MUHS commencement marks end and beginning
MIDDLEBURY — It’s hard to think of anything more emblematic of the creativity and resilience of Middlebury Union High School’s response to COVID-19 than the lustrous glassy sounds of xylophones, vibraphones, marimbas and piano accompanying the Class of 2021 as it filed into Memorial Sports Center Saturday morning.
The MUHS Mallet Ensemble, which was Band Leader Anne Severy’s resourceful answer to COVID-19 restrictions on wind instruments in schools, was just what the staid, plodding inevitability of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” needed on a day that already bore the weight of 15 months of masks and social distancing, of uncertainties, disappointments and accumulated yearning.
A similar lightness emerged in the remarks of Principal Justin Campbell and of senior class speakers Anna Berg and Sofia Stefani.
Campbell, who is finishing his first year at MUHS, described his family’s move to Cornwall this time last year in a truck full of sheep pulling a trailer full of chickens and ducks, while his wife, Brandy, nervously kept an eye on the towing mirrors.
When they arrived in Middlebury, MUHS’s drive-through Graduation 2020 was in full swing he recalled.
“As we sat stopped in traffic, we watched, smiling, as many family parades turned into MUHS. Vehicles were covered with balloons and messages to graduates … There were cars honking and flashing lights. There was a trailer full of screaming family members sitting on hay bales and there were smiles everywhere.”
The image, he said, “is cemented in my mind and it typifies the caring, fun connectedness I’ve come to expect from this community.”
Campbell has felt blessed to play some small role in the lives of the 108 students who make up the MUHS Class of 2021, he said.
“You are the first class I’ve watched graduate from our school and you’ll always be special to me.”
Anna Berg described a happy last-minute pivot in her high school career.
“If you had told my 10th-grade self that I would be spending the spring of my senior year playing ultimate Frisbee instead of taking the IB (International Baccalaureate) external exams, I think I would have been pretty confused about my present self’s life choices,” Berg said. “Why would I — a remarkably unsporty and uncompetitive person, who until recently had a fear of frisbees being thrown at me — decide to join Ultimate? Well, although the pandemic undoubtedly created a lot of chaos in all our lives, it granted me a luxury that I never used to have much of: time.”
The pandemic had loosened time’s grip on student schedules, which allowed Berg and the classmates she observed to reevaluate goals, reflect on deeply held values and negotiate the challenges of COVID-19, she explained.
“The Class of 2021 is often congratulated for making it through the numerous unexpected obstacles of the past year, and although simply enduring these setbacks is admirable, it’s tremendously impressive to grow and mature with hardship,” she said.
That’s not to say there haven’t been regrets.
“Maybe your time management skills are still terrible and you never quite got the hang of turning in your work on time,” Berg said. “If you spent every Wednesday this year watching Netflix instead of doing remote work, don’t worry, so did I! It’s not always easy to prioritize mental health over the countless other expectations placed upon us, which is why I admire the resilience of my classmates who knew they needed to take a step back this school year.”
Sofia Stefani revisited her elementary school years, recalling imaginary conversations with “the bathroom ghosts,” which were, of course, conversations with herself.
“My bathroom conversations gave me chances for asking questions and self-reflection, but I missed the social element of talking to real people,” Stefani said. “While separated by the coronavirus pandemic, we have all missed the social element of talking to each other. Today, as we finally gather in-person and hope for a summer where we can emerge from our quasi-quarantine, let’s take a moment to appreciate renewed conversations with each other.”
Conversations have helped Stefani see the world in all its complicated beauty, she said.
“By talking to you all — my family, teachers, classmates, friends, and community — my worldview shifts kaleidoscopically. The world appears to me in one way, but when I speak with any of you about favorite hobbies, people you know, fleeting thoughts, or persistent concerns, you broaden my perspectives and I see new patterns. Not all conversations are pleasant, but all conversations can make us more aware of ourselves, others, and how variable our world is.”
Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows further elaborated on the theme of reflection.
“Through the many challenges we’ve faced this year, the one thing that has become crystal clear is the power of community and friendship — what it means, what it reflects within us, and who we are within it,” Burrows said.
Because of the pandemic, the Class of 2021 has probably gained a sort of clarity that other classes haven’t had, he suggested.
“You’ve had time to pause in the surreal silence of a world gone quiet (and) in this quiet you’ve had the gift of seeing.”
Burrows urged seniors to allow themselves “the opportunity to see that life is really not as complex as we make it out to be. Beneath that craze of complexity is a profound simplicity, and in that simplicity you realize the one thing that matters most in life isn’t the many accomplishments you’ll have or the acceptance you’ll gain — it’s about being good with who you are.”
In addition to cheering on the Class of 2021, the audience, who wore masks and sat in socially distanced family pods, showered three retiring educators — Cindy Atkins, Colleen Ringquist and Anne Severy, who have taught a combined 103 years at MUHS — and staff member Dorothea Bartlett, who served the school for 25 years, with a combined 90 seconds of applause and two standing ovations.
Later, just before the presentation of diplomas, the MUHS Senior Vocal Ensemble distilled the entire day into a sublime, almost haunting performance of Phillip Phillips’s “Home,” with its roads and demons, trouble and redemption.
From then on, every name called from the stage was the name of a miracle, and being there in person to listen to those names felt miraculous. So young they are, and already so accomplished. And this is only the beginning.
To see a video of the entire ceremony, visit https://tinyurl.com/bsdestp5.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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