Justin Robeny said his life was changed three months ago when his rabbi told him the story of Roger Bannister, the first man to break the 4-minute mile record.
It’s a story Robeny, president of Great Neck North High School’s Class of 2013, shared with his fellow graduates Thursday morning at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Brookville.
“It was believed that it was impossible for a human being to run a mile in under 4 minutes,” Robeny said. But only weeks after Bannister shattered the record in 1954, other runners followed suit, clocking in even faster times. “Bannister proved to the world that breaking the 4-minute mile was not a physical barrier, but just a mental barrier.”
An athlete himself and an aspiring doctor, Robeny, who is bound for Emory University in Atlanta, urged his 229 classmates to believe in themselves no matter what career path they pursue.
“Don’t wait for someone else to accomplish something to make you realize you had exactly what it took to accomplish the same things,” he said.
At the ceremony, Great Neck North High School Principal Bernard Kaplan paid a special tribute to his close friend and former English high school teacher, John Xavier Lynch.
“He inspired me to read, write and discover,” Kaplan said.
When Lynch died in 1978, Kaplan started writing a song about his mentor that he only got around to completing this year with the help of Roger Ames, Great Neck North’s composer in residence. Kaplan performed “John’s Song” at the graduation, accompanied by a small orchestra of faculty and students.
Thursday’s ceremony also featured a Beatles medley performance by the Great Neck North Symphony Orchestra, as well as songs by senior members of the STAGES and Select Singers groups, including salutatorian Ariel Klein.
In her commencement address, Klein told fellow graduates to leave their “permanent records” behind them.
“You have complete control over your future and the choices you make,” she said. “You only live once … after all, nothing is truly permanent.”
The final speech was delivered by Michael Schad, the senior class advisor and a new father. Schad said the birth of his son changed the way he looked at his own parents and the sacrifices they made for him.
“When was the last time you thought about your parents as people with feelings and dreams of their own?” he asked the graduates, adding: “No one is self-made … remember the people who helped you along the way, and above all else, honor their sacrifices.”
While most parents sat in the audience, snapping photos with their cameras, Sharmila Sani, 41, had the privilege of presenting her son, Harvard-bound Jayant Sani, 18, with his diploma and a valedictorian medal.
When Sani returned to her seat, Great Neck Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz whispered to her, “You were up there for all the mothers.”