John Goncalves is the youngest member of the Edgartown fire department and one of five high school seniors to win the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, a scholarship award for his commitment and contributions to the Island. A child of parents from Brazil, he overcame the challenge of learning to speak English fluently in elementary school to become the first in his family to go to college.

At class night with his peers. — Ray Ewing

But he almost missed Sunday’s graduation ceremony at the Tabernacle.

He considered skipping graduation to take part in firefighting training off-Island with the rest of the Edgartown department. But as far as his mother was concerned, John was going to walk across the stage at the Tabernacle on June 10, firefighter training or not.

“I said, so Mom, I’ve got this training. I think it’s going to be important to be there, but it’s June 10,” John recalled before graduation. “She gave me this stare, and I just knew to stop talking about it.”

Sitting at the dining room table at their home in Edgartown, his mother Sandra had her own take on the exchange. “I told him John, oh my gosh, are you kidding me?” she recalled. John’s father Josemar Almeida was at work, but his little brother, Hiaggo, sat at the table too, wearing an Edgartown fire T-shirt. Hiaggo will begin high school next year.

Ms. Goncalves is the head grower at Donaroma’s Nursery in Edgartown. She used to be an art teacher, and their home is filled with her art: an arrangement of succulents on a white log, a painting of a bare tree.

“It’s hard to tell you,” she said. “I’m the most proud mom in the world I think.”

During these lengthening days at graduation time, the Island is buoyed up by proud parents, generous scholarships and optimism. Each of the graduating Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seniors who were granted diplomas on Sunday enjoyed a moment where their names and faces took center stage. But for so many, their stories remained in the background.

John said he learned English at the same time as his parents, but it was important to them that he speak both English and Portuguese fluently. His given name is Joao but he goes by John. It’s simpler that way, he said. He went to the Edgartown School, where he took English support classes until seventh grade.

“I was always in the resource room,” he said. “Because at home, we only spoke Portuguese.”

On graduation day at the Tabernacle. — Ray Ewing

When he graduated from the eighth grade he won the award for most improved student.

“I only had myself for homework. I didn’t have help from anyone at home,” he said.

Being bilingual now gives him the ability to help Portuguese speakers communicate with law enforcement and first responders on emergency calls. Ms. Goncalves said John and Hiaggo have been pretending to be firefighters since they were toddlers. John remembered spraying the side of the house with a garden hose and sleeping on the couch in the living room, pretending he was on duty.

“We used to dress up in snow jackets and snow pants,” Hiaggo said of their firefighting costumes.

Next year John will study fire science and paramedicine at Anna Maria College. The night they found out he was accepted, the family went out to Rockfish in Edgartown to celebrate.

“I have to get prepared to lose John,” Ms. Goncalves said.

After seniors finished finals, they roamed the Island enjoying their freedom, staying out late, beginning summer jobs, planning graduation parties. But the weekend before he graduated, John was on a 24-hour shift at the fire station, from 8 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday. He went through three months of training before he received his emergency pager, then during his junior year of high school he took night classes twice a week on top of his regular course load to obtain emergency medical technician (EMT) certification.

The work is emotionally draining. He has seen families lose a loved one or lose their belongings. He has seen the disastrous effects of addiction. He said these experiences have given him a perspective that many people his age don’t have.

“When we’re coming to people they’re having the worst day of their life, we’re always dealing with all that tragedy,” he said.

Training to be an EMT is also part of his repertoire. — Ray Ewing

Firefighting has become his life, but at school John is known for other things. He was a part of the sexual assault awareness and prevention group SWEAR, captain of the soccer team for two years, and led peers in a race and culture retreat. He has also been a typical Island teenager, sharing a room with his little brother, spending summers working at the golf course or painting houses.

A few days after his 24-hour shift, he went to the senior ball at the Loft in Oak Bluffs. It was one of several traditional events that led to graduation, each one its own kind of ritual. There was also a senior brunch at the Farm Neck Cafe, gown pickup, class night and graduation rehearsals. At the Loft, the DJ played Kool & the Gang’s Get Down on It, but no one was dancing yet. When John got there, about half the class was already there, eating french fries or playing pool. New arrivals waited in line to take a breathalyzer test administered by the assistant principal before gaining entry.

John’s girlfriend Amanda Pachico was playing darts across the room, wearing a long white dress with flowers.

“I had a crush on her in preschool,” John shouted over the music.

They went their separate ways after preschool, but there was a chance reunion at Dairy Queen the summer before sophomore year of high school. Amanda will also go to Anna Maria College in the fall to study early childhood development.

John walked around the room pointing out people he has known for 12 or 13 years. The music was a little too loud for conversation, but these classmates have been together for so long, carpooling as kids, going on field trips and playing on sports teams, they didn’t really need to talk. It was enough simply to be in the same place one more time.

John said leaving them is hard but also exciting. “It’s a new step in life,” he said.

Seeds of a future fireman. — Courtesy John Goncalves

On the morning of graduation day, while restaurants on the Island were crowded with celebratory brunch-goers, John woke up early to go to the off-Island firefighting training. He left halfway through, took the 11:40 a.m. boat from Hyannis back to the Island and changed clothes on the way, just making it to the Tabernacle before the 1:30 p.m. ceremony. He fastened his soccer captain pins on his purple, slightly wrinkled graduation gown as students lined up to walk. The Tabernacle was buzzing. The old wooden pews creaked under the weight of families and students.

“I didn’t run here,” he said smiling. “But I speed-walked.”

The other firefighters couldn’t be there, though they wanted to. They were working on confined space training, learning how to respond in collapsed structures. John was missing some of the most realistic exercises, and he said part of him wanted to stay behind.

But all his friends were there, high-fiving him and giving hugs. His parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends had come to the Tabernacle to watch him cross the stage, and this day wasn’t just for him.

“I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing it for my parents,” he said.