All roads and walking paths led to the Oak Bluffs Campground Sunday afternoon as graduates, family, friends and well-wishers converged on the Tabernacle for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s 55th Commencement Ceremony. Even before the Tabernacle came into view the unmistakable sounds of happy voices, laughter, and the band tuning up filled the air.
Blessed by sunny skies, summery temperatures, and an Island community that had cheered, supported, and watched them grow, the seniors of 2014 giggled with anticipation as they adjusted white and purple robes and tasseled caps.
Inside the Tabernacle benches began to fill early, everyone jockeying for a seat with a view. Black-robed faculty clustered at the entrance waiting to lead the procession, as giddy as their students.
Even the solemn march down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance” could not keep the seniors’ excited smiles and the sparkle in their eyes from shining bright. Girls in white, boys in purple, they stepped purposefully ahead while brave parents teetered on benches, cameras and iPhones held aloft. Even when the students were seated, the atmosphere still bubbled with exuberance, infectious and sweet.
Graduating senior Sam Permar emceed with style, befitting his plans to study acting at NYU Tisch. Welcoming the standing-room-only crowd, he graciously introduced speakers, songs, the Pledge of Allegiance, and kept the program moving smoothly. He issued a special welcome to Massachusetts Secretary of Education Matthew Malone who was in the audience, as well as several elementary school teachers who had been influential in earlier years for the Class of 2014.
Salutatorian Barra Peak, on her way to Harvard, offered well-researched reflections on the history of public education and the ideals of school crusader Horace Mann.
“I think Horace Mann would be very pleased by The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School,” she said proudly, citing its public support, resources, tolerance, diversity, dedicated, highly trained faculty, and the fact that it is free and open to all.
“Wherever you go, I hope you will seek out new knowledge and new experiences and never close your minds to learning,” she said.
In his upbeat speech, Class Essayist Nathaniel Horwitz gave generous accolades to his classmates, singling out nearly three dozen for achievements in academics, athletics, community service, and the arts. Engaging and witty, the Harvard-bound grad had no qualms about poking fun at himself — his football career with one touchdown in three seasons, his crush on a female field hockey and lacrosse star.
“Every member of this class has been special to me, and to everyone,” he said, “Thank you for a perfect four years.”
Superintendent of Vineyard schools James Weiss, crediting a book by David McCullough Jr., exhorted students to remember they are “works in progress,” to seek a passion — “to do something for no other reason than because you love it.”
“Of course, you, the graduates of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for 2014 are special,” declared Mr. Weiss, citing the seniors’ unusual Island upbringing, their multiple achievements and commitment to helping others.
“It is my hope that you will continue your education beyond this commencement, trying new things, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, but always learning, growing and exercising your passion,” Mr. Weiss said. “It is also my hope that you will move from here, allowing the world to know what we have already come to understand — that you are the Vineyard’s special gift, our very special graduates.
“Congratulations and thank you!”
Then, lauding her achievements in art, dance, academics, and school activities, Mr. Weiss presented the Superintendent’s Award for Academic Excellence to Valedictorian Sarah Ortlip-Sommers, who will attend Stanford.
Choral performances gave a moment to breathe and reflect: “Defying Gravity” and “Choose Something Like a Star,” the haunting senior song, Robert Frost’s poem set to music by Randall Thompson.
Praise and advice
Acting Principal Matthew D’Andrea gave high praise to Andrew Jacobs-Walsh, who will attend the University of Maine, and Jade Pine, heading to Framingham State University. Listing their many achievements, he presented each with the Vineyarder Award. The annual award honors one male and one female graduate for showing outstanding growth throughout their four years of high school.
For his outstanding leadership skills both in and out of school and “a disciplined approach to life in everything he does,” Mr. D’Andrea presented G. Galen Mayhew with the Principal’s Leadership Award.
“Princeton University will be fortunate to have him as a student next year,” Mr. D’Andrea added.
Student Council President Mary Ollen began her speech with a loving shout-out to her father, John Ollen, who was watching the ceremony from Massachusetts General Hospital via Skype. After resounding applause from the compassionate audience, she gave heart-felt thanks to high school Technical Director Woody Filley for arranging the Skype.
Ms. Ollen expressed appreciation for the Island’s generosity, from filling the seats at school plays and athletic events to contributing more than $700,000 in scholarships.
“Thank you to both Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the Island community for supporting us,” the Wellesley-bound Ms. Ollen said. “We owe you everything.”
“Everything you do matters,” said Sarah Ortlip-Sommers in an inspiring valedictory send-off, encouraging her peers to do something positive for society. “Every good intention is important in the process of living a good life. Small kindnesses make a difference to everyone around you. So make sure that every day you do something that brings some small joy to even one person.”
She too acknowledged the uniqueness of the Island, “a community that takes care of people in need, celebrates people’s lives and looks out for one another… the sense of community and shared traditions will provide us with a source of strength for the rest of our lives.”
Retired English teacher Keith Dodge told a cautionary tale of his misspent early college days, counselling seniors to make the most of their lives and educations, and not be afraid of change and “never stop learning.”
The popular former teacher’s tips included: travel, buy property, save money, plan ahead.
“Please don’t live accidentally,” Mr. Dodge urged. “Try to know where you’re going and even make a list.”
At long last the big moment arrived. One by one the students made their way to the stage, received their coveted diplomas from Regional District Committee Chairman Colleen McAndrews, handshakes and hugs from smiling school officials.
Camera-wielding relatives pressed ever closer to the stage. Applause and cheers were nearly deafening after each name was called, well-wishers unable to contain their delight despite the program’s futile request: “Please reserve your applause until all diplomas have been awarded.”
Then it was back up the aisle to waiting hugs from proud family and joyful friends, bouquets, group photos, an evening of parties, and finally, the rest of life waiting just beyond.
Tomorrow would begin a short summer, packed with work and preparations, then transition to new lives filled with challenges and uncertainties. But for today this class of 2014 could bask in the secure love, caring, and admiration of family, friends, and its small yet formidable community.
Off to the future
Outside the Tabernacle on the sunny lawn happy pandemonium reigned, the traditional post-commencement chaos. Relatives, friends, and graduates searched for each other in the swirling crowd.
“I don’t know where my family is!” mock-wailed one pretty blonde grad.
Cameras and cell phones were everywhere, handed back and forth so everyone could get in the shot. Mothers and fathers thrust lush bouquets at white-robed girls. Graduates were deluged with hugs and slaps on the back then corralled into place for family photos. Some still wore their robes neatly, others had already divested themselves, leaving graduation garb, like high school itself, gladly behind. Everyone laughed, some cried too, caught up in emotion. It was hard to tell whether it was the ecstatic graduates or their proud parents who were smiling the widest and brightest.
Caroline King smiled joyfully for the camera, standing between her dad, Sandy King, and stepmother, Rose Walsh. But the first chance she got she dashed off to catch up with waiting friends.
Not yet college-bound, Caroline is looking forward to a year off “to figure out what’s next,” according to Ms. Walsh. She added that she is glad Caroline is taking the opportunity to explore while she is young.
Isabel Smith, headed to Elon University in the fall, was receiving hugs, greeting well-wishers, and making plans. She was excited to be hosting a party soon at her home along with two close friends, Mary Ollen and Sarah Alexander.
Teo Azzollini had party plans too. Enjoying a moment with her mother, Roberta Kirn, dad, Nicky Azzollini, and her sister, Marta, a May UMass grad, Teo, who will also attend UMass, said she had attended eight parties on Saturday and was counting on at least three more later in the afternoon.
She said her day’s highlights were Mary Ollen’s speech “and celebrating with my family.”
John Henry O’Shaughessy was all smiles, surrounded by male friends and wearing a colorful scarf patterned on the Irish flag around his neck. His next step is Westfield State University.
Also grinning from ear to ear was Keira Mercier, posing for photos with her sister, i-coming senior Taija Browne. Keira reported she is joining the U.S. Army and will head for training to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. She follows in the steps of relatives and a close family friend who have served in the military.
“Walking across the stage, knowing I’m done with high school,” was the best part of the ceremony for her, she said mischievously.
Smiling just as broadly was her mother, Lindsey. “I’m very proud!” she said, holding her daughter’s flowers while the exuberant grad flew off to hug classmates.
“I’m very excited!” said Molly Wallace about her plans to attend Northeastern University’s Pre-Med program. Her goal: to be a pediatric neonatal cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Family resemblance was unmistakable as she posed for the camera with her mom, Patty. Big brother Jordan stood patiently nearby, taking care of Molly’s big bouquet.
While brimming with pride, Ms. Wallace admitted she would miss her daughter’s cheerful presence at home. “I’ve already made hotel reservations for a September visit,” she said happily.
“I think this was one of the nicest graduations ever,” said Megan Alley of Oak Bluffs, here to celebrate and congratulate track star Jeremy Alley-Tarter, her grandson who will be attending Assumption College. “The speeches were wonderful and I heard a lot of love.”