ROACHDALE -- Knowing his students from A to Z is special to North Putnam High School's Alan Zerkel perhaps because his own initials are A.Z.
He's sensitive no doubt to the old axiom "the last (especially alphabetically) shall be first." But more likely it's because he cares about them and wants to show it.
The longtime NPHS principal shared his special bond with the Class of 2011 with the audience, taking time to tell a little story or tidbit about each pupil and his or her future plans.
Zerkel grouped some together, like the eight or so whom he proudly announced will seek a future career in nursing, and aimed at others individually with good-natured jabs.
For example, one of the students heading off to join the armed forces was playfully advised to consider a role that "doesn't involve carrying a weapon -- something like the Marine Corps Band," Zerkel said. Meanwhile, Zerkel reminded another that the last time the principal checked, they still expect you to follow orders in the military.
It was almost a parental pride showing when he turned to salute Valedictorian Megan Robinson as the county's 2011 Lilly Scholar or in talking with Tasha in the front row about a long-ago Spanish class debate.
He predicted his North Putnam's IT interns would one day run the department and that a couple of working seniors seem destined to own their own business in the future. He applauded countless others for their choices of college and career.
Kind, caring, insightful remarks about 112 seniors -- an ongoing tradition that Zerkel realized last year he had to trim down to keep the ceremony moving along and the audience from moving in their seats.
And the students, as they often do on graduation day, got their own playful revenge. Many of them came armed with Mardi Gras beads, gaudy necklaces of some kind or even, as Chelsea Hilburn so beautifully improvised, a purple boa.
It was difficult to tell whether Zerkel got more beads than hugs or vice versa. Nonetheless, it was quite obvious that the students wanted to ring his neck, not wring his neck.
As the parade of caps and gowns ran down, Jeffrey Brock Wehrman carefully maneuvered across the stage on crutches. Receiving his diploma from North Putnam Superintendent Mary Lovejoy, he clutched it between clenched teeth so he could pull a string of beads from his pocket and zero in on Zerkel.
The principal, seeing the student's predicament, grabbed Wehrman's diploma and held it in his own teeth so that the senior might add his beads to the collection around Zerkel's neck.
After the last senior in line, Justin Alan Zurawski, got a diploma and a couple handshakes, Zerkel quickly adjourned to his office to sign the real diplomas that were passed out in the hallway post-ceremony. The signing wasn't easy.
"I can't get these off," he said of the bulging beads around his neck. He begged his wife of 39 years, Mary Kathryn, to help. To cut them off if need be.
She agreed, but not before grabbing her cell phone to snap a couple photos to email to daughters Abby and Amanda (there's those A.Z. initials again).
Others passing by or coming in or out of the office quickly pulled out phones or digital cameras to record the beading for posterity.
How the beads idea came to pass Zerkel was unsure. Of course, someone else in the office was quick say, "I know how you get them at Mardi Gras, what did you do?"
If you can keep your shirt on, there's more. One year the seniors tried to give the principal pennies, but most of those fell to the floor during the congratulatory on-stage handshake. Another year he got ping-pong balls that were signed or carried brief messages of thanks. He has kept those.
Regardless, it was all in good fun Saturday, offering further proof that commencement really is about the beginning and the end.
Just like a string of beads.