BELFAST — Belfast Area High School graduated 89 seniors Sunday afternoon with a quartet of impressive speakers who delivered poignant and uplifting messages to the crowd of family members and friends.

Addressing their classmates, Salutatorian Jonah Lovejoy, First Honors Essayist Grace Hall and Valedictorian Ada Potter delivered their remarks to a receptive audience that responded with applause, whistles and cheers.

Keynote speaker Sgt. Matthew Steinort returns to his seat amid applause from BAHS graduates June 5. Photo by Carolyn Zachary

Arguably the most moving talk came from the keynote speaker.

Sometimes paths are not straight

San Antonio Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Matthew “Matty” Steinort, BAHS class of 2010, recalled his own ceremony 12 years earlier and “praying that my diploma was inside that fancy blue book.” In introducing him, class adviser Molly Ross said the school had asked Steinort to speak “because sometimes paths are not straight and clear ….”

Steinort was a kid who struggled, was arrested three times before he was 16, but found himself through baseball. Teacher George Ross “taught me how to be a leader on the baseball field and turn the game of baseball into a way of life, and follow my passion,” Steinort said. Describing himself as a “solid D+ student,” he said he had the “skills to play in college but not the grades.”

Deciding his best path forward was the military, he applied the leadership skills he had learned in baseball during two and a half tours in Afghanistan. Steinort earned two Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart, but combat injuries killed his dream of becoming a Green Beret. So he chose a new path in law enforcement.

He has since been awarded San Antonio’s DWI and Drug Interdiction Officer of the Year Award from 2017 to 2020, as well as the Police Hall of Fame Life Saving Award. He also became a K-9 handler and the father of a daughter.

His point, he told the class, was that “you have the power of your future.”

“Each path you take is going to impact you, some good, some bad. And it’s up to you to make the best of each situation you will face,” he said. “Do something positive.”

His second point concerned mental health. “A few years ago, with all my success, I was failing … as a husband, as a father, as a friend and as a police officer,” he said. The problem was unacknowledged PTSD. He struggled for years to hide it, seeing it as weakness, but his nightmares were getting worse, he was seeing ghosts from combat, he was drinking to go to sleep. “I was losing the war inside my head,” he said.

Some of the men he deployed with helped him. “These men who used to laugh as explosions and bullets were flying around them were now sitting around a campfire with me, crying and telling stories about how they overcame it,” he said. “It wasn’t until that moment that I realized it’s OK to ask for help. The next morning I signed up for an intense eight-month therapy program and successfully completed it.”

Acknowledging that some of the BAHS graduates were joining the military, others going to trade jobs, still others to college, Steinort said, “Every single one of you will face major stressors in your life. Don’t quit, don’t give up, push through it, and when the time comes, ask for help. Your darkest time will make you strong.”

Wishing them all the best, he said, “I hope each and every one of you will conquer this journey we call life.”

Salutatorian Jonah Lovejoy welcomes graduates and guests to 2022 commencement ceremonies at Belfast Area High School June 5. Courtesy of BAHS

Welcome

In his welcome address, Jonah Lovejoy first asked the audience to pause for a moment of silence for the 21 lives lost in Uvalde, Texas; the “kids who should have graduated but instead lost their lives to gun violence”; and the “unnecessary lives lost in Ukraine.”

He welcomed “the classiest class of 2022, for years now considered the smallest class,” but marveled that so much talent “was crammed into this small class that I’m surprised we weren’t able to graduate earlier.”

Jonah mentioned a breathing exercise during the class’s baccalaureate service designed to help the seniors “feel a little more present.”

“…Intentionally focusing on each breath forces you to enter a tranquil state of mind, leave the trivial stress about the future, regret of the past, grounding you to that particular moment.”

Borrowing from the 14th Dalai Lama, he told the class, “We are human beings before we are human doers,” linking that thought to the “continuous pressure” on the young adults to find out “who we are and who we will become.”

Jonah urged his classmates to “find a moment, today, or sometime in the near future, to ground yourself in the present and admire who you are. Love your imperfections, accept your failures, and revel in your own beautiful and unique existence.”

Grace Hall delivers her Honors Essay during BAHS commencement June 5. Courtesy of BAHS

Achievement vs. happiness

Grace Hall, who delivered the First Honors Essay, spoke about achievement and happiness.

“For the longest time, I thought achievement and happiness went hand in hand — in fact were virtually the same thing,” she said. Yet every time she reached a “finish line,” she found the sense of happiness that came with the achievement “was fleeting.”

As graduation neared, she began to ponder what achievement is, what happiness is, and their relationship. “The message that they go hand-in-hand … could not be more wrong,” she said.

“Achievement looks different to everyone. For some of you, it might be winning a state championship, getting good grades or getting your dream job. For others it might be simply getting out of your bed in the morning, getting dressed, balancing personal and school life, or setting aside time for yourself during the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“I hope you find true happiness,” she told her classmates. “… I hope you can all find the kind of happiness that makes you believe you are meant to be here in the world, living a life worth remembering. I hope you live every day like it’s your last, find a group of friends that make you feel completely yourself, are loved unconditionally and reciprocate that love.

“…Above all, I hope you recognize that your achievement — or lack thereof — does not define who you are and does not determine when or if you are deserving of attaining true happiness. Rather, I hope you find contentment with where you are presently instead of always looking to the future.”

She left her classmates with some advice:

  • Make peace with your past so it doesn’t spoil your present,
  • Call your family often,
  • Dream more while you are awake, and
  • Souls do not meet by accident.

BAHS valedictorian Ada Potter urges classmates to stay together, learn the flowers and go light as they go off into the world. Photo by Carolyn Zachary

Poetic guidance

Wind whipped up when valedictorian Ada Potter rose to the podium for her farewell address, but she managed to hang onto both her mortarboard and her speaker notes as she tied her remarks to the last three lines of “For the Children,” a poem by Gary Snyder: “Stay together, learn the flowers, go light.”

She felt daunted giving her speech, she said, “because I am not sure I am qualified to offer you all life advice, much less a roadmap.” But she saw guidance in those three lines.

“We have navigated our daily lives in the grip of a pandemic — a year when we couldn’t attend school with our friends in the other half of the alphabet,” she said about the line “stay together.”

“A polarizing election. War has broken out overseas, and our reproductive rights are under attack. It is more important than ever to listen to each other and focus on what we share, not what separates us,” she said.

Though “a loner by nature,” Ada said some of her best memories of high school involved others: playing soccer with her team under the lights one last time, taking glassblowing with five other classmates, moshing in semi-formal wear after two years of canceled events, and “going all-out for March Madness to claim our dominance over the lowerclassmen.”

‘Learn the flowers’

“Determine what for you makes this life worth living and dive into it without reservations,” Ada told her classmates. “We have a person in this class who has produced multiple immersive albums, another one who has done extensive environmental research on zebra fish. We have a classmate who bends the rules of gravity when he pole vaults. And another who has painted 15 self-portraits, each one chaotic and provocative. We have a person sitting here, my senior co-captain, who moves the soccer ball through the opposing team with practice, poise and confidence. Our salutatorian took two years of engineering and calculus. No offense,” she said, addressing his teachers, “but who does that?! ”

‘Go light’

Remembering freshman year, Ada said, “I used to cram giant novels into my track bag and hide behind them on the bus because I was shy and awkward and far more reserved than I wanted to be. Somewhere around the time the straps on my bag snapped, I began to realize the necessity to go light in more ways than one.

“It means navigating this world without worries and reservations …,” she said. “It means leaving behind grudges and regrets, forgiving others, forgiving yourself. It means packing only what you need: grit, generosity, boldness and laughter.

“So as we go from here, scattered toward distant paths,” Ada said, “keep these words in mind: stay together, learn the flowers, go light. Hold onto what is close to you, stay present, seek out joy, and you will find your way.”

BAHS seniors line up on the track before processing for their commencement ceremony June 5. Photo by Carolyn Zachary