[Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Grand County High School’s Class of 2016 should not be afraid of the world; the world should be afraid of them.

Class valedictorian Emilia Cubelos left her peers with those parting words during the school’s graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 26.

As hundreds of friends, family members and others filled the school’s north lawn to watch 105 seniors receive their diplomas, Cubelos gestured to them as a sign that the class is surrounded by people who care about them deeply and genuinely, and who love and support them in everything they do.

“Just look at this graduation ceremony: Nowhere else is it a community event to watch the outgoing high school class graduate,” she said. “There is a heart here that has made us the extraordinary people that we all are.”

Sure, she said, a small school in a rural community doesn’t have the same kind of access to resources that other places may have.

“But we’ve got something even better,” she said. “Growing up in Grand County has provided us with a myriad of blessings completely unique to us all.”

For Cubelos, the time she spent living and growing up in an isolated rural community helped her find her own footing.

“It really taught me to be independent and self-driven, and to go out and get what I wanted,” she told the Moab Sun News.

Inspiration from Sam Woodruff

The ceremony reunited the seniors with three faces from the recent past: Lin Kolb, Steve Hazlett and David Bryson.

In addition to honoring the students, the school also recognized the accomplishments of Kolb, a veteran Spanish teacher who retired in 2013 after a three-decade career. Kolb, who received the the school’s Circle of Honor award, described herself as a big-city kid who had a lot to learn about life in a small community.

At the same time, the class paused to remember the life of student Sam Woodruff, who died in August 2013.

Former class adviser and business teacher Hazlett, who retired from the school last year, recalled that Woodruff used to ask him, “What you doin’, Hazlett?” whenever the two crossed paths. Hazlett responded by asking Woodruff the same question.

“It got to the point where I would never let him say ‘nothing,’ and he pulled it on me and he would never let me say ‘nothing,’” he said.

To this day, an emotional Hazlett said he still mulls over the same question, and he urged the class to do the same. As they go on with their lives, he asked them to find the things that make them truly happy and bring them joy.

“Because it’s the joy that you’re going to remember,” he said. “It’s not the what-ifs; it’s not the things that you’re worried about the most.”

Speaking of less profound worries, Hazlett said he was slightly concerned when he first set off with the seniors on a river trip last week, because sometimes, those trips tend to get “a little crazy.” But he soon realized that his fears were unfounded.

“I was giving them the talk about being good and that kind of thing, and I realized about halfway through that I didn’t really have to worry,” he said. “A couple of them spoke up and said, ‘Yeah, Hazlett, we’re kind of awesome,’ and you know, you guys are kind of awesome. You’re really awesome.”

Former GCHS English teacher Bryson agreed.

Bryson returned to the school from his current home in Carrollton, Georgia, to serve as the ceremony’s commencement speaker, and he told the crowd that he is taken aback by the students’ depth and maturity.

Cubelos credits this year’s student body leaders for working hard to engage their peers in school activities.

“There was a really good attitude at school this year,” she said.

While Cubelos found that she struggled elsewhere to make friends before she moved to Moab as a freshman, she found that she had no such problems here.

“I think it’s just a more accepting environment,” she said.

From that accepting and supportive environment, class salutatorian Cody Jones joked that the class is dangling on the edge of a dystopian future where young adults are forced into a televised death match with each other.

“I would like to welcome you to the 74th Annual Hunger Games,” Jones said. “OK, not really, but at this point in our lives, it kind of seems like it. We might not be in any actual mortal peril, but what lies head is frightening nonetheless.”

Up until this point, he said, they’ve never been anything but kids who have grown up together and learned how the world works.

“But now we stand at the precipice of our future, one of life’s greatest crossroads,” he said. “The path is dim, and our imaginations can’t help but to picture financial arrows and swords of responsibility around every unseen corner, just waiting for us to make a mistake.”

Growing up is scary, he said, but they must all take that first step into the unknown.

“It’s up to us to decide what the future holds in store,” he said. “At this point, we can do anything. Endless potential lies within each of us, and nothing is holding us back.”

From “The Hunger Games” to the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” Cubelos found another life lesson: the phenomenon of viewing life through “break-up goggles,” when people reflect on a major part of their past lives with nostalgic eyes.

“As you close that particular chapter of your life, you tend to look back on it and see only what was good, and all of the bad completely disappears from memory,” she said.

However, no one in the Class of 2016 can claim that the last four years of high school were perfectly magical, she said.

“That’s not real,” she said. “Even those who had the ideal high school experience still went through hardship; they went through struggles. But, in the end, they triumphed. Their presence on this stage tonight is indicative of nothing, if not that.”

She urged her peers to keep her words in mind not just that night, but for the rest of their lives, because they point to a simple truth:

“It is our struggles that lead us to our triumphs that make us who we are,” she said.

Teachers can also play a role in that development, and Cubelos said the lessons they taught were not confined to state-mandated standards.

“Thank you for teaching us not just about derivatives or the difference between simile and metaphor, but also about living,” she said. “Thank you for teaching us about happiness; thank you for giving us the creativity and the bravery to aspire. Thank you for giving us the strength and the drive we need to chase after our dreams.”

Class of 2016 feted at graduation ceremony