Baccalaureate is a hard sell.
No one knows what the word means. It sounds vaguely inspirational, a tad bit religious, perhaps even elite. In the long list of Westport graduation to-dos, baccalaureate ranks low on most lists.
It shouldn't. Baccalaureate -- a farewell ceremony for a graduating class -- could use some serious rebranding. At its best -- and Staples does it very well -- it's a warm, poignant evening that draws together graduates, their relatives and teachers the night before they march together for the last time.
Graduation, Staples-style, is often a less-than-memorable affair. The fieldhouse is hot, the acoustics tough, the graduates themselves tough to distinguish (everyone, from the valedictorian to the class clown, looks equally faux-distinguished in caps and gowns). But the fieldhouse is the only place that can hold all 450-plus graduates and their many parents, grandparents, siblings and hangers-on.
The auditorium works fine for the smaller numbers at baccalaureate. It is very comfortable. The theater seats feel right. The air-conditioning eases the late-June heat. But there is still plenty of warmth in the air.
Emotional warmth, that is.
After a month away from Staples -- doing internships, preparing for college, partying with the same friends they've had for years -- the seniors return for one more night. A remarkable thing happens. Looking around, greeting each other, watching classmates perform, listening to much-lighter-than-graduation speeches and watching a video, they realize one thing: "My high school career is about to end. I've made it -- and so have all my classmates. I'm surrounded by some pretty remarkable people."
Which is followed by the next realization: "Why haven't I gotten to know half of these people before?"
Last Thursday's baccalaureate was a great one. Emcee Ryan Shea -- one of the few students known by every member of the Class of 2013, both for his outsize personality and lifetime of growing up in Westport -- introduced Emily Troelstra and Chase Sosnoski, to lead the pledge of allegiance. Both are joining the military; Emily is headed to the U.S. Naval Academy. For the first time, many seniors thought about military service, and the choices and life experiences that led these classmates to this point.
Hunter Wendroff rocked a Jimi Hendrix-like version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on guitar. Live music is pretty much dead in high school; it's all DJs, hip-hop, techno and whatever. But Hunter has clearly forged his own path, and his pride in playing before his class was palpable.
Jacqueline Devine accompanied herself on piano, as she sang "Love Song." It was, she explained, the same song she performed for the first time in public, in seventh grade. Now she would play it again, for the last time as a 12th grader.
As the Class of '13 listened to Jacqueline's powerful voice, many thought back to their own middle school years, marveling at how far they'd come in just a few short years. Plus how many new friends they'd made on the way, and how many they'd lost touch with.
Rebecca Finell and Grace Bergonzi performed a dance routine. Most seniors have never been to a ballet, but their appreciation for their classmates' talent was clear. They realized how much of their time these two girls have dedicated to an art form that gets very little recognition. They applauded lustily for every difficult move the dancers made.
Tyler Jent, Grace McDavid-Seidner, Michelle Pauker and Clay Singer sang the complex but jaunty "Some Nights." The choir followed with two moving numbers: "The Longest Time" and "Over the Rainbow." It was a rich reminder of the role the arts play at Staples -- and a notice to some students that, by never going to a concert or play here, they've missed out on something big, and important.
There were speeches, too. Beloved health teacher and wildly successful track coach Laddie Lawrence described his own difficult growing-up experiences in Westport, and his route to spending the past 41 years at his alma mater.
His shout-out to national champion runner Henry Wynne made the 95 percent of Stapleites who have never seen him run recognize one more form of excellence -- and humility -- right in their midst.
Salutatorian Robert DeLuca nailed his speech -- a simple evocation of everything he has learned in school. Most of it has nothing to do with equations or formulas, and everything to do with how to treat people.
The final video -- "Movin' On" -- was perfect. It showed hundreds of students, staff and administrators dancing joyfully. Plenty of serious stuff goes on every day at Staples, but underlying it all is a powerful sense of freedom. We're all in this together, the video showed, even if we never had the time (or inclination) to get to know all the faces we've seen here, over and over for four years.
Graduation the next day was anticlimactic. The Class of 2013 had already baccaluareated.