Soundings : Million dollar evening
Michael McCarthy, director of guidance at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, remembers the festivities around his own graduation with the Class of 1970. The Island's ceremonies of commencement have changed only slightly over the ensuing 38 years, but Class Night, he says, has been transformed almost entirely.
Back in the day, as Mr. McCarthy recalls it, Class Night "was a program for the class before their graduation, where we'd have a class prophesy, predicting where students would be 20 years from now; we had a class will, where kids would will things to other kids who were left in the building. We had some awards. And we always had a few scholarships."
But a funny thing happened as the years spun on, something that none of the class prophesies foretold. Friends and family in the audience were touched, somehow, by the gifts of scholarship money to graduating students. If they belonged to Island organizations, they went back to their board meetings and said, this is a wonderful thing and we need to be part of it, too. If they lost a friend or family member and wanted that person to be remembered for one festive moment each year, they added a memorial scholarship to the list of Class Night awards.
For many people the experience of Class Night was moving, in the best Point-A-to-Point-B sense of the word. It was hard to see such caring and generosity in action and not be inspired to do the same.
So over the years, the organizers of Class Night have had to strip away many once-traditional aspects of the program, because with so much scholarship money to dispense, the hours in one Friday evening left room for little else. The list of gifts in this year's program, unadorned, filled nearly 10 pages. In three hours of crisply choreographed marches across the Tabernacle stage last Friday night, Island organizations and individuals handed out nearly a million dollars to graduates of the regional high school.
Mr. McCarthy speaks with a kind of happy amazement about the evolution of Class Night as a tradition now in its 49th year. "It just mushroomed," he says. "And each year, it keeps growing." Many of the organizations with the strongest scholarship programs, he points out, come from a place of social connection and caring for the community - from the Holy Ghost Association (which now dispenses close to $40,000 each year) to the various police forces and firefighters associations. "These are already productive, caring organizations," says Mr. McCarthy, "and they see this as an opportunity to support the kids."
The work of preparing for the June night when more than $950,000 is awarded to Island graduates begins in the first week of September. Bonnie Tilton of the guidance office works closely with organizations all through the school year, helping them connect with the students pursuing higher education. Close to 80 percent of the high school's graduates go on to college, and nearly 90 percent of these students receive at least one scholarship award on Class Night.
Five years ago our family's turn came to be on the receiving end of this amazing evening of generosity, and Class Night was an experience we will always remember. The program was simple, really, a transaction repeated scores of times: a spokesman for a family or organization would stride to the microphone, announce the gift, shake a student's hand and step down. But to watch this gesture in all its repetitions, and to understand its meaning for these students and their families, was to feel the Tabernacle overflow with a community's pride in its children, and with its love for them.
The diversity of the groups giving out awards on Class Night is a delightful snapshot of the Vineyard's social landscape at its healthiest and most vibrant - from the Cottagers to the D.A.R., from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Vineyard Peace Council. The list also includes memorial scholarships which honor Vineyarders past but still cherished in memory - from Sancy Pachico and Foster Silva to Ryan Mone and Brandi Gibson.
Every American community has its commencement traditions, and although few may enjoy settings as stunningly beautiful as the Tabernacle and its grounds on a Sunday afternoon in early June, there is much in our graduation ceremony that could be transplanted almost anywhere and be familiar. But Class Night is ours alone. It's a long program, and those wooden Tabernacle benches are unforgiving, but in its own wonderfully repetitive way, Class Night might be the Vineyard's finest expression, all year, of who we are when we are at our very best.