AYER -- Frances Sullivan traveled from Everett on Friday for the graduation of her two great-nieces at Ayer Shirley Regional High School.
"Look at them all. They look so nice," Sullivan said, smiling at the 71 graduates sitting on the stage in their white and burgundy caps and gowns.
The weather didn't cooperate. Graduation was to be held in the Harold G. Norton Memorial Field. But students and faculty weren't thrown by the change. Nor was the program -- which included a rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by seniors Olivia Grallert, Naomi Watts and Hannah Levensailor, faculty addresses and the traditional salutatorian and valedictorian speeches -- less passionate or moving than they would have been outdoors.
The graduates appeared to be well-versed in handling the unexpected, a trait their teachers praised and encouraged during their commencement addresses.
"Remember, life isn't always the party we hoped for, but since we're all here, let's dance," Levensailor reminded her classmates.
Retiring English teacher Pauline Sullivan said she had made it her business to care more about her students than her subject matter.
"You risk disappointment, having your heart broken," Sullivan said, adding during her 36-year career she came to realize that taking chances with her heart always paid off.
"Appreciate what you have," Sullivan said. "None one of you made it onto this stage on your own. Neither did I.
Salutatorian Charlie Goss recalled breaking beakers in chemistry lab and agonizing over calculus.
Valedictorian Hannah Grise talked about the pain of leaving friends, an experience she endured often during her school years.
"It is going to hurt," she said. "As a perpetual new student, I know it will be painful at first. ... But change can make us better people."
Principal Brian Haas assured the graduates that he wouldn't ask them to sit through a long, boring speech.
"I wanted it to be personal," he said of his message. "I have a short list that comes from my family, my father. You only do this thing called life once. Make it count. Work hard. Be passionate about what you do. And have a can-do attitude."
School Committee Chairwoman Joyce Reischutz offered the inspiration of Hellen Keller, John F. Kennedy and others whom she said brightened the 20th century.
"Commencement is a beginning," Reischutz said, urging the graduates to think of others, find ways to give back, and to find joy inside themselves.