by Helen Xia, CHS Student Writer

Congratulations to Catoctin High School’s Class of 2023 for graduating this month! Every year, Catoctin’s graduation is held at Mount Saint Mary’s University’s Knott Arena, where hundreds of students, staff, families, and friends gather to celebrate graduating students’ incredible accomplishments. Years of aspiration and perseverance, ups and downs, and joy and sorrow unite in this one event. Looking out, you’d see Catoctin’s passionate band, a stage seated with admirable speakers, and, of course, a sea of blue caps and gowns. You would hear the band play “Pomp and Circumstance,” feet shuffling—perhaps from nervousness or exhilaration, or a combination of both—and the crowd buzzing with excitement. 

Seeing this, one may wonder: How did we get to this point? A happening as important as this one must require much preparation. What transpires behind the scenes leading up to this celebration? To answer these questions, I sought out three diverse perspectives: one from graduating senior Emma Stream, one from event coordinator David Gadra, and, finally, one from row manager, Russell Headley.

As mentioned previously, graduation is a pivotal milestone for students, which gives rise to a wide array of powerful emotions. “As graduation moves closer, I feel incredibly nervous, yet relieved,” described Stream. “All of my hard work has finally paid off, and I’m relieved and overjoyed at the thought of starting a new chapter in my life. However, I’m nervous because of starting this new chapter, although I know things will eventually work themselves out.”

Many refer to high school as one’s best years of life, but that doesn’t mean high school is free from sacrifices. This sentiment is echoed by Stream, who explained, “There have been many mistakes that I have made in my life. One of the biggest ones I feel I made is sacrificing my mental health for school. The sacrifice of mental health is never worth it, no matter how well you do, as true happiness and content cannot be measured by the grade that you get in some high school class that you will barely remember in 20 years.”

Fortunately, these hardships are opportunities for seemingly boundless growth. “There have definitely been shifts in my mindset throughout the years, but the biggest change in my mindset has been letting go,” reflected Stream. “In freshman year, I would work myself to death and to the brink of exhaustion, but, as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that the stress isn’t worth it. By taking breaks, you tend to do better and feel better.”

The aforementioned growth is apparent to the staff members who treasure witnessing this lively gleam in students’ eyes. “Seeing each senior class, which are all different, growing and maturing after four years is very special to me!” said Gadra. “The facial expressions of each student walking across the stage is priceless as they realize what they have accomplished and the new journey that is in front of them.”

Despite the cheer that floods the Knott Arena each year, the organization process itself is no simple task. “It takes a team and hundreds of man hours to prepare,” Gadra reported. “[I] had a principal once tell me that a school can make many errors but graduation is not one of them. [Organization necessitates] a lot of meetings and divisions of responsibilities! I have done it for so long that it is a tried-and-true process. [It] starts at the beginning of the year all the way through graduation. [As the event coordinator, there is] some [pressure]–just do not want to make a mistake for the students or families!”

Headley, “a proud and enthusiastic Catoctin High School row manager looking forward to [his] 24th Catoctin High School graduation,” eloquently articulated the work behind hosting graduation: “There is a great deal of ‘behind the scenes’ work that our CHS graduation organizers, Dave Gadra and [guidance counselor] Shannon Byrnes, are involved in, from coordinating the lining up, entrance, and exit, to choreographing Catoctin’s iconic musical performances, speeches, and other features of the graduation ceremony, to organizing (and correctly pronouncing!) the names of scores of graduating seniors, in a high-pressure environment, while doing these important things in front of a large crowd that has a very vested interest in the proceedings which are being filmed by hundreds of cell phones and cameras.”

What’s more, Headley holds a unique perspective about graduation. “Personally, my favorite parts of every graduation are the musical performances that our courageous students deliver every year-typically, a live performance of our great country’s national anthem, followed by a live performance of a relevant song that serves as both a tribute and a farewell to each year’s graduating class,” he expressed. “Another thing about Catoctin High School graduations that impresses me every year is the fact that we always have seniors who have chosen to serve their country in our great nation’s military, and I love how we typically take a moment to recognize these courageous young men and women, who have made that patriotic and courageous choice to serve. I also love to see our military color guard, who always make a dignified, solemn, and stately entrance, bearing the flags of our country and state, reminding us that freedom isn’t free, and many soldiers have given what Lincoln called ‘the last full measure of devotion’ to preserve America’s freedom.”

Once more, Headley emphasized the effort Catoctin staff commit to each graduating class–understandably so! “Another thing that impresses me every year at Catoctin High School’s graduation is the fact that a very high percentage of Catoctin’s faculty, and all of our school’s administrative and guidance team enthusiastically volunteer to take part in our graduation ceremony, either by putting on their graduation robes or by assisting behind the scenes with taking tickets, helping with parking, assisting with the seating of guests, delivering speeches, reading the name of graduates, handing out diplomas, and hundreds of other activities that contribute to an exemplary and memorable graduation ceremony each year. I have to give a special ‘shout-out’ to Dave Gadra, who has been coordinating Catoctin’s graduations for quite a few years–I am guessing that Mr. Gadra has been taking on this leadership role for ten to fifteen years, at least, and he is always positive, patient, and very enthusiastic in leading our seniors for several graduation practices and hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes work, [which] culminate each year in a superb graduation ceremony.” Evidently, not only should the students be commended during this ceremony, but all of the invested staff members should be, too! Every year, this event is able to run as flawlessly as possible thanks to their dedication and diligence. As a Catoctin student, I appreciate staff members’ (often undervalued) invaluable and consistent hard work which they generously put in on top of their already-busy schedules.

Catoctin, as a relatively small school, boasts an unrivaled sense of community. This sentiment of achievement and belonging is prominent during graduation where everybody is basking in each other’s light. If you’re a student, I’ll leave you with a piece of insightful advice from Stream: “Anything worth doing is worth doing with half effort, because you know what’s better than a 0? A 75, or even a 50. While those grades might not be what you want, they are still better for your grades and are better for your mental health, as they allow for you to move past the barriers your mind has set.” Otherwise, I’ll leave you with Headley’s rhetoric: “it is a time of joy; it is a time of nostalgia; and it is a time of hope and promise.” The beauty of community shines bright this time of year.

Congratulations, Catoctin’s Class of 2023! Best of luck to all of you!

Did you know that Catoctin’s faculty has the tradition of forming a “tunnel” or a “chute” to give new graduates a pathway from the Knott Arena to the staging area and the back exits, where the graduates can bid their final farewells with their classmates and meet with their parents? I didn’t, either, until Headley clarified this! Graduation’s immaculate organization is remarkable!

Mount Saint Mary’s University’s Knott Arena, photographed by Gregory Koch

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