Amherst graduates urged to bend the moral arc



Published: 06-10-2017 12:39 AM

AMHERST — Hundreds of family members and friends crowded into the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Mullins Center for the 153rd Amherst Regional High School graduation on Friday.

Buying flowers and snacks in the lobby before taking their seats, parents, guardians and loved ones cheered, applauded and laughed as 226 members of the ARHS Class of 2017 basked in the spotlight.

William Wilson was one of the parents there to watch his son receive his diploma.

“I’m excited; he’s my last,” said Wilson, who raised four children as a single parent. His son, Josiah, was walking across the stage not long after having reconstructive surgery on his knee; he tore his anterior cruciate ligament playing for the Amherst Regional boys soccer team.

Now that all his kids are out of school, Wilson laughed when asked his plans for himself: “buy a house in the country and wait for them to take care of me!”

For those unable to attend Friday’s commencement, the university’s informational technology team streamed the event on Livestream, which showed 169 views of the event shortly after proceedings concluded.

“It promotes access for people no matter where they are,” Interim Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris told the Gazette.

He said families had expressed frustration last year about long-distance loved ones being unable to see graduation, and the school — with the university’s help and technological capacity — wanted to accommodate them.

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Principal Mark Jackson led the night off with opening remarks, detailing the many awards students had won for academic and athletic achievements, as well as commitment to social justice.

Jackson told the story of the high school’s gym, which had to be renovated after flooding last fall. He said the more than 60-year-old space was built in an era when most people didn’t think about access to public spaces; the bleachers did not have aisles, handrails, shallow steps or wheelchair ramps.

“Fast forward 60 years, and access is now the central consideration in the gym’s redesign,” he said.

The takeaway is that the arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, bends toward justice, but not without the intervention from people standing up for what’s right.

“What bends the world toward justice is volition,” he said, urging students to find an idea whose arc is in doubt and to bend it.

The ARHS Class of 2017 had three valedictorians, down from five in 2015 and four last year.

Emma Rachel Mack, Maya Noelani Spalding-Fecher and Shira Ma’ayan Yeskel-Mednick took turns at the microphone, saying the number 17 describes the class well: it’s a prime number, and prime numbers are indivisible.

After listing their classes many accomplishments — state and regional sports titles, art and writing awards, human rights recognition — the three thanked all the adults in their lives who made those things possible.

“As the class of 2017, indivisible,” they ended in unison. “Let’s graduate!”

Class President Ben Gilsdorf next reminded his class of the January morning their freshman year when school was canceled because of a threat of violence.

“I think that in that moment, we really began to come together as a class of 2017,” Gilsdorf said. “As a group, we truly matured and came together in the weeks after that, and it allowed us to become something greater than simply yet another freshman class.”

“And not to put down the other classes before us, but I truly think we have the strongest sense of community and class pride than any other class before us,” he added.

Up next was beloved class advisor, campus monitor and ARHS graduate Marc Keenan, who moved between laughter and tears in praising the soon-to-be graduates.

“There’s a couple guys here from my class of 1974, and I think they can vouch — we were never this talented,” Keenan said.

Keenan told the students to follow their ambitions and to set goals, but he also moved beyond advice and thanked the students for being there for him when he needed their support.

“There’s a lot of days I come in, and honestly I don’t really want to be there: it’s hard to get the energy up to say good morning, it’s early, I’ve got other issues,” Keenan said of his daily morning ritual of greeting students. “And by five or ten minutes, I’m right back where I should be because of your energy.”

“Remember to be kind, and if you can, say ‘good morning’ to everybody,” he said. “Because it works!”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at