Through the lens of a high school banquet, a bright future


A comedian once joked that he was a peripheral visionary. He could see into the future, he said, but only off to one side. I saw the future head-on recently, and I felt a lot better about it.

I was asked to speak to Clay High School’s annual spring academic honors banquet, a salute to the top 10 percent of scholastic achievers in each class, freshmen through seniors. As a graduate of Clay a long time ago, I was excited to go back, although it can be a bit intimidating to be surrounded by people who are smarter than I am.

I said yes anyway. Good call.

It was a crowd of about 325 people, 120 of them Clay students, the rest proud parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

I told them that this was their night. So often the student-athletes get all the attention, especially from those of us in the media. The Blade picks area all-star teams in football, basketball, and other sports, but who notices the academic all-stars?

Not surprisingly, the best and the brightest often excel at both. Several of the students who were honored that night arrived in their softball uniforms after a game.

I talked about a teacher at Clay who changed my life, a journalism and English instructor named Robert LaConto. He didn’t have to care so much about my future, but did anyway.

He steered me toward a writing career and opportunities that I never could have imagined as a shy kid growing up on Brown Road in Oregon. Today, he lives in Illinois and he’s doing well in his late 80s.

My wish for the Clay kids, I told them, is that they either have found such a teacher or will before they leave.

As public high schools go, Principal Jeff Thompson oversees an excellent one, a school that keeps pace with a changing world. What I used to call “shop” is now called “Integrated Machining and Engineering.”

My old typing class — yes, we learned to type on real typewriters, using all of our fingers, not just our thumbs — has given way to “Computer Programming and Simulations.”

Teacher Charlie Schneider’s aquaculture lab is part of the Environmental and Agricultural curriculum. Students raise rainbow trout and yellow perch, and have a big fish fry at the end of the year.

Renewable energy is a big deal at Clay. There was no wind turbine out back when I was a student, I can tell you that.

I reminded the freshmen achievers that they won’t have to be the youngest students at Clay much longer. I told the sophomores they soon will be juniors and “veterans” at this high school thing, charged with the important task of helping next year’s freshmen and sophomores cope.

As for the rising seniors, the Class of 2014, a simple message: You only get to be a high school senior once in your life. I urged them to enjoy their milestone year, but to make sure they don’t coast to the finish. They still have work to do.

I’m sure I was preaching to the choir. Look at their grades. Look at their extracurricular activities.

What about this year’s seniors, the Class of 2013? How far they’ve come from their first day as high school freshmen dealing with that delicate mix of nervousness, intimidation, and excitement. Consider what happened while they were high school students.

The Catholic Church chose a pope from the Americas. The United States re-elected an African American as President. Neither had ever happened before.

A brave team of Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden. A terrifying tsunami battered the coast of Japan and killed 20,000 people. Innocent children were gunned down at their elementary school in Connecticut.

A remarkable time in the young lives of America’s Class of 2013, to be sure. Nobody asked me, but here is what I would tell all of this year’s high school graduates, at Clay and elsewhere:

Life is full of good news and bad. You cannot prevent tragedy, but you can create happiness. Work hard at that.

If you are going on to college, expect to be challenged like never before. College-level work is hard.

If you have other plans, make sure you become the prospective employee that an employer wants to hire.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. For most of you, success after high school will not come automatically, easily, or soon.

Money, while important, is a distant second to family and the respect of others. Do not let your pursuit of wealth define you.

But the bright youngsters at Clay’s honors banquet didn’t need a lecture from me. They’re all-stars. They get it.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at: