AYER -- "A famous artist once said, 'We started from the bottom, and now we're here,'" said Senior Class President David Dodge, standing before fellow classmates of the Ayer Shirley Regional High School Class of 2014.
Clad in bright orange sunglasses, Dodge recalled memories throughout high school -- debating over sports, moving to the middle-school wing and watching the construction at the new high school while staring out the window.
"By the time of prom, everyone was totally ready to get out of here," he said. "But that was one last thing that brought us together, and it was one of the best nights of high school."
Principal Brian Haas told the class of about 70 students that each member really beats to his or her own drum.
"I have a hypothesis about you all -- that you have a characteristic that will lead you to success," he said. "And that characteristic that I've seen is that you are your own person."
He highlighted a few members of the class for their accomplishments and interests.
"Jason Mills -- a robotics rock star, a published poet, and a theatrical sensation in 'Footloose,'" he said.
Emily Goodman, he noted, was a representation of hard work both in the classroom and in athletics. Tyler Warila, he mentioned, plays for the junior Bruins.
"Ralph Go -- someone who came to us speaking limited English in his earlier years," he said. "Senior year he played the principal in the school play 'Footloose.' He even got a callback for the movie 'The Hunger Games.'"
Salutatorian Megan Praznovsky tracked the four-year experience of her classmates, explaining that as freshmen they had no clue what to expect.
As sophomores, she said, they felt more confident having survived the first year of high school.
"But it was junior year where we all started to take the steps to becoming young adults, the steps that would lead us to this graduation," she said.
They wanted to be seniors, she said, and soon they were.
Praznovsky said senior year was about experiences -- homecoming king and queen, prom and the senior prank. But she said it was also about moving on, about college applications and options to consider.
"While it did not go how some of us had planned, nothing in life really does," she said.
She left her classmates with a bit of advice.
"As you go into the world, remember to do something you love, in a place you love, with people that love you more than anything," she said. "Make life enjoyable and do things that you can be proud of."
Valedictorian Emma Sheils began her speech with a question asked in a Kurt Vonnegut novel: "Why you? Why us for that matter?"
"I prefer to ask why not you, why not us," she said. "Why can't you be a doctor, teacher or an engineer? What's stopping you from achieving something great? The answer: Nothing."
Sheils advised her classmates not to let fear or nerves hold them back.
She explained her fear of automatic doors, which began when she was young and the doors closed on her at Hannaford.
"A couple of weeks ago, I faced my fear of being cut in half when I braved the subway doors on my way to see Blue Man Group with my AP classmates," she said. "Despite my fear, I survived and I had a great time with my friends."
She told the crowd that if she can make it through multiple sets of subway doors, they can get through anything.
"It's okay to be afraid or nervous, but don't let that fear hold you back," she said. "Instead, let it motivate you to have new experiences."
Mistakes, she advised, are crucial to learning.
"Learn from mistakes and keep on going, because something great could be waiting just around the corner," she said.
She said each of her classmates will go on to do great things.
"I can't wait to see what the future has in store for me and for you, my fellow graduates," she said. "Why not us?"