DARIEN — Most people think of beach balls and graduation caps flying through the air during graduation ceremonies, but for Darien High School, it was butterflies.

At the class of 2017’s commencement June 16, the butterflies flitted around as Indira Flores, the salutatorian, read her speech about the importance of self-advocacy. They drifted by as valedictorian Komal Dhull encouraged classmates to think about the journey ahead of them, not the destination.

The butterflies reminded the soon-to-be graduates of two seats in the crowd that should have been filled by classmates. Both J.R. Schoen and Jacob Velasco-Navarro were supposed to graduate with the class of 2017, but both boys’ lives were cut short by cancer. Schoen died in 2008 at age 9 from an incurable brain tumor. Velasco-Navarro died several years later, in 2013, of rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer found in the muscle tissue.

“J.R. was truly a special person,” said senior Ryan Quinn. “He had the ability to light up every room.”

“Jacob was one of the closest friends I ever had,” said senior Holm Roeser . “Cancer was something I didn’t ever see coming between us...Even during his last days, he poked fun at friends and family. As we go up to the stage, he stands with us in spirit.”

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Darien High School Class of 2017

Buck Allen, Alexandra Alpeter, Susan Alptekin, Matthew Andriunas, Samantha Aparicio, Lucy Armstrong, Catherine Arrix, Christina Arstorp, Trevor Bailey, Kyra Balenzano, Colin Banks, Sophia Barbour, John Paul Barce, Amanda Barlow, Alexandra Barnard, John Beatty, Thea Belak, Michael Belloli, Andrew Benz, Brendan Berrigan, Benjamin Bidell, James Bieler, Theadora Bolton, Logan Book, Claire Borecki, Elizabeth Borecki, Michael Borecki, Elizabeth Bothwell, Sarah Bowditch, William Brandon, Maryelizabeth Broadhurst, Avery Brook, Casey Brown, Brendan Bumgardner, Elizabeth Burke, John Butcher, John Byrne, Alberto Calderon, Escher Campanella, Jack Campbell, Shea Canaday, Julia Canora, Jessica Carlo, Peter Case, Lesly Chamorro, Charles Christensen, Jillian Clements, Alexander Cohen, Arden Cohen, Finlay Collins, Daniel Cone, Henry Congdon, Aidan Connolly, James Conroy, Ryan Corcoran, Madison Corman, Julia Cornacchia, Ryan Cornell, Isadora Coughlin, Kallianne Coughlin, Catherine Crosby, Katherine Cunningham, Mary Daigle, Brooks Daley, Lorena De Caprio, Antonia Demopoulos, Timothy Derby, Komal Dhull, Zachary Dimonekas, Brooke Dirvin, Jean Pierre Documet, Sean Doran, Tianjia Du, Lucy Duffy, Carter Duncan, Grant Duncan, Corrine Dunn, James Durbin, Mia Dursht, Ethan Ehlers, Cameron Elders, Emily Eppley, Thomas Eppley, Mila Escajadillo, Parker Evans, Lindsey Fagerstrom, Jack Farren, James Fay, Quinlin Fay, Isabel Fee, Grace Feingold, Ellen Ferguson, Hannah Ferguson, Christian Fiorenza, Kyle Fisher, Kevin Fitzmaurice, Indira Flores, Aislinn Florio, Ciara Flynn, Jason Flynn, Julia Ford, Olivia Fordyce, Lucas Forlivio, David Foster, Cord Fox, Kirsten Fry, Edward Fuller, Jason Gaaserud, Sean Gallagher, Christopher Gandini, Robert Garrett, Randall Geddes, Ariel Gianukakis, Emily Gianunzio, Ryan Gifford, Harrison Gill, Trevor Gilronan, Alexandra Glynn, Raisa Gongora DeLaZerda, Catherine Gorey, Natalie Gorman, William Granath, Katherine Greco, Katherine Gunya, Malcolm Hamilton-Hall, John Hamson, Michelle Han, Abigail Hancock, Leigh Harrison, Peter Hartigan, Melissa Hartunian, Matthew Hathaway, Ben Hayes, Katherine Heaney, Hadley Henderson, Timothy Herget, Ashley Herles, James Heyne, Samuel Hickey, Nicholas Hill, Megan Hobbs, Granit Hoti, Isabella Howe, Samantha Huff, Katherine Huffert, Jackson Huffman, Mary Huffman, James Hunter, Rachel Hyatt, Spencer Jarecke, Lilly Johnsen, James Johnson, Dillon Jones, Ryan Jones, Scott Jonker, Jordan Kaloyanides, Rohan Kandi, Madeleine Keane, Brian Keating, Henry Keena, James Keever, Emma Keleghan, Daniel Kelemen, Morgan Kennedy, Camilla Kline, Peter Kniffin, Anjay Kornacki, Alexander Kostrzewski, Thomas Kreuch, Leela Krishnan, David Kristof, Kaitlyn Kutz, Caroline Lacy, Elizabeth Lane, Ben Langlois, Emily Lashendock, Talia Lauture, Valerie Le, Vivienne Le, Emma Lesko, Olivia Lew, Kevin Lindley, Alison Lomanto, Slater Lovegrove, Caroline Lowder, Courtney Lowe, Ryan Luttrell, Timothy Luz, Christopher Magnusson, Brendan Mahoney, Mia Malizia, Emily Markham, Peter Marren, Kateri Martin, Jose Maria Martinez Magallanes, Pablo Martinez Palacios, Campbell Matheis, Grace Maybell, Nathan Mayerhoeffer, Juliana Mazzotta, Ryan McCarthy, Catriona McIntyre, Sean McKay, Morgan McLaren, Samuel McMullin, William McNear, Joseph McPartland, Taylor Melton, Mary Mercein, Matthew Meyjes, Gauri Misra, Kristina Mitchell, Christina Molkenthin, Theodore Moore, Ryan Morales, Kelly Moran, Avery Morgan, Catharine Morgan, Caleigh Morr, Jake Morro, James Mostofi, Laura Murphy, Cooper Murray, Katherine Murray, Peyton Murray, Robert Murray, Helena Nicholls, Ryan Niederreither, Theodore Nolan, Matthew Nusslein, Ann Odell, Camilo Orozco, Madeleine Ostertag, Elizabeth Palmer, Ursula Patel, Nicholas Percarpio, Brian Peters, Connor Peters, Grayson Peters, Jensen Peters, Jonathan Petti, Samuel Pfrommer, Kristen Picard, Brittany Pierce, Justin Plank, Luke Pleasants, Ethan Pomeroy, Jason Poon, Jana Powers, Alexander Preston, Ryan Quinn, Colby Ravosa, John Read, Caitlin Reid, Margaret Reilly, Jack Richter, Emily Roberson, Olivia Rodriguez, Holm Roeser, Maxwell Romeyn, Jessica Rucquoi, William Russell, Erik Ryan, Nicole Santella, Cassidy Schiff, Stefan Schneider, Kathryn Schorr, Caroline Schoudel, Kody Schutzman, Andrew Scolaro, Carter Scott, Lila Scott, Madeleine Sears, Mariana Seibold, Colin Shaughnessy, Alexander Sheed, Cameron Shutts, Kerwin Sickinger, Ari Singer-Freeman, Margaret Skeats, Phoebe Slaughter, James Solberg, Diana Staats, Ethan Stansbury, Andrew Starovoitov, Anna Stein, Joshua Stevenson, Riley Stewart, Johnathan Stimpson, Robert Strada, Andrew Stueber, Francisco Sucre, Thomas Sulger, Isabel Sutherland, John Zak Swetye, James Terhune, Tahj Thompson, Wen Yan Toh, Andrew Tomasello, Emily Torrente, Nicholas Trager, Laurie Travaglini, Aaron Vera, Sophie Vilter, Hannah Vogel, Kurt Vollweiler, William Vollweiler, Etienne Vongerichten, Meaghan Waldron, Candice Wang, Keenan Warble, Samantha Wind, Walker Wind, Theodore Woll, Bridget Wolters, Eden Wright, Elizabeth Wright, Emily Wright, Katherine Wright, Martha Wright, Griffin Xie, Caroline Yostpille, Hailey Zimmerman

During a special remembrance at graduation, the boys’ friends released butterflies, a nod to Schoen, who loved to catch them, as flute music played softly in the background.

Schoen and Velasco-Navarro never met, but they are connected by their community and the Good Friend Scholarship, an award in their honor for a graduating senior who demonstrated kindness and compassion.

Stefan Schneider, friends with Velasco-Navarro and Roeser, also spoke during the ceremony.

“We had a grand plan of coming to high school and taking it on together,” said one-third of the trio. “Cancer had different plans. I wish he was still here with us, so we could finish our plans.

“Even though he’s not with us today, he is and always will be part of the class of 2017,” Schneider added.

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Valedictorian speech by Komal Dhull

Good afternoon. I would like to begin by extending my gratitude to those who have provided us with guidance and support throughout our high school years, as a result of which we are all here today. Thank you to all Darien High School teachers, for encouraging us to challenge ourselves and helping us discover our passions. Thank you to our parents, for driving us to our extracurriculars, coming to our sports games and musical performances, and for believing in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves. And of course, thank you fellow members of the class of 2017 for making the past four years a memorable experience. Through homework completed the period before, late nights spent writing essays, and a barrage of standardized testing, we’ve finally made it. Congratulations! I know that you’ve all been inundated with advice from the adults in your life who know you’re a senior in high school. Most of that is probably good advice— after all, they, unlike me, are speaking to you from a perspective broadened by not only college but years of workplace experience. But, today, I hope I avoid simply echoing the sentiments you’ve heard at Thanksgiving dinners and family gatherings. When I first began learning to play the piano, I saw sheet music as series of instructions to be followed without question— notes to be played in order and tempo, volume and mood dictated by a forte or legato above or below the bar. My job, I thought, was to follow these directions as written, and the result would be a beautifully played song. Much in the same way, it’s easy to get caught up in the view of life as a journey with a destination in mind, to believe that if you follow a specific series of steps you’ll find a lucrative career, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, or whichever definition of success it is you prefer, waiting for you at the end. But neither music nor life is formulaic. As I moved to more difficult songs, my piano teacher gave me some advice: she told me to make the piece my own. She wanted me to add my own expression and emotion, instead of restricting myself to the instructions explicitly outlined in the music. The audience, she said, would be unlikely to notice a minor rhythmic mistake, but they’d take note of the feelings I poured into my performance. It was more important to craft a meaningful story with the music than it was to be entirely correct. This lesson, I’ve found, applies to much more than a piano recital. Although we cannot always control what happens, each and every one of us has the power to shape what we take away from our experiences. We gain what we put into them: opportunities for growth and learning abound, if only we are willing to work for them— to wake up at 5am for that morning practice, to stay in on a sunny weekend afternoon to finish that paper, or to spend those extra hours with a piece of music. I, for instance, am not the same person I was four years ago. Fourteen year old me would have agonized over the prospect of giving a western civ presentation. Today, I’m standing up here, and thus far nothing particularly catastrophic has happened. I think this holds true for most of us— over the past four years, we’ve developed our sense of identity, learned to be more comfortable in our skins, and nurtured our interests. But the time for self-improvement is not over: your future experiences are vehicles for personal growth if you let them be. Make mistakes, deal with the consequences, and then learn from them. Strive to become a better person. Seek out new and unfamiliar experiences— go scuba diving or learn to waltz. Do the sorts of things that would surprise the people who knew you in high school. Class of 2017, I hope you make your experiences uniquely your own.

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Speech from Darien High School principal, Ellen Dunn

Good evening, Members of the Darien Board of Education, Dr. Dan Brenner, colleagues, parents, grandparents, guests and most distinguished members of the Darien High School Class of 2017. There is a long standing graduation tradition at DHS of students presenting a small token to the principal as they receive their diplomas. Tonight, I am told, you will each hand me a beautiful paper butterfly. A butterfly is a perfect symbol for this occasion. Your childhood dreams were carried on the wings of these fragile creatures and you let your imaginations wonder at their flight. You squealed with delight when one rested on your finger and somehow, even then, you understood its magic and message of hope. The butterfly appears for a moment and is gone. If we are not careful, we can miss its presence. As we look upon you tonight, your parents, teachers, and friends, we feel that, like the butterfly, you have only been here for an instant. You hold a special place in my heart because my daughter is also a member of the class of 2017 at her own high school and I speak as both principal and parent this evening. Her metamorphosis has paralleled yours. Looking back, we parents remember when your eyelids fluttered as you slept in our arms and this day was a distant dream. We can still hear you singing from your crib at the first sign of sunrise. We long for the days when we tamed the monsters under your bed and quieted your fears when lightning filled the night sky. Many times over these 18 years we have wished we could make time stand still. In a way we have gotten our wish tonight. Our lives may be a frenzy of motion but milestones like this one give us a chance to pause and reflect. Today is a day fraught with contradictions. We want you to listen to us, but you must find your own voice. We want to protect you, but you must be free to make mistakes. We want you to avoid failure yet we know that failure will be your best teacher. We want your heart to be safe from harm yet we want you to know deep and abiding love. We don’t want you to suffer the pain of loss but we want you to take risks for what is worth keeping. We want to hold on to you yet, like the butterfly, we know you must spread your wings. I was a biology teacher at Darien High School for 19 years and I can tell you that biologically speaking the butterfly undergoes a complete metamorphosis, meaning that it passes through four stages on its way to flight. These stages are so distinct that they bear no resemblance to the final form. The fertilized egg begins as one cell with all of the biological content necessary to orchestrate the journey. You also have everything within you that is necessary to navigate your future. Get to know yourself and be true to who you are. Your inner strength will guide your decisions and be your compass. The caterpillar emerges and it is designed to consume. It is voracious in its appetite in order to fuel the change ahead. Like the caterpillar, you will need to build your reserves. Be a consumer of knowledge. Surround yourself with good people and reap the benefit of their wisdom. Take in all that the world has to give you and become the kind of person you admire.

Next, the caterpillar attaches itself to the leaf and is enfolded in the chrysalis for a period of inactivity. Take a lesson from this and find opportunities to be still. Shut off the phone, turn down the noise and be silent. Listen to the whispers of your heart and remember that life is precious. Hold those you love closer and tell them when you have the chance. Don’t waste a moment on hatred, bitterness, worry or regret. Finally, the butterfly’s design is perfected for flight and it struggles to emerge. At its most vulnerable, the struggle forces fluid into the wings giving them shape. Your struggles will shape you as well. Overcoming challenges builds the resilience that will sustain you. The challenges you face will fuel change and creativity and carve out new directions. With renewed perspective, you will emerge like the butterfly, stronger than before. But it doesn’t take a biology teacher to recognize that you have picked a perfect symbol for your final day at Darien High School. You have metamorphized into extraordinary young men and women before our eyes. There has never been a more impressive graduating class, not because of your outstanding accomplishments but because of your kind hearts, generosity of spirit, and profound gratitude. You are the hope for the future of our world and I am confident in your ability to change it. When we look upon your butterflies, we will remember you fondly for the impact you have had on this place. We have learned so much from you. You have changed us for the better. Remember as you take flight that this is always your home and that you are loved. Godspeed on the journey. Mr. Michael Harmon, members of the Darien Board of Education and Dr. Dan Brenner, I am proud to present to you the Class of 2017.