LACONIA — Amid the exhaustion and anxiety that comes with finishing four years of high school and staying at the top of your class, the top 10 graduating seniors at Laconia High School took a well deserved two-hour break Thursday night and honored themselves, their teachers and their families.
Held at the Meredith Village Savings Bank Culinary Arts dining room at the Huot Technical Center, the inaugural Top 10 dinner gave each student a chance to thank their favorite teacher and for each teacher to thank the student who chose them.
"They are the real deal, " said Laconia High School Principal Jim McCollum as he looked out in the room filled with tables, each seating a graduating senior, his or her key family member and his or her favorite teacher. "This is a demonstration of appreciation for their commitment."
For Merissa Conrad, health science teacher Gina McGuire's optimism, energy and caring was what led to her choice. "She genuinely cares for each of her students," said Conrad who is pursuing a career in salon and spa technology along with a business degree at Lakes Region Community College.
McGuire described Conrad as "the last person who would brag on herself" saying she was focused, composed and thoughtful.
"I love to talk, she loves to listen, said McGuire fighting back tears of pride. "I love to teach, she loves to learn."
For John Hannond, a senior with a list of drama credits that could impress Broadway, drama coach Bernie Campbell was his choice for favorite teacher.
Hammond, who is off to the Coast Guard Academy, said he acted in Middle School and Campbell knew who he was before he was in high school.
"He complimented me and I didn't know who he was," he said, going on to describe the long hours involved in theater and how Campbell gradually became "just another guy."
"He taught me how to be a man, when to be professional and when to just have fun," said Hammond.
Campbell clipped a line from "Casablanca" and said meeting Hammond was "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"I'm honored by John's choice," he said describing Hammond as his "go to guy" in the Drama Club.
Spanish and math teacher Amanda Stefanik was senior Nicole Bogert choice for her favorite teacher. Stefanik taught Bogert both Spanish and algebra when they were both at the middle school and said Bogert was part of a small but dedicated group of students in her algebra prep class.
Bogert said Stefanik gave her the foundations she needed to master algebra and helped her develop the "ability to push past any problem."
She also said she never conjugated as many verbs in her life as she did in Stafanik's class.
Kylee Powers chose biotechnology teacher Ivy Leavitt-Carlson as her favorite teacher, a choice that Leavitt-Carlson said surprised her.
"She would sit in the back of class and scowl at me," said Leavitt-Carlson, who said she came to realize that Powers's scowl was really the look of an intellectually curious student who was intent on learning what she was teaching.
When Powers took a second class from Leavitt-Carlson, the teacher said she was surprised to learn she was her favorite teacher.
Powers said when she first met Leavitt-Carlson she was ambivalent, describing her a "just another teachers whose job it was to teach me." She said Leavitt-Carlson "pushes her everyday" and helped her understand how things really work.
"She understands that I'm not a normal person," said Powers.
When English teacher Chuck Mathis met Rebecca Dragon and learned she was writing a novel, he said his first reaction was "Oh great. Another student novel."
He said he did read enough of it to realize it wasn't a novel but a memoir — one he described as "honest, edgy and brutal."
Dragon said she didn't know if Mathis even realizes how much he helped her. "He helped me take the bad things that happened in my life and make me understand," she said.
She said he forced her to write every week and she "wrote in an explosion of emotion."
"I feel I can go to him with anything," she said.
Music Teacher Deb Gibson and senior Mikayla Minor are both musicians. Dedicated to their craft both said it was friendship just waiting to happen.
Gibson described Minor's dedication to perfection in music with her parallel dedication to training her horse. She spoke about how well she handled the adult responsibilities that come with owning a horse.
"I'm so happy I taught her," said Gibson.
For Minor's part, she said Gibson is what she wants to be — a teacher, a mentor, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother.
"I don't know how we manage to fit anything in," Minor said laughing and saying Gibson's love of life was contagious and infected her and many of her other students.
Pre-engineering and manufacturing tech teacher Ken Martin said that when he met Garrett Guilmett he thought he was quiet, shy, and lacked confidence.
"Well not anymore," he said to laughter from those in the room, especially Guilmett's parents. Martin said he could see the pride that would emanate from Guilmett after he had designed and built something.
Guilmett, who will study mechanical engineering, said his time with Martin helped him realize his full potential.
He said he admires Martin for being someone who "knew what he wanted to do" from the start including his service in the military to working in industry to teaching.
Amila Hadzic chose business technology teacher Jannine Farrah as her favorite. For Hadzic, who wants to study accounting and become a CPA, Farrah's help in teaching her marketable business skills will help her realize her goals.
Farrah couldn't say enough about the school scribe who she said designed one of the best business plans one of her own community mentors ever saw.
Farrah said she also admired Hadzic for being on the ground floor of Stand Up Laconia and saying she wanted to make a change to better her community.
"I truly, truly admire her," said Farrah.
Class Salutatorian Brittany Pond brought social studies teacher Rick Crockford who said the first time he met Pond she was a "little red-headed girl with her nose in a book leaning on her locker."
He said he never has her in class until she took his AP Psychology class and then his AP American Studies class.
On her way to Holy Cross, Crockford said Pond was going to find out she really is one of the smartest people in the room.
Pond said Crockford initially intimidated her because she had heard his classes were very demanding but she wanted a challenge so she signed up for psychology.
What she found was a teacher who was demanding but one who also understood that she was easily stressed and who taught her how to overcome it.
"He transformed me from a scared freshman to a confident senior," said Pond.
Valedictorian Danielle Cote wept as her favorite instructor Chris Ulrich, a social studies teacher, described how gifted she was in science and math but how he grew to admire her for her tenacity in learning history and world studies.
"She sets standards she can't possibly meet, and she tries, tries, and tries again," said Ulrich.
He said he admires her because she believes there is good in everyone and works to bring those good qualities from everyone.
Cote, who rushed to the dinner in her lacrosse uniform, wept as she talked about how Ulrich taught her to have confidence in herself and to believe in her own instincts.
She lightened up as she told the audience how Ulrich was also one to lighten the mood.
"I just never realized that outside of academics a teacher could have so much effect," Cote said.
And that, said McCollum, was what the top 10 dinner was all about.