There was perhaps no better visual metaphor of Nikiski High School’s 37 graduates than the cluster of toy soldiers marching up Cory Carr’s graduation cap.
As Carr moved around the room laughing, stooping to hug friends and smiling for selfies — the soldiers defied the inexorable pull of gravity and clung bravely to his head — much like the students at Nikiski have done after recent events.
“You know, it has been a rough time and it’s just a testament to the community that they can come together like this,” said Nikiski Middle-High School Principal Daniel Carstens during the school’s Tuesday graduation ceremony.
This year’s graduation was especially impactful for Carstens whose oldest son, Seth Carstens received his diploma.
The elder Carstens said he held himself together well until the school played its traditional senior photo slideshow during the ceremony.
“The thing that really snuck up on me … was when they showed the baby pictures. I had to catch my breath,” Daniel Carstens said.
One of the highlights of his year, Daniel Carstens said, was sitting down with his 18-year-old son and having a long talk.
“I was able to sit down about a week and a half ago and we talked about a lot of things,” he said.
Portions of the ceremony were punctuated with laughter — especially as class president Richard Vollertson tried to balance out what he termed as valedictorian Michael Hollinger and class speaker Carla Jenness’ serious messages.
Vollertson imitated late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon’s piano skit during his speech.
“I’m just glad people were able to laugh,” Vollertson said.
As the graduate stood in the cafeteria of Nikiski High School, wearing a necklace with several bowties folded from $1 and $5 bills and another made with his favorite sour candies — he said he had been looking forward to his speech all year.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get valedictorian and I like to be in front of people, so I went for class president,” he said with a laugh.
The day took on a surreal quality for Vollertson.
“I’m off on my own, I have to go to college and get a job, provide for a family,” he said, shaking his head.
He plans to attend Kenai Peninsula College and get his degree in business before transferring to a college in California to get an advanced degree.
“I like talking to people, I like directing people,” he said. “Maybe I’ll do some acting on the side.”
As Vollertson attempted to discern what his future held, others exhorted students to try something different.
Hollinger urged his fellow students to ignore the fog of the future and focus on the present.
“Who we are is not so much defined by what we do or what we will do but, instead, how and why we live our lives,” he said. “Yes, we must know our direction, yes we must have goals, but we do not need to know exactly how we get there.”
Hollinger said his generation is consistently being told that it’s their responsibility to change the future.
“How can we change 15 or 30 years from now? Honestly, I don’t think we can because we’re not there yet,” he said. “We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, we don’t even know if we have another day. But what we do have is right here and right now. Yes, we must halt these approaching quandaries, but we cannot do that by solving tomorrow’s problems. We must accomplish it by improving today.”