Dear Senior Class of 2019,
You are special, in so many ways. From diverse talents and passions, to deep-seated kindness, a sharp wit, and a dedication to education, you are a class with impressive range. Selfishly, you’re special for a different reason. You’re my first graduating class as superintendent of this incredible school district. And, you have taught me more than you will ever know.
You are a group that leads by example and you have spent day after day showing me how to laugh, how to trust, how to push through adversity, and how to make people feel great. To send you off, I want to relive some of my favorite stories that we’ve shared together. But first, for your sake, and everyone else’s, let me provide a little background knowledge about the guy that you all willingly embraced from day one, when you certainly didn’t have to.
I entered this year fortunate to have a base connection with a good number of you that dated back years to your time in elementary school. But due to the nature of my elementary positions, and all of us growing older, those day-to-day connections faded. At the same time, I was coming into this year with no superintendent experience, and no high school teaching or administrative experience. My only qualifications for working with high school students were those as a parent and a coach.
I think it would be fair to say that I was a little bit intimidated when I walked into the high school this fall to address the senior class for the first time. But, as a collective, they couldn’t have made me feel more at home. As a class of 297 they were interested and sincere. We connected that day in a way that set a tone for the rest of the year, and I hope the entire rest of my tenure in ISD 882.
But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Prior to that meeting, one of my favorite memories from the year took place at the first football game of the season. That night set the real tone for what this senior class was all about. Not only were they there in massive numbers, supporting their classmates and their school, but a few of them did one of the most special things I’ve witnessed during my time in education. Following the game, I observed three seniors as they took garbage bags out of their back pockets and proceeded to clean the whole student section. I knew right then the level of service leadership that had been installed in this group, and that I was in good hands with my first ever senior class.
Still, when we fast forward to 8:15 a.m. on September 7th, and my first meeting with the entirety of the class, I was nervous. First day of school nervous. One thing I vividly remember is calling our HR Director while I drove to the high school. Our conversation was unique - I asked if she thought it was a good idea to close my first speech with your class by giving each one of you my cell phone number in case anyone ever needed help. She was understandably taken aback. She noted that it was legally OK, but perhaps not advisable. Her expertise is unquestionable, so I put a lot of stock into her words.
However, the speech went well. I gave a few t-shirts away and tried to connect you all to my three goals for the district: establish healthy relationships, be the safest school in the nation, and understand the power of engagement. Through your eyes and respectful body language, I knew this class was a group of people I could trust. So, at the conclusion of my speech, I paused. I looked into the locked-in eyes around the room and asked each of you to take out your phones. I shared my personal cell number as a symbol of trust, and support. Maybe it was brave, maybe it was foolish. Or, maybe, it said very little about me, and everything about you, this class, and the aura that surrounds it all.
The bond I felt that day continued to grow during the course of the school year. I watched some of you during theater performances, I watched others in classes, on the courts, on the ice, on the fields, in hallways, and in the lunchroom. I conversed with as many of you as I could at every chance I found, and I loved how you all always made me feel proud. I can still remember when the first text came to me from one of the seniors. It was a Friday night, September 28. Through a text message I read, “What’s up? Is this the superintendent?” I responded yes and asked who was asking… He replied with his name and said, “I just wanted to see if you would answer.” For the remainder of the year, we developed an instant bond. His mischievous, but trusting smile will forever be burned in my mind. I love how he made me feel in that moment, and throughout the year, rewarding that trust and that bond I’d felt in the auditorium on that early September day. And it was just one example of the incredible personal connections this class made with me, connections that I will cherish forever.
There are countless other stories, and anecdotes, to show how special your class is. Everyone that’s worked with you has them, and I look forward to plenty more being shared on graduation night.
But, your impact goes beyond stories and anecdotes. As a class, you’ve shown me two major things - how to push through adversity and how to embrace diversity. As for adversity, we all know by now that life is not always sunshine and lollipops, and we can’t force it to be. What we can do is control how we handle adversity, thriving in the face of it, while maintaining a positive attitude. I saw that from so many of our students this year. However it was one group in particular that stood out to me.
The time I spent working with students in our STRIVE mentorship program this school year has had such a lasting and meaningful impact on me. Some of these students struggle with academic classes for a variety of reasons, some as simple as struggling to meet academic deadlines. But these students are smart, charismatic, and have opened my eyes to look at life through a different lens. While they have areas of struggle (as do we all), there are so many who are more advanced in the ways of real life than I ever could’ve been at their age. Many of the students in this STRIVE program already know how to take care of themselves as if they were on their own. Many of the students in the STRIVE program have already battled through challenging situations at a young age. Many of the students in this STRIVE program already know how to live in a world that is not always fair. As educators, we always strive to inspire students. But those of you in STRIVE, you were the ones inspiring me, all year long.
Class of 2019, and let’s be honest, probably families as well, you know by now that I’m not big into brevity. I do promise we’ll wrap this up soon. But please just let me share one final sentiment about one more special group within the Class of 2019. Because what I will ALWAYS remember about the Class of 2019, is how I watched the members of this particular group lead and work alongside our underclassmen, working tirelessly to make life better for those around you. I know, from our talks, from observing, from talking to your building administrators and teachers, that when the members of this group see things in this world that you do not like (which you have, and will continue to), rather than turn your backs, you educate... You promote respect...You spend time celebrating what people can do and not focusing on what they can’t do. As a group, you have all worked daily to break down stereotypes and misperceptions, and to make our building, our district, and our world a more inclusive place.
The group that I am referring to calls themselves Unified. This group pairs our special education students with our regular education students to do activities, but what it really does is break down walls, build bonds, and change the world, one relationship at a time.
I hope, and I believe, that this Unified group is representative of the Class of 2019 as a whole. I hope, and I believe, that your class will go out into the world prepared to make it a better place. You have already shown me what it means to push through adversity and to stand up for inclusion and equality. As you go forward, I implore you to continue those habits and to embrace diversity, in people, in experiences, in life. You have reminded me again and again throughout this school year that we are all human. We have similarities and we have differences. We may not always see eye to eye, and we should be comfortable with disagreement, but we should always operate and treat people with respect. Our world has a lot to learn in this area, and we need dreamers and believers, the kind your class is rich with, to continue to push forward to make us all better. We still have a lot to learn as a school system, too. But your class will leave others a legacy to uphold.
You have done all of this so admirably throughout your time in our district, and my one true ask as you move on from our Monticello School District is that you continue to do so … Celebrate people for who they are, and refrain from judging for what they are not; celebrate people for what they can do, and worry not about what they can not; celebrate people for what makes them unique, for it is also what makes them, you, and us, special. Do these things, and you WILL leave the world a better place than you found it, just as you did in the Monticello School District.
I will always remember how this class made me feel. Now go forth and share that feeling with people around the world. And please, as members of the Class of 2019, as alumni of the great Monticello School District, and as citizens of this amazing world … stay Unified.
Sincerely, Mr. Olson