The Star-Herald

Ashland graduates urge each other to conquer fears, stay connected to loved ones

ASHLAND, Maine — Before she and her 22 fellow graduates of Ashland Community School walked off the stage and into their futures, salutatorian Willow Hall wanted to make one thing clear: giving a graduation speech has not made her any less afraid of public speaking.

“If you had told my elementary school self that I’d have to write my own graduation speech, let alone speak it, I wouldn’t have come back,” Hall said. “Standing here before you tonight has made me realize that all of my fears are completely justified.”

But amidst the laughter coming from the audience of parents and SAD 32 staff members, Hall had a serious message to share with her classmates: overcoming one’s fears takes time and that’s okay.

Hall encouraged all of the soon-to-be graduates to conquer their fears and anxieties head-on every day rather than avoid them completely.

“My major anxiety is something that people do everyday. I’m terrible at talking to people. It’s awful. I stumble. I mess up every syllable. It makes me feel embarrassed,” Hall said. “My advice to everyone else: work through and overcome your own fears and anxieties, as I am tonight. If you’re afraid of heights, start with a hill instead of a mountain.”

And while the Class of 2021 is busy climbing their own hills and mountains, they might also consider slowing down and keeping pace with others in their lives, noted class president and valedictorian Hailee Cunningham.

Cunningham recalled the moment when she learned that she had been named the top student in her class. For the first 10 seconds, she said, she felt elated, just as she had expected. But in the moments that followed, that feeling disappeared quickly. She kept pondering why she felt a sense of “nothingness.”

“I realized something that I want to share with you all: Working hard is good, but it should not be done for the sole purpose of individual award, at the expense of your relationships with others,” Cunningham said.

As she fought back tears, Cunningham revealed that although she is proud of her academic achievements, she considers her relationships with family, friends, teachers and mentors as the true source of her satisfaction.

As her classmates prepared to take the next steps in their lives, Cunningham asked them to not let their professional ambitions become more important than the people they know and cherish.

“It’s in our relationships that we find opportunities to grow, learn and influence others. It’s where we find hope and happiness, love and laughter and charity and forgiveness,” Cunningham said. “Without that, who are we?”

Adding to the wisdom of Hall’s and Cunningham’s speeches, SAD 32 superintendent Gehrig Johnson offered his favorite historical quote from President Abraham Lincoln: “Most people are about as happy as they make up their own minds to be.”

“Think about that for a moment. President Lincoln said that to Congress 155 years ago and it’s as true today as it was then,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of things we can’t control in our lives, but your own attitude is something you can control.”

ASHLAND, Maine — June 4, 2021 — Ashland Class of 2021 graduates Lucien Hammond (left) and Alden Routhier prepare to march offstage after receiving their high school diplomas Friday evening. (Contributed photo | Michelle Fournier)

ASHLAND, Maine — June 4, 2021 — Salutatorian Willow Hall addresses the Class of 2021 during their graduation ceremony on Friday. (Contributed photo | Michelle Fournier)

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