If hurling a flat cap skyward is the final act of a student, many members of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School class of 2008 were especially quick to graduate this Sunday. Even in the shade of the Oak Bluffs Tabernacle, dozens of gowned students had taken their hats in hand early, to flap against the sweltering air on an unseasonably hot day. The moment that principal Margaret (Peg) Regan signaled the end of the ceremony, all 198 were in the air.
Spilling out onto the lawn of Trinity Circle and posing for photographs, some graduates had already shed the gowns that accompanied their caps; thick polyester uniforms which Kate Mahoney described in her speech as glorified muumuus. They joined hundreds of family and community members who gathered at the center of the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground for the ceremony.
As they posed for photographs in the sun, a fellow graduate told master of ceremonies Ben Williams that his opening remarks — which he delivered in rap-like rhythm — produced goose bumps lasting a full two minutes.
“We’re here today to get approval to leave this place,” Ben had begun, standing under the stage lights in front of school administrators, some of whom looked to be quietly suffering in their own official clothes.
“But, if you were to place this summer, right here, on a timeline of the things that our class will create, the ideas our class will manifest, the places that our class will go, you would find that we, the class of oh-eight, are not done.”
Mrs. Regan who ends her nine-year tenure as high school principal this year was awarded the first of the graduating diplomas. As she came forward to receive the honorary award the class rose almost at once for a standing ovation. The most sustained applause of the afternoon came then as several other faculty members joined Mrs. Regan and Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss for a group hug.
District school committee chairman Susan Parker, who presented the rest of the diplomas, said the high turnout — the students were easily outnumbered by the other attendees — was testament to the central role the high school plays on Martha’s Vineyard.
“It was really speaking to the essence of this community,” said Mrs. Parker who has chaired the high school committee for the past two years. “It’s one of the perks [of serving on the committee]. After meetings and meetings about wastewater it’s great to be reminded, Oh, this is what it was for.”
Student council president Rachel Schubert deftly mixed humor with a broader message. “I decided to do something that is difficult for many people — including myself. I am going to be honest with you. Not because I have stumbled upon any overwhelming message of truth, but because I figure if I mess up while being honest it is still better than speaking perfectly about things I don’t believe,” she said.
She began with a confession to her stepmother who had been searching for a pair of designer jeans for several months and had recently given them up for lost. “I actually did borrow them without asking and I’m sorry, they’re in my room,” she said.
She continued: “Janie, Nika and the entire girl’s lacrosse team? That time I missed the boat to go to the game, I was running late on purpose because I really just wanted to go play soccer.”
But she also said later: “I am still young and I have no idea how to measure a life, but my years at MVRHS have made me absolutely positive that it is not with grades . . . . If we graduate today having learned lessons of loyalty, morality and kindness in the halls and classrooms of this high school, then we have received an education not only in academics but in life.”
Valedictorian Truman French kept his remarks short, saying he was loathe to try to dispense words of wisdom at this early stage.
“What have I really accomplished so far in my life to make me qualified to make this speech?” he asked. “Nothing, except done well in school, which amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things.” He said the most valuable lesson he learned growing up on the Vineyard is the importance of community, observing that you can go to any of the Island’s public beaches and see good Samaritans picking up trash.
“Remember, class of 2008, it’s not about the money but about how you serve the community,” advised the budding entrepreneur as his parting shot.
Ben Williams finished his speech by advising his classmates to look beyond society’s labels, even as they stood on the brink of a momentous shift in classification.
“Everyone, beyond the categories we place them in, is a person,” he said. “We’re walking into a world where we place people into self-created classes and categories. We can be ranked or classified, but class does not divide us. We are a class. The class of 2008, and we’re just getting started.”
Within half an hour this class — high school kids no longer — had dispersed from Trinity Circle headed elsewhere and to trade in the official gowns for sunglasses and bathing suits.