Aspen High graduates venture forth after proving resiliency during difficult year
Nearly 130 seniors walked across the stage on the AHS turf field Saturday morning to receive his or her diploma
Like any graduation ceremony, there was plenty to cheer about Saturday morning when Aspen High School’s Class of 2021 was honored. There was the typical affair, such as recognizing the teachers who are retiring and celebrating a significant milestone in the students’ lives, but it also included an element no other recent graduating class had, for better or worse.
That is, the simple joy of being together without masks, all the uncertainty of the past year fading away with the newfound hope of what possibly lies ahead.
“This year has been trying and it’s not how you imagined your senior year,” first-year AHS principal Sarah Strassburger told the nearly 130 graduates during the school’s 132nd commencement ceremony. “But the class of 2021 has not only weathered a global pandemic, you’ve also continued the tradition of excellence at our school and despite online learning, quarantine, hybrid learning, the loss of your traditional rites of passage, this class stands as an exemplar of the very best we have to offer. And here you are, without your masks.”
That last sentence received arguably the largest applause of the ceremony, the new norms of mask-wearing and social distancing mostly just a terrible nightmare that held no real power that morning. If anything, the trials and tribulations of navigating the coronavirus pandemic this past school year will be what makes this year’s class possibly one of the most well-prepared in terms of handling life’s challenges after high school.
During his speech, co-salutatorian Jack Blocker compared his classmates to that of single-celled organisms. While this may have sounded like a slight most years, the future Brown University student — no surprise, he plans to study biochemistry — lauded his peers’ ability to “mutate” and come together when the world’s events left them no alternative.
Aspen High School graduates laugh during the 2021 commencement ceremony on the school’s turf football field on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
For more photos from Saturday’s graduation ceremony by Aspen Times staff photographer Kelsey Brunner, see the separate photo gallery that can be found here.
“While everything was stripped away, something incredible occurred,” Blocker said. “We all found ways to cope and excel. We have had an adult lesson thrust upon us before we even finished high school. But it is in our setbacks that we learn the most. I hope we will all look back on this time and not think about the opportunities that we missed, but the experiences that made us flourish.”
In her speech, Blocker’s co-salutatorian, Kendall Clark (Chapman University, business and real estate), focused on the memories that were made over the years and how they are more valuable to her than any amount of money ever could be.
This year’s valedictorian, Alex Appleby, poked some fun at himself while admitting many of his classmates were probably far more deserving and adept at giving a speech than he was. Appleby, whose career trajectory likely changed when he joined the school’s Black Forest robotics team — one of the best teams in the state, if not the world — is headed to Columbia to study computer science.
“Being a member of the robotics team is a one-way ticket to popularity and success. You have no idea how many parties I’ve been invited to,” Appleby jested. “The truth is, I spent much of my four years of high school in my bedroom doing homework and in my basement building robots. For the most part, that’s why I’m valedictorian. That’s why I think a good valedictorian speech is a bit of an oxymoron. In fact, not only am I unqualified for this position, I’m maybe the least qualified person in this entire class. I’m like the Betsy DeVos of graduation speakers … I knew the teachers would love that one.”
Olympic cyclist Scott Mercier, who is originally from Telluride but now lives in the Roaring Fork Valley as a financial adviser, was the commencement speaker. He talked about his rapid rise up the sport’s ranks ahead of the 1992 Olympics and his brief time spent as a professional cyclist.
His career ended on his own accord in the late 1990s when he wanted no part of the doping pandemic, if you will, that was hovering over the sport, a lesson he wanted to impart on the 2021 AHS graduates.
“Wear your armor of integrity,” he told the class. “Protect it. Guard it. It can’t be bartered for. It can’t be bought. Nobody can take your integrity away from you. It has tremendous value, but only you can protect it or give it away.”
The ceremony was presumably the first held on the AHS turf field. Traditionally held in recent years inside the Benedict Music Tent, last year’s one-off graduation was held in the Buttermilk Ski Area’s parking lot in the midst of the pandemic.
That did start one tradition that seems might stick around, and that is a post-ceremony trek to the top of Buttermilk. After tassels were turned and caps were tossed — not to mention a pre-recorded but hauntingly beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” by graduate Evelyn Leibinger — students and parents walked over to the base of the Tiehack chairlift for photos with one of the best backdrops the area has to offer at the top.
Prior to that, Strassburger capped off her final speech with yet another nod to the resiliency of the 2021 graduating class.
“Go out into this world knowing you can face anything that comes your way and remember that while you cannot control what life throws at you, you can control how you choose to live. Focus on all that you have, not on what you do not,” she said. “Here you sit, living proof that you can meet challenges head on, challenges that no generation has faced in a century.”
The Aspen Flight Academy is putting out the all-call for incoming Aspen High School students to participate this summer in the “Every Student Flies” program, which offers every student at the school an hour of free flight time.
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