From under a soaring tent strewn with dyed silk banners, lyrics sailed out across the sun-cooked grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School on Saturday, as one of its six graduates of 2008, Nora Joan Winsryg-Karasik, sang her commencement speech a cappella with a nod to Bob Dylan: “Well the trail is rough and bumpy, and the road is kinda steep, but the good road is a-waiting, and boys it ain’t far off.
“Trails of trouble, roads to battle, paths of victory we shall walk.”
In a voice that cracked with emotion only at the very end, Nora’s extraordinary moment was one of many extraordinarily personal touches at the West Tisbury institution’s high school graduation ceremony.
As the class of 2008 — Bridget Catharine Conlon, Kellyn Jane Conklin, Laura Christina Jahn, Marina Rose Kahn-Sparagana, Travis Louis Myers and Nora — proceeded in pairs onto the stage around 1:45 p.m., already it was clear this was no cap-gown-and-turn-around affair.
Before clutching their diplomas at the end, each of the six graduates had been singled out, thanked and described at some length, no fewer than six times — with everyone from the chairman of the board to the kindergarten students individually praising the seemingly amazing seniors’ qualities.
All six wore halos of blue and white flowers; in Travis’s case, the garland was roped around his smart black hat. Marina wore a lacy white cotton dress and well-scuffed red elastic-sided boots. Nora’s royal blue dress she had designed and made herself. There in the third row sat a life-sized wooden stand-in for Travis’s friend and partner in his planned skateboard design business, Ryan Antolick, dressed in a pressed white shirt and pink tie. His photo-replicated face was one of few that did not shed a tear during the nearly two-hour ceremony.
They were given personalized gifts ranging from a leather knitting needles pouch handmade by a middle-school student, to a full-sized dressmaker’s bust (“your new roommate”), to a Japanese umbrella, to several musical performances including: “Row, row, row, Marina, gently to the world; merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, from the kind-er-garten.”
The school’s community congress used profits from its new school store to make a donation in the graduates’ names to Kiva.org, which makes micro-loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world.
As their class gift, the six seniors gave the school a star. “You can buy things that aren’t even on the planet,” Bridget marveled as she presented the official paperwork on behalf of her friends. “But we own it now, and all the planets revolving around it and all the beings that may be on it. We own this star and it’s called the Charter Star.”
School director Robert Moore began Saturday’s proceedings by singling out the graduates and their mentors; each student must have a portfolio juried by community experts in their field.
Horse-lover Kellyn, Mr. Moore said, had been a joy to have in class. “Your positive outlook, your love of learning and your willingness to be great have impressed me. Your spirit of kindness will always be present in our school. We wish you well as you take your talents and gifts to Centenary College,” he said before she accepted a scholarship from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society to continue her equine studies.
“Bridget, we have enjoyed your wonderful creativity, the thoughtfulness you bring to all you do, and the depth of understanding of others,” Mr. Moore said.
“Laura, you have taken part in more charter school talent shows than any other student; we thank you for helping us establish a great community event,” he said, adding: “Thank you for being you.”
“Marina, we are thankful that you brought your kindness and warmth to our school,” Mr. Moore said. Citing her final project, he added, “Your recital at the First Congregational Church . . . was inspirational; a wonderful setting for a stellar performance. Well done. Rice University is very lucky.” He continued:
“Nora, we are inspired by your talents and grateful for your generosity. Your work on behalf of children in Africa has allowed us to see beyond the shores of this beautiful Island. Your vision of what this world can be and should be has given us opportunities to reflect on what our contributions towards that end may be. Your elegance and intellect will be well received at Sarah Lawrence.
“Travis, this community is grateful for your contributions in making this a supporting and caring kindergarten-through-12th grade institution. You have served as a friend, mentor and supporter of many of our younger students; you have helped them feel safe and secure by your presence. This is so important to them as well as to this community. We wish you well as you move on to achieve great things.”
Board president Sam Berlow told the audience of about 200: “Each of these kids is fearless. Whether it’s on stage singing, skateboarding, strutting down the streets of Florence, going off to Houston or South America.” He presented them each with a $500 scholarship from Options in Education.
Jane Paquet, high school science teacher, presented the graduate awards, which precipitated more details about each student.
Nora Winsryg-Karasik has lived and studied in Italy, done nonprofit work in Zambia, been a Minnesinger and West Tisbury bell-ringer and presented The Frog Prince mixing the Grimms fairy tale with jazz standards performed by Jeremy Berlin. But it was her dressmaking that stood out, winning her the Betsey Johnson award and a book on the history of fashion.
Travis Myers has made films about the battle of Mogadishu and about skateboarding, a sport in which he is an avid practitioner. He has developed a business plan to manufacture and market skateboards. For his physical and fiscal risk-taking, Travis earned an award named for director, professional skateboarder, team surfer and entrepreneur Stacy Peralta, and the book Disposable, a History of Skateboard Art.
Marina’s award was named for physicist Richard Feynman, whom Ms. Paquet called a kindred spirit. “She is comfortable asking the big questions and working at obtaining the answers . . . . patient, honest, curious.”
For Bridget came the award named for Malvina Reynolds, who popularized the song Little Boxes — both because Bridget is a folk musician whose portfolios included a full-length compact disc of original songs, and because she came to the school, Ms. Paquet said, “With a plan to step out of the box.”
Laura Jahn took the Cyndi Lauper award. “She’s so unusual and she revels in it,” Ms. Paquet said, citing Laura’s original anime cartoons, her delightful laugh and her work for Camp Jabberwocky.
Finally came Kellyn’s award. “There was a woman 1800s who, like Kellyn, loved horses,” Ms. Paquet said, calling horses the vehicle from which she explored the world and discovered her path in life. “On their back she travelled to the wild places in our world,” sending illuminating letters home. Ms. Paquet gave Kellyn the Isabella Bird award, “and a heartfelt giddyup.”
Commencement speaker Deborah (D.C.) Cutrer culled from more stories about the students themselves when looking for the values and advice she would offer them.
She recalled that on a school trip to Mississippi, Bridget was known as “our little Zen master. We value Bridget for she reminds us to experience the joy of music, the courage of self-expression and the voice of tolerance.”
Ms. Cutrer had the crowd laughing, telling stories about Marina laughing at herself. “We value you because you remind us that most of this is laughable and that we should never undervalue the joy of a good giggle.”
Nora’s wit and humor shone through in Ms. Cutrer’s stories about the graduate’s humanitarian work. “We value you, Nora, and your ability to walk boldly forward through life. You welcome challenges and adventures that fall at your feet as well as those that you carve out for yourself.”
She bravely travels to the beat of her own drum, Ms. Cutrer said of Laura Jahn, telling how the student and teacher danced the electric slide in math class one day. “Laura, we value your ability to surprise us all.”
She also said: “People say still waters run deep; Kellyn is a perfect example of this.” And telling of the student’s equine therapy work and quiet, powerful approach to her school work: “Kellyn, we value you for your honesty and your genuine, gentle way.”
Travis Myers she compared to bee charmers. “They can charm you with a smile, engage you in their own flight of fancy and mesmerize you with their ability to be complimentary and endearing . . . . Travis, we value your ability to be charming and disarming, boosting our egos when you share a compliment.”
She urged the students to take the best from each other’s examples.
Most of the students themselves spoke (or in Nora’s case, sang). Laura recalled her first day at the school, age 8, when she cried. “Back then I cried a lot,” she said. “I have come a long way . . . you don’t see me crying anymore.
“I’d like to say thank you very much to my charter school community for helping me grow up.”
Travis seemed for a moment in danger of losing his famous cool as he thanked his friends: “I learned a lot and I love it. And I better go.”
Bridget thanked the school for its acceptance of her and its refusal to accept her work when was not up to par. “It made me a lot less lazy,” she said. Finally she was grateful that everyone, “even the teachers, treated me like an adult. [Here,} you don’t say, like, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ you say, ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’ ”
And Marina said that since she’d finished classes she had been coming back to the school to babysit, talk with school administrators Claudia Ewing and Marie Larsen, and, well, use the bathroom. “What really surprised me was that every time I walked into the charter school I just feel really happy,” she said. “It’s kind of like walking into a friend’s house.”
After the graduates were at last awarded their diplomas, those six friends walked out of the ceremonies, together, and fearlessly.