Members of North Surry High School’s graduating class totaling 206 students walked onto a stage to receive diplomas Saturday morning and then stepped into the next chapter of their lives, but didn’t leave unarmed.
The presidents of the school’s student body and senior class offered some suggestions on how to proceed — only these did not involve the usual “you can be anything you want” or “today is only the beginning” speeches.
Instead, the viewpoints they espoused for the Class of 2017 were decidedly realistic and down-to-Earth, not exactly what one typically hears at commencement ceremonies.
For example, the highest-ranking North Surry senior academically, student body President Caleb Cooke — the main speaker for Saturday’s program — didn’t focus on what it takes to be a winner, but just the opposite: how to “fail with grace.”
“Contrary to popular belief, failure is one of the most-efficient things a person can do,” Cooke told rows of dark-blue-clad seniors seated in front of him. Also listening was a crowd that filled most of the home and visiting bleachers at the North Surry Greyhounds football field, school board and other officials seated on the stage and faculty members positioned nearby.
“It is inevitable that there will be failure in our lives,” added Cooke, who is headed to Duke University and a double major in history and music. “We must learn to fail with grace.”
Though he’s only a teen, the son of Chris and Julie Cooke said he already had tasted failure in testing the waters concerning his future educational plans.
“In preparing my speech, I turned to the person who has always been there for me: Google,” Cooke joked regarding the popular Internet search engine millions of people rely on to explore every subject known to man.
Though he found examples of lofty graduation addresses, Cooke said his attention gradually migrated toward a stack of rejection letters he had received from other universities to which he had applied.
This involved the Ivy League family, such as Princeton University — where he was put on the wait-list — as well as others including Georgetown and Tulane.
“The letters all say the same thing: no, no and no,” Cooke told his attentive audience gathered at Surry County’s largest high school.
“I took the risk of applying to select institutions, and like so many others, I failed,” the student conceded.
“But you know what? Life happens,” he said of what this experience has taught him, which is, it’s OK to take risks and discover new horizons because that’s a formula for growth and success.
“People who never fail are the people who are less likely to do something.”
Winning is emphasized in virtually every corporate workplace nowadays, with failure viewed as a ticket to termination, but Cooke said he embraces an opposite philosophy.
Failure can force one to redefine goals and adjust his or her path, he said, mentioning that this led to his plans to attend Duke — also one of the top schools in the country.
“First of all, listen to your parents,” Cooke explained, saying his mom had made him apply to Duke “because she thought I was not going to get in anywhere else.”
He advised his fellow seniors that certain companies in turn might not seek out less-than-perfect employees who learn from their mistakes and are willing to work hard to improve. “But somebody somewhere is looking for people just like you.”
Cassidy Willard, president of the senior class, continued in the same vein Saturday when she spoke after Cooke in delivering the farewell address to the soon-to-be graduates.
Willard referred to a common commencement ceremony utterance, “live life to the fullest,” but followed that up with a question:
“What is living life to the fullest?” said Willard, who will enroll at Wake Forest University in its pre-med program. She believes the answer is not gaining the most education, money or power — but a passion for life.
“Find whatever it is that excites your soul,” Willard told fellow seniors. “Be passionate about something — anything.”
She basically encouraged the class to continue what it is already doing.
“I plead with each senior here — do not stop now,” said the daughter of Mike and Candy Willard, urging the students to keep learning and dreaming.
“An outstanding group”
Along with hearing special remarks and seeing sons, daughters or grandchildren receive their coveted high school diplomas, Saturday’s audience learned that the North Surry Class of 2017 is a special group.
Principal Paige Badgett said that 83.5 percent of the graduates plan to further their education.
Among other options, 3.5 percent will enter some branch of the military.
Badgett said the class has excelled academically, with 39 of its members achieving a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or higher.
As of Saturday, it had garnered scholarships totaling $4.4 million, the principal said as the crowd applauded.
“The Class of 2017 is an outstanding group of young people,” Badgett said.
And no matter what, reminded Willard, the senior class president, “once a Greyhound, always a Greyhound.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.