MVRHS Class of 2016 graduates

On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, the Martha’s Vineyard community embraced the newly minted graduates.

The official ceremonies marking Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School class of 2016 graduation took place Sunday afternoon. The celebratory mood took over much sooner.

On Saturday afternoon, four purple-and-white star-shaped balloons — the school colors, signposts for a pregraduation party — surged and danced in late-afternoon sunlight above a roadside mailbox in Oak Bluffs, their joyful eagerness a symbol of the natural state of mind of high school graduates-to-be.

The mood was joyful on a beautiful Sunday afternoon as the 154 MVRHS seniors received their degrees at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, watched by proud family members and friends. In a time-honored tradition and somewhat on cue, the students flung their mortarboards skyward as MVRHS principal Peg Ryan pronounced them graduates of the MVRHS Class of 2016.

Two days earlier, at class night ceremonies, the students received more than $1.2 million in higher education scholarships from the generous Island community. On Sunday, students lustily cheered their awardwinning classmates.

Kaila Vecchia-Zeitz received the annual Principal’s Leadership Award scholarship; Kate Hanson and Ethan Donovan received the Vineyarder Award scholarships awarded by outgoing Principal Peg Regan; and class valedictorian Jared Livingston received the Outstanding Student Award from Martha’s Vineyard School Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea.

On a day when the nation recoiled in horror as the full dimensions of slaughter at a nightclub in Orlando became known, graduation speakers offered encouragement and guidance for the future.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea advised the graduates that in the hard work of life, protecting personal character was paramount. Principal Peg Regan, who came out of retirement to fill the void left by the unexpected departure of the former principal, flat-out thanked the class for the help they gave her as interim principal. She received a standing ovation from the overflow crowd when Mr. D’Andrea expressed his thanks.

Sunday was the day for the graduates to be heard. Their straight talk and insights engaged the audience, and demonstrated that their upbringing on a beautiful Island had not left them oblivious to the wider world.

Master of ceremonies Oshantay Waite introduced each speaker with uproarious off-the-cuff wit and grace.

Salutatorian Olivia Jacobs riveted the audience with a plainspoken and courageous summary of a drive for success that endangered her well-being: “Unbeknownst to most, my spirit crumbled during these years. In my ambition, I forgot to put down my pencil and slow my too-fast heartbeat. The pressure to ‘do it all’ became a catalyst to the darkness that ensued.”

She described a “game face” that crumbled in the parking lot at the end of the day, and a road back to wholeness that featured tears, deep breathing, a lot of Scottish Bakehouse cookies, and compassionate help from teachers and fellow students who became safe havens.

“And since I’m already up here baring my most vulnerable layer, let me say this: I still have tough days and nights. I am still on this journey to wholeness. Don’t be fooled by my steady voice … ’cause you betcha my legs are shaking as I tell you my story, but I’m doing it because I believe it holds a uniting message,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs spoke about the support she found among her peers and teachers. “These connections were my saving grace. So many people in that building care about each other, and to me, that is what makes this high school special,” she said.

She ended, “By the power of connection so tangible on this little Island, we have, we can, and we will come through a little less broken and a little more whole.” Loud applause followed.

Samantha Hargy, student council president, offered whimsical observations that drew laughter from the overflow audience as she forged a connection between high school and hippos.

“In fact, high school is a lot like seeing a hippo for the first time,” Ms. Hargy said. “Initially, you’re ecstatic! You’ve never seen a hippo, and you can’t wait to see one. You want to learn what they eat, and how they walk, and every single fact there ever was to learn about a hippo. Then, when you actually see it, it’s still pretty great, but you had high expectations and they were not met. As time passes and you continue to look at the hippo, you get bored of it. You know everything about it, and now you just want to graduate and see the giraffes.”

She urged her fellow graduates to continue to move forward in life and embrace change. “George Bernard Shaw, an author much more qualified than I am, said, ‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.’ So, as we leave MVRHS, keep change in mind. And remember, high school is a lot like seeing a hippo. It’s fun for a while, but then you remember there are giraffes.”

Valedictorian Jared Livingston exhorted his classmates to do what they loved, and punctuated his remarks by calling up a group of Minnesingers and MVRHS chorus members to the stage to assist him with the song “Roll Away” by Isle of Man rock group Back Door Slam.

Class Essayist Emma Riemer, member of a military family — her father is officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Menemsha — attended seven schools before enrolling at MVRHS two years ago. She spoke of the acceptance and inclusiveness she found on Martha’s Vineyard, a note sounded earlier by M.C. Waite, who attended schools in Jamaica and Florida before matriculating at MVRHS.

Ms. Riemer said, “Making a difference often means leaving behind what is comfortable and testing our limits.” Initially, when Principal Regan asked her to speak, she was hesitant. “But I realized, after thinking about it, that this was another opportunity to learn something, even if the process isn’t in my realm of comfort,” she said.

The much-travelled student concluded her remarks, “I hope we will have the strength to do what comes next, for it takes a great deal of courage to find what we love, but a great deal more to seek it out. I hope, as we set out today, we will find that courage.”

On a bright, breezy Sunday afternoon, the newly minted graduates walked into the future.