The nurse shouted to push. Not to Jeff Charbonneau’s wife, who was in labor, but to him, to push her bed out of the room to another room for an emergency C-section.

The Charbonneaus’ unborn daughter was in a breech position, and had to be turned upside down. In the process, her umbilical cord became wrapped around her leg and caused her heartbeat to stop with each contraction.

The C-section was a success, and when he looked up, he found among the nurses in the room were three graduates from Zillah High School, where he teaches, and among them, graduates from Central Washington University, his alma mater.

Charbonneau, the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, shared his family’s story Saturday at CWU’s commencement exercises to make a point to the class of 2014.

“I hope you understand what’s waiting for you is to become the new collective us,” he said. “You are the new society of the United States, you are our new heroes.”

Charbonneau’s son, who just completed first grade, has been hearing “just wait ’til second grade,” he said. Students hear the same line the next year for third grade, again going on to high school, into college, or, as with Saturday’s graduates, onto the real world.

“Now it’s ‘just wait ’til you enter your careers, just you wait,’” he said.

What’s waiting for them, he said, is to be the educators, researchers, builders, professionals and artists of tomorrow — to be the world’s next heroes, as the graduates in the operating room were to him.“They were the people that I depended on in my time of need to save some of the most important people in my life, and they were there,” he said. “You are our new heroes, so all I ask of you is that you give it your best, you give it your absolute dedication and do nothing but strive to improve as you go beyond the class of 2014 and become the new us.”

Defining moments

The university granted 250 master’s degrees and about 3,000 bachelor’s degrees in three ceremonies in Ellensburg and around the state Saturday.

Seven graduates were older than 60 and five hadn’t turned 20, CWU President James Gaudino said at commencement. Many have overcome long odds. Many were the first in their families to attend college.

Mary Johnson, the morning ceremony’s student speaker and a physical education graduate, took a non-typical route to college.

Her education started more than 20 years before, she said, but she went on instead to marry and had seven kids.

“Some might think that raising seven children would be a battle in and of itself, but they are the biggest blessings of my life — along with my parents, my biggest cheering squad through this education journey of mine,” she said.

After 18 years, she went back to school, she said. She started on probation due to poor grades from the past and had to learn how to use the Internet and computers for school.

Quoting the poet Edgar Albert Guest, she said she “buckled in, with a bit of grin, and a few tears, and I went to it.”

So did her peers, she said, and they were now reaping the fruits of their labor.

“All the work, studying and sleepless nights, have come to this defining moment,” she said, but it’s not the end.

“Our defining moment is just the beginning,” she said. Central gave them the tools to succeed.

“What we do with our education is up to us.”


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