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Montezuma-Cortez graduates step into the future, forever young

Montezuma-Cortez High School graduates cheer for one of the speakers at the graduation ceremony Thursday evening. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Class of 2022 overcame pandemic upheaval; teacher’s rap song a highlight of ceremony

Walking across the stage at Panther Stadium, 107 graduates of Montezuma Cortez High School took their first steps toward independence and adulthood while embracing the 2022 class motto “Live Forever Young.”

Several hundred friends and family packed the stadium in warm, breezy spring conditions to cheer on the graduates, who succeeded despite the upheavals of a worldwide pandemic and intense political division locally and nationally.

In the spirit of living forever young, keynote speaker and social studies teacher Chris Kelley ended his speech by performing an original rap song he wrote for the occasion. A link to the “Class of 2022 Rap” was made available on a QR code on the back of the program.

Kelley described his speech as a mullet moment, “all business up front, all party in the back.”

Students persevered through a unique time in history, he said.

They endured a pandemic and “hostile displays of political division.” They navigated “arguments regarding our civil liberties, masks, vaccines, mandates, censorship and persecution.”

Graduates react as friends cheer as the class of 2022 enters the Panther Stadium. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School graduates look to the crowd in search of relatives and friends during the graduation ceremony. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School class of 2022 parade into Panther Stadium for their graduation Thursday evening. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Christopher Kelley does a mic drop after performing a rap at the end of his speech for the graduates. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Shylee Graf gives the salutatorian speech at the Montezuma-Cortez High School graduation ceremony. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Avery Wright gives the valedictorian speech at the Montezuma-Cortez High School graduation ceremony. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Graduates toss the hats in the air at the end of the Montezuma-Cortez High School graduation ceremony. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Montezuma-Cortez High School honored 107 graduates during a ceremony Thursday. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

They witnessed friends, family and neighbors submit to “political animosity.” They were “exposed to a country battered by protests, riots, a deadly insurrection, and racism.”

The next chapter awaits the up-and-coming generation of M-CHS graduates.

“I have watched you grow together and support each other through one of the most incredibly difficult times that our world has ever seen,” Kelley said. “You have all shown me day in and day out over the last few years that hope can defeat hate, that resiliency can defeat regret and that strength can defeat struggle. Class of 2022, thank you. Graduates, you are courageous, and you are strong.”

But, there was a caveat.

“Now you must do something with your greatness,” Kelley said. “You have to prove to the world that all of this resiliency and strength that you have garnered over the last four years will not dissipate once you walk across this stage today. You must prove to yourself, each other and all of us that you can and will be the generation to mend these divisions. I believe in you.”

He advised students to practice empathy and sympathy. To be nice, knowledgeable, and to vote.

And to watch out for “knives in the couch,” he said, a metaphor to beware of the unexpected. Kelley learned this lesson after his house was robbed and the robbers hid knives in the couch pointing up, which injured him as he laid down.

Live each day with mindfulness and appreciation, he said. Watch for the wolves and “snakes in the grass” waiting for you to slip. Watch for the scammers and thieves: “They are the knives in the couch.”

The graduates gave a standing ovation to Kelley’s rap song, which had an Eminem-style tone. The lyrics were peppered with audio distortion effects.

“Ghetto blast my rap at your graduation parties later tonight, get up and bust a move!” Kelley said.

Valedictorian Avery Wright honored teachers and urged her fellow graduates to embark on a never-ending quest for knowledge. She will attend the Colorado School of Mines.

Teachers are our foundation, Wright said, and society is at risk if people lose their love of learning.

“Our teachers create our foundation for lifelong learning. They fill us with a sense of support, instill motivation and guide us to be humans, rather than just students. I cannot stress this enough, teachers are the foundation of our civilization. Montezuma County is blessed with incredible teachers, and I am grateful for all the experiences I have made with them,” Avery said.

Besides passing on knowledge day after day, teachers go the extra mile by guiding students through life, whether it is helping overcome the aversion to dissecting a cat’s brain in science class, taking time during lunch breaks to answer calculus questions, patiently listening to student beliefs and opinions, or making literature lessons entertaining.

“Good teachers do more than just teach, they form us into the humans we are preparing to become. Good teachers are important, yet we treat them like they are not. If we lose good teachers, our civilization will fail. Our future generations will not be supported, motivated, or taught to be humans rather than students. If we lose good teachers, we lose our love for learning.”

Grasping calculus has been a long time goal for Avery, and after failing the first test, she kept at it and aced the last test.

Too often, people quit when they first fail, she said.

“They don’t want school to be hard, or to feel the sense of accomplishment from hard work. They have lost the love for learning.”

Good teachers are half the equation.

“Like every relationship, motivation must come from both sides. Kids must want to learn, not be forced. Kids need to chase after A’s, even if they have received F’s.”

Without a passion for learning, the cure for cancer will never be discovered. Species will not be saved from extinction. Our world will fail, Wright said.

“We must be the catalyst for change because we cannot keep tracking down this road watching our society perish,” she said. “We all have a purpose in this world. It is now time for each of us to discover that purpose. We have always heard that we are special, so let’s show the world we are.”

Salutatorian Shylee Graf congratulated her fellow graduates and urged the crowd to live a life of virtue, adventure and optimism.

“We struggled, but we persevered. We faced trials and tribulations, but we didn’t back down,” she said. “While all of this seemed to take an eternity, we can look back now and realize that the last four years went by quickly, and we may struggle to say goodbye. We all have wonderful memories of our time here at M-CHS, and those will always be a piece of who we are.”

The potential for success in each graduate is a powerful force, Graf noted.

“We are all capable of something wonderful,” she said. “The sky’s the limit, so make the most of it. Try new things, go places you only used to dream of going to.”

Keep a positive outlook on life, it makes life more fun and rewarding, she said, and don’t forget to push the limit.

In the words of her grandfather: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space! Class of 2022 go forth and take the world head on and live on the edge!”

Sample of “Class of 2022 Rap“

Keynote speaker Chris Kelley performed a rap song at the 2022 Montezuma-Cortez High School graduation. Here’s an excerpt.

You’ve been waiting for this moment, for a very long time, now it’s here and I’m laying down rhymes,

And it would be a crime, If I sent ya all off without dropping ya’ll some dimes!

You’re a class of survivors, super proud,

With your eyes to the skies, and your feet on the ground.

Pandemic, politics, wars and race,

Okay Boomers, yo, we get it, you just can’t embrace,

That THIS generation is taking your PLACE,

So what do I do after Graduation?

Do I set a new course on my life’s navigation?

Do I float through a sea of my own imagination - no hesitation?

Don’t trip, you’ll be acknowledged

It doesn’t matter if you go to work or if go to college,

It's not about the path you take, it’s about the plan you make to keep your head filled with knowledge,

Never stop learning, keep yearning for what the world is churning

Keep the fire of desire for intelligence always burning


Like an outburst, I’m unsure of the words in my third verse, conversely rehearsed, But what’s worse, I can’t even curse,

Graduates, ya’ll got the drip slapping back at the pandemic like your name is Will Smith!

So what can I say, except I’ll miss you all dearly, Be good to each other, and live your lives sincerely.

Love you all! Best of luck, find peace within. Goodbye for now, Until my friends, we meet again.


The graduation scene was upbeat as parents socialized and kids played together. The stands were filled, and the crowd spilled out onto the grassy hillsides. The wind was tolerable, and Cortez police officers stood guard.

Kelly Comisky watched her daughter and nieces graduate.

“It’s an honor to see them step into the next chapter of their lives,” she said.

Alex Silas saw her nephew Ryan Ponzo graduate.

“We’re so proud of him, his mom would have been proud too,” she said. “My hopes are that he continues his education and gets a good job. He is good at engineering.”

Ebony Criddle said seeing her daughter Khysztin Stiegelmeyer graduate was emotional.

“We’re so very proud, she graduated with honors,” she said.

Stiegelmeyer plans to work at Mesa Verde National Park this summer, and looks forward to traveling.

Doug and Melinda Carver saw their son JT Carver graduate. He is the eighth child of the family to walk across the graduation stage at Panther Stadium.

“Of course we’re proud of him,” Carver said. “He thrived at school and played baseball and basketball.”

He said his son plans to work on the family farm to earn some money, and what he does next is up to him.