Faculty speaker Nick Hamele encouraged the Fort Atkinson High School Class of 2019 to make the world a better place every day, to know that failure always is an option and, lastly, to not be an “idiot.”
The science teacher said Sunday that he had the opportunity to speak to the graduates not just as an educator, but as a parent since he would be handing his daughter, Rachel, her diploma in just a few minutes.
“Look around you today,” Hamele said during the School District of Fort Atkinson’s 131st commencement ceremony. “You are surrounded with people who have helped raise you and care about you. They have cried with you, laughed with you and hoped with you. They are parents, step-parents, grandparents, teachers, friends and relatives.
“Many are here and others are here in spirit,” he added. “Even as you go off into the world to make your best life, they will still be there to cheer you on and help you out. We are proud of you, we love you, and we know you will make the world a better place.”
Held in Fort Atkinson High School’s PremierBank Gymnasium, the nearly two-hour ceremony — carrying the theme “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — featured 243 students crossing the stage to receive high school diplomas.
Admitting that the “sappy dad stuff is done,” the educator shared three things he knows his daughter will do in her life with the hope that all her fellow students can use in theirs.
“First, make the world a better place every day,” Hamele said. “Second, as Adam Savage of ‘Mythbusters’ said: Failure is always an option. And, third, don’t be an idiot.
“I know, I know you’re thinking — ‘Mr. Hamele, what do you mean, don’t be an idiot? I’m a high school graduate. I can take care of myself just fine now.’ My response is, I know, and you can.”
Instead, the teacher asked the graduating students to pause and think about a possible action when they “feel that little tinge in your belly of, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this.’
“Stop … take a breath … and think ‘could this come back to bite me in the rear end or harm someone else?’” Hamele advised. “You know what I’m saying.
“So, don’t post that picture, don’t drive after a night out, maybe wait to binge-watch that show until after you finish studying for that midterm,” he said. “If you need to, just ask yourself, ‘If Mr. Hamele knew about this, would he say, ‘Don’t be an idiot?’ If you think I would, then, don’t be an idiot.”
Addressing his second point that “Failure is always an option,” he said failure does not mean that someone was an idiot.
“You see, if you never fail or aren’t willing to fail, you aren’t really trying hard enough and you will never reach your fullest potential,” Hamele said.
He said the students might not believe it, but he found his love of teaching when he was a whitewater kayak instructor.
“Yes, I used to be cool and even more fit than I am today,” Hamele shared. “I started out tentative, afraid to try to surf a wave or go for a cartwheel in the middle of the class 4 rapids — because if I tipped over, I wasn’t sure I could roll back up.”
He said he just could not seem to make it happen with his watercraft.
“Then one day I got really frustrated at my inability to get the move, and I just said ‘Screw it’ and pushed my boat right to its very edge, and decided if I had to bail out and take a bumpy ride down the rapids, oh well,” Hamele related. “You know what? I started to do the cartwheel. I was looking at the water, then I was looking at the sky, then I was upside down and with a nose full of water, and getting banged up on the rocks. But I was happy, I tried and I failed, but I really tried!”
After that, he said, he knew what it took to nail the trick and did it on his next attempt.
“From that time on, I knew that if I wanted to be the best kayaker, or teacher or father I could be, I had to just go for it, prepare myself as best I could, but be prepared to fall flat on my face,” Hamele said. “The only way to get truly better is to push yourself to your limits, and that means you will fail sometimes, but it also means in the end you will have done more and gone farther than you ever thought possible.”
Lastly, the faculty speaker challenged the graduates, every single day, to make the world a better place than it was when they woke up, even though that might sound a bit like a lofty goal.
“You could run for office or advocate for needed legislation,” Hamele suggested. “You could develop a cure for cancer or develop a way to sequester carbon and reverse global warming. Those would be amazing and you may do those things someday.”
On the other hand, he said, making the world a better place can be both simple and profound.
“First, don’t make things worse: don’t litter, don’t be mean, and don’t drink and drive,” Hamele urged. “In other words, ‘Don’t be an idiot.’”
If the students can master not making the world worse, the teacher said, they then can do little things to make it better.
“Pick up some garbage you see in the hallway — even if you didn’t put it there,” Hamele said. “Choose to ride your bike to work instead of driving — better for the environment and your health. Smile at a stranger, listen to a co-worker, and be there for a friend. Buy someone lunch or fix a squeaky hinge.”
None of those things is difficult, he said, adding they don’t cost much, if anything, but they will make the difference in someone’s day.
“Leave behind a legacy of love and kindness, a legacy of trying to leave things better than you found them,” Hamele concluded. “So, to summarize, you can’t go wrong trying to make the world a better place, even if you fail sometimes. And, if nothing else, don’t be an idiot.”
Throughout the ceremony, administrators, teachers and classmates reminisced about their time together the past four years, and offered advice to send the grads on to their next destination.
Class of 2019 President Kate England provided the initial welcome. She said today is the day she and her classmates have been contemplating for years as the culmination of their public school education.
“The future is no longer a distant reality,” England said. “As Dr. Seuss says in his book, ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go,’ ‘Congratulations! Today is your day, you’re off to great places, you’re off and away!’”
She said they started their journey as children, but are leaving here as adults.
“The past four years have helped to develop us into bright young individuals, ready to take on the world and all that it has to offer,” England stated. “Since freshman year, our athletics and co-curricular teams have won conference championships, regional competitions, and have sent individuals to state.
“Our marching band, jazz ensemble and show choir have consistently ranked among one of the top programs in the state,” she noted. “And our clubs and organizations have enriched the experiences of students in this building.”
Clearly, she said, this year’s graduating students have achieved many successes.
“What’s more impressive is that we did all this while experiencing a new deejay at every dance, poorly placed speedbumps, countless senior hour ‘detentions’ and having to get to school an entire five minutes earlier to make up for our six snow days this year,” England pointed out.
As the students set to walk across the stage, the class president said all she can think is, “Oh, the places we have been and Oh, the places we will go.” Looking toward their futures, she said, some of the students will be going on to college while others immediately will enter the workforce and still others will join the military.
“No matter what it is, we will all set our own paths to our own destinations,” England shared. “The paths we choose may not be the easiest nor the most convenient. There will be obstacles and challenges along the way, but I have complete confidence that we will face each hardship straight on.”
In the final few moments of being Fort Atkinson High School students, she gave a big thank you to all teachers, faculty members, parents and the Fort Atkinson community for all of the continual support year after year, and “for helping us reach our successes and grow from our failures. Please join me in a round of applause.”
“Now that our hard work has finally paid off, take time to relax, and always remember to live life to the max,” England emphasized.
Her classmates, Autumn Congdon and Maggie Opperman, served as the student speakers. The pair expanded on the ceremony’s theme, “Oh, the Places You Will Go!” by engaging in a lively interchange.
“We’ll all be heading in different directions — I hear you are going to Georgetown (University),” Opperman told Congdon.
“Yes, but I’ll never see as many bow ties as Mr. Kemmeter has!” Congdon replied. “You know, because of all the nerds! Congratulations on Teacher of the Year, by the way!
“And you’re going to UW-Madison, right?” she asked Opperman. “I wonder if Mrs. (Leigh) Froelich will let you take her projector. I heard those things are going extinct.”
“Maybe!” Opperman answered. “Congratulations on your retirement, Mrs. Froelich.”
As student speakers, she said, they were proud to boast about the many places the class of 2019 plans to go following Sunday’s graduation.
“Whether you’re hoping to go halfway across the world or live in your parents’ basement the rest of your life, we all share this experience at Fort Atkinson High School, and that’s a commonality to take pride in,” Opperman insisted. “Outstanding teachers and staff, great athletics and extracurriculars, and the immense support of our community and businesses from scholarships to internships is unrivaled.”
How many other people, she asked, can say they had a computer science teacher who helped them and their friends shop for prom dresses?
“Thanks to Mr. (Dean) Johnson, I can confidently say that not only have my prom dresses been stellar, but I passed the AP (Advanced Placement) test — also thanks to Mr. Johnson, who I would like to congratulate on his retirement,” Opperman commented.
Next, Congdon thanked everyone in the class of 2019 for the impact they have had on her personally.
“Some of you know me as a nerd, or a jock, or that smiley girl, but I know you as the people who push me in the classroom and in the weight room,” Congdon remarked, flexing her muscles, ”and the people who put a smile on my face each and every day. We are each a collection of the places we’ve been and the places we’re going.”
Some places, like Fort Atkinson, she said, stay with you along the way.
“It’s not so much what the town has to offer, but rather who the town has to offer,” Congdon underscored. “My goal is to go to places that make me feel small with people who make me feel big. The people we surround ourselves make or break the places we go.”
She said the Class of 2019 has brought life to the four walls of Fort Atkinson High.
“Your futures, though? They depend on your willingness to break these four walls,” Congdon continued. “To step outside your comfort zone. To go places you’ve never been, take chances on people you deem worthwhile, and invest in your community, whether it’s this one or one somewhere far away.”
Sometimes, she said, her classmates will feel small, or inconsequential, but these are the moments that build character the most.
“And before you know it, you’ll grow to face the challenges and prove things to yourself: things you didn’t even know you had in you,” Congdon added. “Until you recognize that you’re meant for amazing things, we’ll be rooting for you. We know you have it in you.”
Meanwhile, turning to her classmates, Opperman observed: “Just look at you already! As of today, you are a Fort Atkinson High School graduate! You have a lot to be proud of. Be grateful for all that your family, community and education has provided throughout your journey here in Fort Atkinson.”
In closing, she quoted from the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” by Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.
“You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way,” Opperman concluded. “So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! Kids, you’ll move mountains. Congratulations to the Class of 2019!”
School District of Fort Atkinson District Administrator Lynn Brown also shared with the Class of 2019 a few words of wisdom, playing off the ceremony’s theme “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
She began by recognizing the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education members, “who, with wisdom and guidance, made this day possible.” Each of the board members stood when she called their names: Mark Chaney, president; Ben Knowles, vice president; Adam Paul, treasurer; Dick Schultz, clerk; and Rachel Snethen, member.
She also recognized her fellow administrators at the high school: Principal Dan Halvorsen, Associate Principal Brad Gefvert and Associate Principal Adam Rousseau, as well as all the high school teachers.
“Class of 2019, this year’s theme is, ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go,’” Brown said. “Each of us has a story. It may not be a grand tale etched in history books, but it is an important story, a vital story to friends, family and to those who share life with us.”
The superintendent said much of her life has been written, but that the lives of the students just were beginning.
“Where will you go?” Brown asked. “You are the author. What will you write and how will you write it? I guarantee you, life happens. Take a walk through your local cemetery. You will be surprised at the stories told with sparse words.”
The superintendent challenged the graduates to write their story “in bold colors, to show up every day, live with purpose, have joy in the moment and get up when you are knocked down.
“Above all else, don’t live life alone,” she implored. “Embrace family and friends. Pursue healthy relationship with those willing to invest in your life. In turn, invest in others. This is real life, a story worth writing and one that will take you to places beyond your dreams.”
The superintendent then offered two challenges.
“Parents and older adults, step out and step up,” Brown stated. “Time is short. Be mentors, pass on your wisdom, love with an undivided heart.”
She urged the graduates, when the opportunity comes their way, to learn from those who have gone before them.
“Be open, seek their wisdom. Stay humble,” Brown said. “Remember, while you have curiosity, a million ideas and boundless energy, the one thing you lack is experience. Their wisdom will make it a lot easier for you to go the places you want to go and write the story you want to write. Most importantly, you will leave a legacy for others to follow.
“We applaud you today, we are proud of you and are excited for your journey,” she concluded. “Congratulations Class of 2019!”
Also Sunday, senior class officer Martina Walling, Student Senate representative, recognized this year’s foreign-exchange students who “have become a part of our community as students, athletes and friends.” Students bid farewell to Gabriela de Campos Redondo from Brazil; Ada Maria Damini, Italy; Jesse van Groenestijn, Netherlands; Diego Ignacio Moreno Aravena, Chile; and Alwin Wagner, Germany.
“Although their time here is coming to an end, on behalf of the class of 2019, I would like to extend my appreciation and thanks to our five foreign exchange students who have given us so much to remember this year,” Walling said. “We hope that you have enjoyed your time here as much as we have enjoyed having you.
“The Class of 2019 would like to give each of you a small gift that will allow you to remember your time here at Fort Atkinson High School,” she added. “We wish you luck with your future and hope that you will someday visit Fort Atkinson again.”
On a more somber note, in remembrance of their fellow classmate Max Burlingame, the students had placed a white rose and his jersey on a chair in the gymnasium to symbolize his presence, joy for life and happiness for all of his friends graduating.
Burlingame was killed, along with the pilot, David Plambeck, in an ultralight aircraft crash in the Rock River, between Fort Atkinson and Jefferson, in August of 2017. Burlingame was a junior at Fort Atkinson High School at the time.
Meanwhile, Principal Dan Halvorsen presented the class prior to the presentation of diplomas by the administration and board of education.
“Well everyone, here we are. Standing in front of the students of the Class of 2019,” Halvorsen remarked, noting that, momentarily, the students would walk up to the stage to receive their diploma. “This document will represent some of your accomplishments over the past 13-plus years of your life.”
Sticking with the graduation theme for today, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” the principal said he wanted to wrap things up with three connections to the Dr. Seuss book before sending the graduates out there to see the places they will go.
“Some 13 or so years ago, most of you entered some form of school or place of education,” Halvorsen reflected. “Working with other people, following directions, learning critical attributes of general education as a whole, how to play with others, along with the necessities of where to go and when to go there, all became part of your routine which has landed you here today. In other words, you have been prepared for what’s next.
“As Dr. Seuss said: ‘You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy (or gal) who’ll decide where to go.’”
The principal told the students they have received both a formal and informal education in their lives up to this point.
“Although there will always be critics involved with either of these two, having seen many of the other places in the world that many of you also will get a chance to see, I can tell you, the education you have received for both, has prepared you for what’s next,” Halvorsen said. “You have everything you need, and your destiny is yours to choose. As you have already experienced in your lives, there will be good times and there will be bad times; what you do with either will determine the outcome of your experiences.”
He then quoted more from the Seuss book before saying, “You’ve learned resiliency, you’ve learned grit and determination, pushing through trials and tribulations toward being successful,” Halvorsen continued. “Put them to use, and the bad times won’t seem so bad and the good times will seem better.”
Lastly, and on that same note, he asked, is what the students want to do possible?
“At the end of this small portion of the journey of your life — with many more journeys to go, with many more people to meet, many more accomplishments to accomplish, and many mountains to see and climb — ask yourself this,” Halvorsen said, quoting Seuss. “‘And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! Ninety-eight and 3/4 percent guaranteed. Kids, you’ll move mountains.
“‘So … be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea … You’re off to great places, Today is your day!” the principal continued. “Your mountain is waiting. So … get on your way.”
Lastly, more than anything, Halvorsen said, he wanted to challenge the students to think about which aspects of their life they are going to let go and what aspects they are going to bring with?
“Which aspects have you been able to learn from and which have you been able to learn because of?” he asked. “Not all mistakes are bad. As Albert Einstein once said, ‘anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.’
“Class of 2019, get out there: try new things, experience life to the fullest, take what you have gained from this place and see all that is out there as you go the places you will see … or not. The choice is yours,” Halvorsen said.
The principal said the students should know they give him hope and faith, and give strength to everyone around … “in our school, in our community and in our nation.
“I speak for each of us that have already been on this journey that as you take the first step of this mile-long walk called life, we look forward and take pride in you with … all you’ve accomplished … all you will accomplish and in … the places you will go,” Halvorsen concluded.
Following presentation of diplomas, England thanked everyone for attending Sunday’s ceremony and then led the turning of the tassels.
“Congratulations, Class of 2019,” England concluded. “Your new journey awaits you. No matter where you go as you leave here today, good luck and good travels.”