Every school graduation is important. But the graduation taking place this Saturday, June 2, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School is in a class of its own.
Tomorrow, the charter school will celebrate its first ever graduation. Four students make up the graduating class. Walker Blackwell, Elana Robinson-Lynch, Indaia Whitcombe and Sarah Maxner will receive diplomas and speak at the event. Thursday morning, the four students talked with the Gazette about the school and their lives.
Mr. Blackwell reflected on his two years spent at the charter school. "There are two main things I am interested in: photography and drumming. I have been able to pursue drumming through the mentorship program at the school.
"I worked with Rick Bausman at the Drum Workshop in Vineyard Haven. Last year, since January, I went around and taught with him as he traveled around the Island teaching kids all the way from kindergarten through eighth grade. That was a good experience, because when you are learning rhythms and learning music, you need to teach before you can really understand what you are doing. Same thing with photography.
"To really get myself grounded, to really know what I am doing and teach myself fully what I am trying to do, I have to teach other people. I wouldn't have been able to teach photography at the Island's high school. This school is open enough for me to do that and pursue what I am interested in, in an in-depth and meaningful way."
Mr. Blackwell reflected on his work as a teacher in the same darkroom he helped build at the school. "There's something about teaching. There is a certain satisfaction you get when you communicate something to a student and that student just gets it, right there. They understand it and remember it. And it's nothing pounded into their brain. Just tell them and they learn and mold that bit of information in their head in whatever way they need to."
Mr. Blackwell has been teaching other students at the school how to run the darkroom so that it will be in good hands when he leaves for Vermont to pursue his photography and other interests. "May the school live up to its goals and really complete those goals. It would be incredible to come back here and see it thriving and growing as a great community as it is today but better so. I will be back here visiting, that's for sure."
Elana Robinson-Lynch arrived at the school five years ago when it first opened. "I remember the first day ever of the charter school. We got off the bus and there was this swarm of founders, the board of trustees and teachers shouting, ‘They're here, they're here!' I wondered why these people were getting so crazy and excited, because normally I would go to school and it was just, ‘Oh, another day of school.'
"I'm interested in creative writing and poetry. I have been able to work and find my voice in the things I want to write about. One of my high-school goals was to discover how can I use my voice to create change or put ideas out into the world that will make a statement. I have been able to start doing that.
"I am involved in the democracy in the school. When I first was here at 13 I had yet to discover what it meant to have democracy in a school. I knew that I felt listened to as a student, which is something that never happened to me in other schools. I felt like teachers valued what I was saying as if I were a teacher - this gave me a lot of confidence.
"As much as we are working toward these high academic goals, we need also to focus on the community and find balance between the two. We do that real well. But I want to make sure it is not forgotten. I want to make sure the democratic system gets in place and the same amount of freedom to be who you are remains. I want people to remember that the school is new and we are on a journey of creating it."
Miss Robinson-Lynch will attend Hampshire College in the fall to pursue writing, international studies and art. Looking back over her years at the charter school, she concluded: "I have been here for a long time and invested a lot in the school, and it's very hard to leave, although I am ready to leave."
Indaia Whitcombe said one significant moment for her at the school was her trip to Kenya, an adventure that helped her discover her passions for anthropology and cultural studies, which she will pursue at Bennington College in Vermont. Miss Whitcombe has also worked on the democratic process in the school and has an optimistic view of its future.
"It is sad leaving," she said. "A lot of me will be left behind. The school is so brand new. It is going to flourish more, and be born again and again."
Miss Whitcombe related an anecdote that illuminates the way the charter school fosters students' development and helps them overcome intellectual obstacles in a personal way. "When I came back from Kenya, after I had been there for six weeks, I really wanted to create a great project about it. It came to the last two weeks before it was due, and I couldn't express what I wanted to say. Everyone was trying to help me with the process. My teacher, Lori Shaller, took out a huge piece of paper, put it on the floor, handed me a piece of charcoal and said, ‘Just write what you feel.' I was so frustrated, I just drew and wrote and cried until there was nothing left of the charcoal. It just built up everything I wanted to say, and it was so easy after that."
Miss Whitcombe reflected, "The adolescent years are so hard because you are thrown into this world with all these different things happening at once and all these different feelings. It is so hard to find who you are and find where you fit in. You go in and out of different groups and experiment in all different kinds of things. By the time you are a young adult, you are expected to come out whole again and know who you are and know what you are in the world. It is so difficult for kids. The charter school is safe and warm and caring and understanding, a place to discover who you really are without being afraid of making mistakes."
Sarah Maxner, who attended the charter school for four and a half years, discovered her passion for sailing while attending the school. Four years ago, through a school program, she went aboard the schooner Alabama and sailed with its crew. Afterwards, as she said, "I was hooked." This summer she is heading out to California to crew on a sailboat.
Looking to Saturday's graduation, Miss Maxner said, "It is exciting. It will be an emotional day, and not just for us, but also for the founders and the teachers. I am really proud of it because we are the first graduating class, and because a lot of people did not believe in the school."