VUHS grads celebrate their years together

VERGENNES — The themes of change, achievement and community intertwined as friends and loved ones gathered on June 14 to honor the 80 members of the Vergennes Union High School Class of 2019 as they graduated in a standing-room-only VUHS gymnasium.
Addison Northwest School District Superintendent Sheila Soule introduced the idea of change right away, pointing to the fact that there were no smart phones when the seniors on the stage were born, nor had many of the careers they might pursue been created. 
“Jobs like app deliverer, social media marketer, social media influencer, data media scientist, search engine analyst, podcast producer did not exist,” Soule said. “So if the world has changed that much in that amount of time, how much will change in the next 10 or 20 years? It’s hard to imagine, except that it will be yours to decide.”
Speakers from the class touched on the seniors’ accomplishments in traditional academics, technical education, music, drama, athletics, and community service.
In Valedictorian Bess Gramling address, “A Break-up Letter to the Class of 2019,” she pretended to be a jilted girlfriend upset the class had been so preoccupied doing great things it had ignored her. 
“You have the busiest schedule I’ve ever seen. You challenge yourself constantly at school, taking honors classes, playing in the band and singing in chorus, all while applying to colleges or training for your future careers. And on top of that, you participate in every club or group known to man. 
“You’re in NHS, you’re in the volunteer fire department, you’re half of the state FFA officer team, you’re an EMT, and you’re in the military. Also, you’re so dramatic, taking every opportunity you can to showcase your talents on and off the stage. Is there anything you can’t do? It is no wonder that we have to part ways,” Gramling said. 
Facts back her statement. Of the 80 who received diplomas that evening, 15 graduated with honors, 16 became members of the National Honor Society, and 11 earned membership in the National Technical Honor Society. 
Meanwhile, musical productions and concerts featuring seniors earned rave reviews, including performances at the graduation ceremony. Three sports teams made state finals during the school year, and one won. Senior track and field athletes helped the program earn seven banners that were unfurled that Friday evening.
But Salutatorian Madeline Smith said in her graduation address all that just begins to tell the story of the Class of 2019. She pointed to an annual senior Walkathon, done this year in honor of classmate Michael Alexopolous, who has a traumatic brain injury due to a childhood automobile accident. Last fall’s Walkathon raised $4,000 for the Love Your Brain Foundation.
AN EXCITED GRAD clutches her diploma. Below, Megan Vorsteveld celebrates receiving her VUHS diploma by holding it up for all to see, especially her vocal family contingent, during Friday’s graduation ceremony.
Independent photos/Steve James
And Smith noted the seniors’ enthusiastic participation in this spring’s VUHS day of community service, in which they took on projects at sites such as the Bixby Library, Rokeby Museum and Evergreen Preschool. She added a number of class members traveled on service trips to Ghana and Costa Rica.
“This senior class of individuals, all with drastically diverse interests, thoughts and lives, have come together and have made a huge impact on this school and the surrounding community,” Smith said, adding later, “Our diversity yet simultaneous oneness is what makes this class so special. We have all created our own stories, and we have all come together and created the story of the VUHS Class of 2019, and let me be the first to tell you it is an exciting one.”
Cedar Winslow, who earned third honors in the class and spoke after the graduates received diplomas in front of the cheering crowd, reminded her classmates not to rest on their laurels. 
Winslow said technically she was declining the offer to deliver the class challenge because she wanted to offer it to all who showed up. She said if we “just talk” to others, especially to those we have not before and to those with whom we might not agree, we can “emerge changed” and learn from the experience.
“My challenge to every person sitting in this room starts rather simply: engage with the people in your community. Take the time out of your busy schedule to learn about the people we’ve spent years with, but may have never taken the time to really know,” Winslow said. 
“I dare each of you to engage in conversations which make you uncomfortable, which challenge your ideas, which make you think … Conversation allows us to trace how each individual’s truth came to be. This is how we reach understanding, and it is one of the most beautiful aspects of our existence.” 
The class invited 2007 VUHS graduate Sam Quinn to speak. Quinn, younger son of recently deceased VUHS counselor and coach Peter Quinn, went on to earn a bachelor’s in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard, discovered his first planet while worked at NASA’s Keppler Mission at Harvard after graduation, and then attended Georgia State University to obtain a master’s in physics and a Ph.D. in astronomy. 
In 2016 he returned to Harvard to work at the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to work for TESS, NASA’s most recent planet-seeking mission.
Quinn, too, had a challenge for the Class of 2019. But first he talked about how much had changed since he attended VUHS, offering a long list that ended with a friendly poke at the school’s newest assistant principal, a former physical education teacher at the school, that drew the evening’s biggest laugh.
CHRISTIEN PAQUIN GIVES the thumbs-up and makes sure everyone can see there is a diploma inside the cover during the VUHS graduation ceremony on June 14 in the school gym. 
Independent photo/Steve James
“Facebook didn’t even exist yet, and now it’s for old people. In 2003 LeBron James was one of the most talked about NBA players, and Tiger Woods was winning majors. OK, not everything has changed,” Quinn said. “There is one change that no one, I mean no one, saw coming: Mr. Cook trading in the gym shorts for a shirt and tie. I guess you can have physical education without Ed.”
He then poked fun at his own graduation address in 2007, which he called too self-centered. 
“I’m pretty sure I encouraged my classmates to focus on themselves and their own interests in the next step in their lives,” Quinn said. “Boy, if I could talk to high school Sam now, I’d have something to say to him.”
Instead, Quinn said he should have focused on what he has learned and what the Class of 2019 could learn from their home community.
“You should take care of yourselves and follow your dreams, but all of those goals will be more easily achieved when you engage with those people around you, when you lean on others for support, and in turn support them,” Quinn said. “I certainly felt that support when I was here at VUHS, and that’s what’s so special about this community.”
Quinn said, “People here aren’t inherently better or nicer … But our community has cultural norms that foster those behaviors. A community is constructed by the behavior of the people living in it. And that means you can construct community wherever you go.”
Quinn said he has applied those values to an international astronomy work force that must make use of limited large telescope time and could easily duplicate research and compete. Instead, Quinn and others have established a cooperative ethic that allows for a more effective search pattern for new planets and shared research.
Quinn’s point? A group of 300 astronomers on six continents “explicitly discusses the common goals and values we share,” which he likened to those of the greater Vergennes community.
“So if you’ve been listening closely, then I’m suggesting that Vergennes can claim some credit for discovering new planets,” Quinn said. “So give yourselves a round of applause.”
His final words of advice?
“Seek out community, and build it if you have to,” he said. “You’re the lucky few who already know what it looks like.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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