Buckfield Junior-Senior High School valedictorian Mya Austin glances back at the other 34 members of her graduating class sitting on the stage as she encourages them to embrace life in all its aspects— good, bad, ugly, or indifferent—  and “enjoy the ride” during commencement at the school’s gymnasium Friday. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

BUCKFIELD — Speaking to the 2024 graduates of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School, former race car driver and state Rep. Austin Theriault stressed that being successful in life is going to be challenging, and that you have to take chances to get ahead.

“When opportunity knocks, you gotta take it,” Theriault said. 

The metaphor of life as a rollercoaster (or a race car), the challenges in life, and fear of failure were a few of the themes that seemed to weave together into a general common thread throughout the different speakers’ remarks at the school’s gymnasium Friday night.

Other speakers included the class valedictorian and salutatorian, and the school’s first parent speaker, who provided a proper “send-off” speech specifically requested by this year’s graduating class.

After graduate Caylie Principe sang the National Anthem, Principal Troy Eastman introduced Theriault to the crowd, saying he thinks he has a “good story to tell.” 

Graduating senior Caylie Principe, at podium, sings the National Anthem following the opening processional of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School’s commencement Friday, as Principal Troy Eastman, left, and attendees stand facing toward the U.S. flag. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

Eastman said the school was looking for someone “youthful” to serve as commencement guest speaker this year and the decision was based on a connection Eastman and Theriault made 10 years ago through racing.

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Theriault, the former stock car racing driver and Republican nominee challenging U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, spoke to the graduates and their assembled friends and loved ones about the importance of challenge, stress and hardship in developing character and teaching valuable life lessons that perhaps could not be learned any other way.

State Rep. Austin Theriault, a Republican who will face U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd District congressional race in November, speaks Friday to Buckfield Junior-Senior High School’s 2024 graduating class. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

He spoke of a “movement” he senses in today’s culture where people are striving to avoid any type of conflict, challenge or difficulty in life. Without these adverse experiences, Theriault argued that some “important life lessons” can never be learned.

“That comes from years of stress, depression, anxiety, financial troubles,” he said.

Theriault explained how he made a difficult and potentially risky decision early on to forgo college and move to the southern United States to try his hand, and foot, at professional stock car racing. 

Theriault got his start racing when he was 13 at Oxford Plains Speedway and continued in the sport with passion, until eventually making his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut in 2014.

“You don’t know what’s around the next corner,” Theriault said.

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In October 2015, Theriault feared he may never race again after his back was broken when another vehicle crashed into his, forcing him into a concrete wall at 160 miles per hour during a race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Las Vegas Speedway. 

“Life can change in the blink of an eye,” he said.

Theriault also encouraged the graduates to largely ignore pressure from society on finding a career passion or a lifelong field of study immediately after high school.

“Only you know what’s in your heart,” he said. “And it may take you years to figure it out, and that’s OK.”

A young girl gets a lift to glimpse the 35 seniors from Buckfield Junior-Senior High School march into the gymnasium to the sound of the “trio” section of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D,” the traditional tune featured at graduation ceremonies, during the opening processional of commencement Friday. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

Theriault advised graduates to “embrace the hard times.”

“Challenge yourselves every step along the way, don’t give up,” Theriault concluded. “If you have a goal, even if you get knocked down continue to try to reach it, and lean on your friends and family along the way.” 

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The valedictorian, Mya Austin, said that her and her friend, salutatorian Addison Stevens-Belanger, thought of every way possible that they could avoid giving their speeches because they were so nervous.

Once Austin took the stage however, she found it “quite comforting” that all the business of senior year was finally coming to a close. She delivered her valedictory address with a message of resilience — wrapping the triumphs, challenges and memories of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School Class of 2024 together.

Austin implored her classmates to find joy in the little things, focus on accomplishments, and take all the good memories and bad memories and cherish them as part of the natural rollercoaster of life, “learning to love life for its ups and for its downs.”

Many high school seniors get bombarded with expectant questions about what they are going to do with their life and what the plan is, Austin said.

“A lot of us don’t have answers. And for those that do, we have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” she said. And that’s OK, she said.

“We’re all experiencing life for the first time. Don’t let feelings of sadness or disappointment take over all the time you have,” Austin said. “Laugh a little, smile until your cheeks hurt, put your hands up and enjoy the ride.”

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Salutatorian Stevens-Belanger discussed her lifelong struggle with the fear of failure, and revealed some tools she used to overcome it and even channel that energy into a positive success. She described the starts-and-stops and bumps in the road she experienced during training to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) so that she can pursue a career as a semi-truck driver.

“Many times I stalled it at a stoplight and gave the instructor whiplash because I wasn’t able to keep my heel on the floor,” Stevens-Belanger said with a laugh.

Another challenge to pursuing freight-hauling is the fact that truck-driving is not a typical job for a woman, she noted.

“I encourage you to remember that fear of failure is just a stepping stone to success. Learn from your mistakes and never let fear hold you back,” she said. “We must get back up and keep moving forward.”

Buckfield Junior-Senior High School graduate Hunter Morris smiles Friday at his family after giving his mother and father, Elisha and Jesse Morris, roses during the school’s rose presentation. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

The class also held the school’s traditional rose presentation ceremony during graduation, in which each graduate individually threads their way through the crowd to find the most special people in their lives — whether they are parents, grandparents, teachers or friends— and honor them with roses while a large screen at the front of the gym displays photos of the grads as toddlers in contrast with their current senior photos.

Eastman introduced what may become a new tradition at Buckfield’s commencement: having a parent speak to the graduates in a “send-off.”

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“This is a proud moment for parents. Often, we don’t get to hear their voices,” Eastman said. “So this year, the class made the decision that they wanted to hear from a parent. So we created a ‘parent send-off.’”

Josh Cousineau, a realtor and former youth pastor at East Auburn Baptist Church, was given the honor of being the first parent to “send-off” Buckfield’s graduates. He stressed that things will change drastically after transitioning from the high school bubble to the adult world, specifically, that life will continue to change.

Buckfield Junior-Senior High School Principal Troy Eastman presents Dylan Bickford with his high school diploma Friday at graduation. Thirty-five seniors graduated as part of the ceremony. Evan Houk/Advertiser Democrat

“Ultimately, you’re not top of mind to anyone else but yourself from here on out,” he said. “The sooner you learn this, the faster you will free yourself to be who you’re truly meant to be. The amazing thing is the world needs you to be you.”

Cousineau imparted three truths to the graduates that he said, if understood, will “free you and empower you to become the best version of yourself.” He implored graduates to “fail forward, take risks, and remember, the lows do not last.”

“Life is like a roller-coaster, as many of you rode on the senior trip to Florida, full of ups and downs, quick turns, quick drops, moments that will take your breath away, and moments while you’re waiting in line of that fearful anticipation of what this ride is going to be like,” Cousineau said.

The song “Compass” by country music band Lady A played during the recessional while the newly transitioned alumni of Buckfield Junior-Senior High School filed out of the gym, on to the next chapter.

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