Graduation 2022: Fight For Change, Be The Helpers

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Casey Harris, a biology teacher at Verona High School, was the faculty speaker at the 122nd VHS graduation on Thursday, June 23. You read the speech he delivered, or watch it in the video below:

It is such an honor to speak in front of the wonderful class of 2022 and their friends and families. I’m here today to talk about one of the issues that is closest to my heart: revenge on my enemies. Oh wait, no, that’s the wrong speech. Gratitude! Right, right. I’m here to speak about gratitude.

I’ve been teaching high school for 18 years now. I am so lucky that I get to be a teacher and work with teenagers. It just suits my personality. Could you imagine if I had to work with adults? Sitting in a dull conference room somewhere: “Yes Chuck, our third-quarter profits are looking quite robust this year.” I can’t picture that.

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One of my favorite things about teenagers is that they don’t immediately accept society as we present it to them. We adults often end up settling for the norms of our culture. But teenagers see everything with fresh eyes, and they question and challenge our norms, and they make our society better for it.

I’m here today to tell all you seniors to keep it up. Keep questioning. Keep fighting for change. Please, whatever you do, don’t accept society the way we offer it to you. Keep up the courage to fight hard for the change you need. To our students of color, you have shown us all what this courage looks like. Continue to speak up and speak out. Racism in all forms is unacceptable in our community. To our LGBTQ+ students, you show us what this courage looks like. Love is the most important human emotion and you can love any way that you want to. You belong here and you belong everywhere. And to anyone else out there, no matter who you are, if you feel like you don’t fit the mold our society casts for you, demand a new mold that fits you just right. It is not your job to change yourself for society, it is society’s job to change for you. Every single one of us is part of that fight right now.

And if we are going to demand change from our community, we must also help out by being active members of it.

The world right now can feel overwhelming. Just think about what you have been through the last three school years with covid. No high school students have ever had that particular challenge before.

And if that wasn’t enough, you look around our country and our world right now and you can see so many other challenges. We see wars. We see political division and intolerance. We see rampant racism and misogyny. We see gun violence. We see the threat of climate change. And as high school graduates, you often see us adults utterly failing you on every single one of these fronts. This must feel overwhelming to you, because I know it does to me. But there is an incredibly simple quote that I often think of that helps me immensely, and it’s not a quote from an iconic Vine (which are most of my quotes). I used to watch the show ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’ as a kid. Fred Rogers is a hero of mine. He said that when he was a boy and felt scared of things he saw in the world, his mother would tell him “Look for the helpers. There are always people helping”.

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As simple as that is, this quote rings in my ears during every tragedy that I witness. Look for the helpers. One of the most traumatizing events in my life, in many of our lives, were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

As I sat watching the news that day, absolutely devastated, I thought of that quote. Look for the helpers. And the way that our nation came together to help at that time was truly remarkable. That unity lifted all of us up.

So, seniors, what I’m saying to you is this: fight for respect and inclusion in your community, but also serve your community. And this applies to the adults here too. Be the helpers. Offer your assistance. Think of others before you think of yourself. Speak out for others who might not speak out for themselves. Be willing to sacrifice some of your personal freedoms in order to benefit the larger group, because that’s what living in a community means.

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I find that teenagers are often the ones who best model this for us. I’d like to give you a few examples of what this service to the community looks like.

It looks like Katie Hunt and Sydney Theilmeier preparing food and making home repairs for the underprivileged with the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell. It looks like Ella Mathewson spending time with teenagers with special needs through the We’ve Got Friends organization.

It looks like the senior members of the Verona Rescue Squad: David Held, Ava Keating, Amelia Koellhofer, Aaron Richards, Dylan Conway, Jessica Day, Thea Bilbili, Juli French, and Christian Despecci. It looks like Annalie Ying, Shalena Seepaul, and Eleanor Newman volunteering at the Verona Public Library. It looks like Naizha Wegesa and Ashley Duhaney leading the BLACK in Verona club. It looks like Lauren Kobernick, Sara Bochicchio and all the members of the VHS Key Club organizing the Hawkins Toy Drive and Jack’s Food Town food drive. It looks like Lucy and Emma Hogan running Verona Juniorettes, a group that does a range of service work in town. It looks like Andrew Della Fera and Chris Petrino working at Toni’s Soup Kitchen and Jack Ghingo helping developmentally delayed children learn basketball at the community center. It looks like Tommy Sabo and Gavin Martin volunteering with the Verona Fire Department.

It looks like Abby Castillo, who organized a food drive for CUMAC in Paterson and collected and delivered all the items herself. It looks like all the members of Ms. Ramos’s Marine Bio Club doing their annual beach clean up.

It looks like Sabrina Farro, Sam Costigan, and Marykate Dougherty promoting autism awareness through the Luv Michel organization. It looks like Jack McHugh singing the national anthem at nearly every event in Verona for the last four years.

And the list goes on. I don’t have time to mention all of you, but I definitely could. A community that works together to help everyone like this is something to be grateful for, so, seniors, show that gratitude. Look at this beautiful community gathered here today. All the people that are here to love and support you.

It was a community very much like this one that saved my life this past Valentine’s Day. I was playing basketball at the YMCA in Ridgewood, something I had been doing for the better part of a decade, when I suddenly lost consciousness and collapsed. One of my coronary arteries had become completely blocked, and my heart had stopped beating. At first, the guys I was playing with weren’t sure what to do, but a couple of them began performing CPR on me while others ran to get help.

In an extremely fortunate turn of events, a Ridgewood police car happened to be nearby the Y and two officers came into the gym with an AED. The shock they delivered to me restarted my heart. EMTs were on the scene quickly and I was rushed to a nearby hospital where a cardiologist found the blockage and inserted a stent into the artery. Within no more than an hour from collapsing, I was already lying in a hospital bed recovering.

Once I got home, my wife and I didn’t have to cook dinner for well over a month due to the outpouring of people bringing us meals. And thank you to Mr. Cogdill, Mr. Merkler, Ms. Mejia, the rest of the VHS administration, and the wonderful VHS teachers that all supported me in my transition back to work. And now I’ve just completed my cardiac rehabilitation at Hackensack Hospital, where a team of healthcare professionals have given their all to get me properly back on my feet. I stand here today deeply grateful for every single person that helped me that night and in the days that followed.

I understand that the example I’m giving here is pretty extreme, but we are nothing without our community. Friends, family, first responders, doctors and nurses, neighbors, teachers, organizers. There are always people helping. To those Rescue Squad members I mentioned, if I lived in Verona it might literally have been you helping to save my life that night.

Look for the helpers, and be the helpers. When our world is at its darkest, remember who we can be when we work together. Small grievances don’t matter in the long run. When we extend a kind word to our neighbor, when we stop and help a stranger, when we work at a cause that is bigger than ourselves, that’s when we show who we really are. And that’s how we change the world for the better.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to stand before you all today. The class of 2022 is very close to my heart, just like the stent that my cardiologist inserted. Alec Hamson wrote that joke for me. Good luck seniors!!

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