PARIS — In their last gathering after 12 years together, Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s Class of 2021 experienced a complete return to normal: no masks and closely seated together. But one emotion most had encountered during the course of the pandemic remained front and center in commencement speeches: fear.

Matthew Delamater stands prior to giving the keynote address Sunday afternoon at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s commencement at Gouin Field in Paris. Ram McDonough photo

Facing, embracing and befriending fear was the advice of keynote speaker Matthew Delamater, drawing from his journey from OHCHS student in the late 1990s to investment banker to stage and screen actor. He said he shrugged off the fear of letting go of his structured career and finding his life’s passion.

“I left school driven in my path and became a banker, ” he told students and their families. “I liked it … I felt I could truly help others and help them navigate something that was scary and made them fearful.

“I thought that was my path,” he said. “But something was missing … a part of myself that wasn’t being fully expressed … or listened to. Then one day I decided to do something that terrified me. I called my high school English teacher and my life changed forever.”

That call to Sally Jones lead Delamater to face his fear and open doors that have made him the person he is today — a person he really likes, he added.

“I would never have experienced [my life now] if I hadn’t picked up that phone and walked into that first audition at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School,” he said. “I could have succumbed to the fear of looking stupid, of not getting picked or failing without a fight at all. And I might still be happy. But I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

His acting credits include productions for NBC and Hulu and recently a role in “The Tender Bar,” a film directed by George Clooney that’s in post-production.

Members of the Class of 2021 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School toss their caps into the air Sunday afternoon after commencement exercises at Gouin Field in Paris. Christina Sugars photo

The Bridgton resident told graduates that even the fear of living through a once-in-a-century pandemic had not stopped them from being who they are today, and what to do next was the next fear to tackle, whether they know their path as they graduate or not.

“Don’t burden yourself to have all the answers now,” he said. “But you should trust yourself. Your instincts are one of the best tools you’ll ever know.”

Delamater closed out his address quoting inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb.”  “‘When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.'”

Salutatorian Culliandra Nero echoed similar sentiments during her speech to her classmates.

Culliandra Nero, salutatorian of the Class of 2021 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, addresses classmates Sunday afternoon at commencement exercises at Gouin Field in Paris. Ram McDonough photo

“For quite a while I struggled with deciding what to say today,” she revealed, taking the class on a journey back to their first days at OHCHS when they had student mentors and others explaining how the next four years would unfold for them.

“But unlike the students that came before us, a year and a half later our roller coaster left the track and our world as we knew it paused,” she said.

She reeled off the many experiences that replaced pre-COVID life, including deeper relationships even as students were physically separated.

“We have all taken different paths to arrive at these seats, but I encourage you to use what you have learned during your time here, to feed the fire of joy and inspiration in whatever you chose to do. Don’t wait for success, start ahead without it, and pursue your vision of the future unconditionally,” she said.

Valedictorian Atticus Soehren reminded the class of the support they had throughout their high school careers, singling out several teachers and mentors as well as his parents and thanking them as he listed the ways each had made a difference in his life.

“Some of the best advice I’ve received from (my father, OHCHS teacher Mark Soerhen) is the advice I’m going to pass on to you tonight,” he said. “And that is, in order to grow you need to get out of your comfort zone and take risks. And just like it sounds, it’s uncomfortable. To some, it’s even scary. But when you get over your fear of failure, when you finally start taking risks, those are the times real growth becomes possible.”

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School Principal Ted Moccia congratulates Atticus Soehren, valedictorian of the Class of 2021, Sunday afternoon at commencement exercises at Gouin Field in Paris. Ram McDonough photo

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