aspen’s core philosophy of blending mind, body and spirit has inherently embraced that very concept.

“Being No. 1 is awesome, but very few of us will ever get the chance to be No. 1 at anything. You don’t have to be No. 1, just be better,” Keleher said. “Whatever your direction and drive, I hope your greatest value comes not from the size of your paycheck, but from the satisfaction of fighting the good fight and giving back to the community. Just be better.”

While this year’s graduating class bookended its time at AHS with two relatively normal years, their sophomore and junior years were overshadowed by the pandemic. Saturday’s ceremony was a major step toward a return to normalcy with its return to the Benedict Music Tent for the first time since 2019.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 graduation ceremony was held in the parking lot at Buttermilk Ski Area, and the 2021 ceremony was held outside on the turf field on the Aspen School District campus.

Commencement speaker Chris Keleher takes in the moment during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen. Keleher, a longtime teacher and coach, is among those retiring this year.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“This graduation is perhaps very different from any that have gone before it,” Superintendent David Baugh said during his introduction. “This class is also very different from any that have gone before. They have survived a pandemic, continued to learn and thrive, and for this we are very, very thankful.”

The roughly 1 hour and 40 minute ceremony included a return of live musical performances from the students — including a solo act by Emma Boucher singing Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” — and traditional speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian.

Traditional, however, didn’t quite define valedictorian Gemma Hill’s wardrobe choice when she took off her gown to reveal a comfortable-looking onesie, something she said was a nod to the nearly two years spent learning from home during the pandemic.

“This town has fostered us to grow into compassionate young adults. It has taught us lessons of life, from frostbite to close encounters with bears and dangerous climbs,” said Hill, who will attend UCLA to study neuroscience, during her speech. “Growing up in this town has given us the tools necessary to take the world by storm, because I think we can all agree it’s a very specific student that exits Aspen. They are filled with grit, determination and a healthy relationship with a wildly unrealistic amount of discomfort.”

For Hill, this discomfort was getting up at 5 a.m. each day for swim practice — which she said was mostly to watch Class 3A swimmer of the year and fellow senior Kayla Tehrani lap her in the pool — part of that “be better” mentality this year’s graduating class has little issue embracing.

Salutatorian Laila Khan-Farooqi, a future Duke student who will study computational biology and bioinformatics, had a similar message as Keleher in that life isn’t all about being No. 1. She, like Hill, was part of the Aspen girls swim team and was there when it finished second at state when she was a sophomore.

Khan-Farooqi told her classmates that not finishing first isn’t the same as failing.

“As your salutatorian, this means I’m speaking today as the first loser in the race for highest GPA,” Khan-Farooqi jested before reflecting on her time with the swim team. “I will say, I’m very good at being first loser. But this was in no way a failure. We lost to a team with six times the number of competitors we had and each person on our five-woman team swam personal bests in their individual events. How could this possibly be classified as a failure? A loss maybe, but a failure? Not in the slightest.”

Most of the awards and scholarships the students received were announced at the AHS senior awards ceremony on Thursday night. The final tally included approximately $380,000 across 148 individual scholarships. According to Susanne Morrison, one of the school’s administrative coordinators, around 86% of the graduates have plans to attend a four-year college in one of at least 32 states and six countries.

“As our nation and our world continues to be in various stages of unrest, it is your generation and your class who has the power, talent and, dare I say it, rich opportunity to set us all on a new path, a better path,” said AHS Principal Sarah Strassburger. “A path that mirrors what I saw every day in the halls of Aspen High School this year: smart, compassionate, engaged and vocal students who stand up for what they believe, treat others with decency and respect, and are not afraid to challenge the status quo — or me.”

Caps are tossed into the air at the conclusion of the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

This year’s senior class helped pave the way for three state championships in athletics in 2021-22 — boys golf, dance and boys basketball — with Lucas Lee having been the lone athlete to have been part of two of those. Lee received the loudest cheers when he walked across the stage to get his diploma, a remarkable feat considering he lost both of his parents during the school year.

Lee joined Lindsey Heinecken at the very end to lead the tassel change, marking the students as graduates, before the caps were removed and sent skyward toward the music tent’s cavernous ceiling.

“You have it within you, each of you, to be better with everything you do. Be passionate about what you do. Whatever you do, do it with conviction,” Keleher said, making note of his long-held desire to one day become an astronaut. “Don’t negotiate for mediocrity. You don’t have to be No. 1, you don’t have to be perfect, just be better. Though, if one of you becomes an astronaut, do whatever you can to get me a seat. Window or aisle, that would be perfect.”


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