“To be honest, at first I wanted to be an astronaut,” West New York’s Memorial High School Salutatorian Emilio Feliz said last week. He graduated on Wednesday with a 4.33 grade point average and a spot in the pre-med program at Rutgers University next year. “I’ve studied more this year than any other, and with the excruciatingly hard demands of my AP classes, I had no time for ‘senioritis.’ ”
And graduation is no excuse for Emilio to kick back, as many seniors understandably do the summer before launching into their post-high school lives. He hopes to attend Rutgers’ Step for Success program beginning June 30 “so I don’t forget all that I’ve learned,” he said.
Memorial awarded 350 students diplomas this year, with approximately 64 percent transitioning to four-year colleges and 20 percent to two-year programs, trade schools, or the armed forces, Principal Scott Cannao reported.
“We will face them together and meet them head on, because we are all tigers.” – Principal Scott Cannao
Top students, best friends
“When I found out our ranks, I told Emilio ‘Oh hey, you’re number two!’ and he asked, ‘Who’s number one?’ ” valedictorian Ariel Parkinson said. And in true Austin Powers style, she put her pinkie to the corner of her mouth, eyes to the sky, and laughed.
Though they may rib each other frequently, Emilio and Ariel not only have the best GPAs in the class, but they are best friends. “I like to bust his chops,” Ariel said, as she insisted that Emilio demonstrate what she called “The Hand.” An avid ballroom and Latin dancer and dance teacher, Emilio has taught dance lessons to students celebrating their sweet fifteens (known as quinces in the Latino community). He instructs teenage girls how to hold their hands while dancing by suggesting they pretend to hold a credit card between their thumb and forefinger.
“I’m excited to meet new people in college, and for the dancing and singing clubs they have,” Emilio said.
Both teens have spent their little spare time participating in what they call drama and chorus “season.” The reason for the season, Ariel explained, was the long hours both extracurricular activities required of them.
“When spring comes along I tell my friends to be prepared to hear, ‘Sorry, I can’t’ in answer to every request to hang out,” she said. “Sometimes rehearsals will run on weekends for 12 hours. But we really are like a family and we all love it, obviously, or else we wouldn’t do it.”
Parkinson found herself waxing melancholic and tearing up the other day while she and the choir sang “Seasons of Love” in preparation for their graduation performance.
“I’m going to miss the people here,” Dominican Republic-born Emilio explained. “Ariel, my teachers – especially Mr. [Steven] Hempel. Maybe it’s sterotypical, but back in the D.R., everyone was so homey. The community at Memorial reminds me of that.”
Excellence despite adversity
“We’re notorious for our crazy schedules here, because we have so many students and the administration tries to meet the needs of everyone as best they can,” Ariel said in reference to the challenge of overcrowding Memorial will face until the remedying plan to purchase the former St. Joseph’s parochial school building across the street comes to fruition.
Ariel attended St. Joe’s before it shut down and she came to Memorial her sophomore year. Despite the craziness she mentioned, she came to love it. And with a 4.6 GPA and plans to study history at the College of New Jersey in Ewing next year, she clearly thrived. Her plan is to one day go into corporate or international law.
“I have always considered myself someone who wants to speak for people who don’t stand up for themselves,” Ariel explained. “I want to have a career that helps other people.”
Cannao knows a little something about having a career focused on helping other people. Despite the overcrowding and funding cuts the school has faced in recent years, it was ranked as number 50 in the state’s top 50 high schools (out of 389) according to U.S. News.
“We face challenges on a daily basis, but always seem to overcome them,” Cannao said. “Our staff and students do not make excuses; they fight harder. We know that whatever challenges are out there, we will face them together and meet them head on, because we are all tigers. We never quit and never give up.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com