Thursday evening, dozens of Grand County High School students will don those silly mortar board hats and move their tassels from one side to the other, indicating they no longer have to answer to instructors and are free to move on to other adventures.
In a small town the best educators become legends, and Moab is lucky to have many of them. When I was a student here, I took classes from one or two teachers that my mom had studied under 25 years earlier. I also had some professors at the University of Utah who had taught my parents journalism and political science when they were there. There are legends on every campus.
This same cycle has happened with me and my kids, as they have been lucky enough to learn from some of the most influential, most admired people in my life. This year’s commencement speaker is Peggy Nissen, who, after more than three decades as an educator and advisor at GCHS, has touched thousands of lives. When she retired from the faculty at GCHS, she generously ran for school board where she is continuing to have a positive impact on our education system.
Peggy was and continues to be a beacon in my family’s life. I was a junior in high school when she came to Moab for a job. She wasn’t a whole lot older than us kids, which made it easy for her to become an effective teacher. She could tolerate our youthful energy, while driving home the things that needed to be taught.
Peggy’s husband-to-be Jim Nissen had arrived in Moab a year prior to her, saddled with the domestic difficulties of being a single parent to two young daughters and with the challenge of rebuilding a band program at the high school. They met in Moab in the early years of their teaching careers here, and married a few years later. That was more than 30 years ago. I remember this because I had just graduated from high school. They went on to have two children of their own, who are now, of course, adults, but the Nissens have been surrogate parents to untold other kids along the way. Jim, also retired, has become a legend of sorts in our town too. A few years back he received the Circle of Honor award at graduation for his positive impacts to local learners. The Nissens have cared for this town and its students as much as any couple could.
I hope the GCHS Class of 2013 will pay attention to Peggy as she takes the podium Thursday evening. If it were me at the microphone, my advice to graduates would be to find work that they like, and to try like hell to find jobs with benefits and retirement plans.
But there is more to stepping into that wild blue yonder than work and worry. And I’m sure Peggy will have just the right words to help the graduates on their way.