The Great Neck North High School Class of 2022 weren’t the only ones bidding farewell to their high school experience during Thursday’s commencement ceremony at the Tilles Center.
While roughly 300 students received their diplomas in front of a packed house at LIU Post’s theater, attendees also recognized Joseph Rutkowski, the school’s director of instrumental music, for 30 years of work at North High School.
Rutkowski, who was also recently honored by local grassroots organization Destination: Great Neck, studied music theory in New York and Germany and served as Stuyvesant High School’s symphony orchestra conductor before coming to Great Neck.
Sofia Notar Francesco, a North High alum from 2017 who is pursuing her master’s in music education at Florida State University, lauded her former instructor for the impact he had on her and countless other students to enter his room.
“Mr. Rutkowski created lasting bonds with many of his alumni with his passion for music along with the way he cares for his students,” she said. “Mr. Rutkowski changed my life and the lives of so many others.”
Rutkowski said his wife asked him what he would do the next time he raises his hands and students do not begin to play music. After a slight pause that had the audience eager for his response, he answered, “I’ll find out tomorrow, let’s do this!”
A roar of applause filled the Tilles Center auditorium and the next 10 minutes put Rutkowski’s impact on full display as North High’s Symphony Orchestra played excerpts from Faure’s ‘Pavane’, Holst’s ‘Jupiter’, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet and Beethoven’s ‘Symphony 9.’
Class valedictorian Sahar Tartak, who was also the recipient of the school’s Alan L. Gleitsman award, spoke on her journey throughout high school and reflected on the unique experiences she had throughout the COVID-19 pandemics.
Zoom classes, socially-distanced walks along Middle Neck Road and enduring a small asthma attack while virtual boxing were just some of the memories she spoke about in her speech, titled ‘Earth Avenue.’
“Your life, your future is just a nighttime stroll down Middle Neck Road,” she said. “Except it’s not Middle Neck Road. It’s Earth Avenue. Earth Avenue was scary at first, maybe it’s not what you’re used to, it doesn’t feel safe, even though it mostly is. Yet you will get to know Earth Avenue, so long as you open yourself up to it.”
Tartak said the “unfamiliar streets” can become a home to everyone, if they embrace them as such. The daunting experiences that may lie ahead for the class of 2022, she said, can become much less intimidating if they put it all into perspective.
“Just like Middle Neck Road, you can always come home and home is always with you,” Tartak said. “So I promise that we will get through it, that life is good and we will get through it because Earth Avenue is a marvelous place and people will wave back. They will adore you and welcome you into their home, support you in your struggle and celebrate you in your success.”
District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast lauded the class’ strength in the face of adversary. Surviving through the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining a tight bond within their group, she said, is reflective of how strong winds make the roots of palm trees grow stronger.
“Remember that when life gets tough, you will bend but not break,” she said. “Your roots, not your situation, define who you are. So when you get confused, worried or sad from what is happening in your life, understand that your circumstances do not define you.”