Third-grade schoolteacher Michelle Montalbano was shocked and proud when she received a letter inviting her to be an honorary guest Saturday at the William Floyd High School graduation.
She was even more excited as she watched the students walk to the podium to collect their diplomas. She had not seen some of them in more than 10 years.
“This is my first graduating class,” said Montalbano who has taught for 11 years and is also an alumnus of the high school in Mastic Beach. “So, the class that I had in third grade is now graduating, which is a really neat thing to see them.”
She is one of the few chosen to take part in asking teachers to come back as an honorary guest. It's a tradition that goes back so far that no one can remember when it started.
“It’s been here for as long as I can remember going back 15 years ago,” said high school principal Barbara Butler.
Each year seniors at William Floyd High School fill out surveys and essays, each one nominating a teacher from elementary, middle and high school who made a difference in their life to participate in the ceremony. The nominations are anonymous.
“It’s very interesting now they’re all grown up and they’re men and they’re women and where they’re going to go to school,” said Rhonda Stitham, a second-grade teacher and another of the honorees. “As a K-5 teacher you never get to see what happens to them after they leave you.”
She says that being nominated is a huge honor and gives her pleasure in knowing that she had a huge part in their lives.
“It’s nice to know that they remember you, and you made some kind of difference. Maybe it was a silly thing you did or maybe it was an astronomical thing you did, but that you made a difference in a positive way," Stitham said.
And the students were equally overjoyed, clapping and cheering as Principal Butler introduced each of the honorees at the beginning of the ceremony.
“I’ve learned from them,” said Pablo Vargas, a graduate. “Not education wise, but in general, life-wise. Life-wise, I’ve learned a lot.”
Montalbano says she hopes this will not be the only time that she is invited to participate.
“It means I’m doing my job.”