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VUHS graduates finally unmask

MARIA MALANEY BEAMS and holds onto her mortarboard as she approaches the stage to receive her diploma. Independent photo/Steve James

VERGENNES — A little before 8 p.m. on Friday, June 11, the 103 graduates of the Vergennes Union High School Class of 2021 took two symbolic actions.

After the speeches and songs and diploma walks came Principal Stephanie Taylor’s instruction for the seniors to flip their mortarboard tassels from right to left. That collective action signified the culmination of their high school careers.

And soon after they took off their masks as they mingled with family and friends gathered on the school’s varsity soccer and lacrosse field.

Those acts signified an end to 15 months of mandatory COVID-19 protocols and the effect of the pandemic on not only their education, but also on the fabric of their lives.

Gone were the days of Zoom classrooms, of canceled proms, musicals, concerts and sports seasons.

Gone was a hybrid academic year of three days at home and two days at school — but not together with all their classmates, just with those with whom they shared an alphabetical destiny.

Finally this spring the seniors could attend school together — and enjoy the prom, the class fundraising walkathon, and a full season of athletics.

And then they could graduate together — mostly smiling while posing with diplomas on stage, some waving or mugging for the cameras, and one (Ashton Greenia) landing a backflip — all outdoors under cooperative partly cloudy skies as a full crowd cheered and applauded.

“What a difference from last year,” Taylor said from a stage set up between two dugouts. “We’re all thankful we can be together in a large group.”

Unsurprisingly, student speakers touched on the pandemic. Class President Xander DeBlois spoke of what he saw as the benefits of being raised in the greater Vergennes area.

The class has “grown into a family,” he said, and includes “some of the most decorated scholars, athletes, musicians and volunteers in our community’s history,” in part because of the opportunities and support provided by that community.

“We’ve had the chance to delve into our interests and explore who we want to be in the world. We are a family of adventurers. Whether you’re a hunter-gatherer living entirely off stew in the Walden project, trekking through the Green Mountains with our impossibly tall distance runners, or surfing the swells of the web from the comfort of quarantine, you’ve always found a home in our Commodore community,” DeBlois said.

But, he said, COVID-19 has challenged the Class of 2021. Still, DeBlois said he believes what the seniors have received in the years leading up to that challenge will propel them forward, and he thanked the many who have helped the seniors along the way.

“Over the last 15 or so months, the endurance of our family has been truly tested. Through the pandemic, our class has developed resilience to adversity like no other class in recent history. These tribulations have left us eager to escape and dive into adulthood,” he said.

“We will soon enter life as graduates, ready to overcome any obstacle in our paths. Through the connections we’ve built over the years, we have had the support and encouragement of so many along the way. Our friends, families, educators, and community members have inspired and empowered us to reach new heights.”

Addison Northwest School District Superintendent Sheila Soule tossed credit back at a class that graduated four summa cum laude, 17 magna cum laude and 27 cum laude, and featured 17 National Honor Society members, 12 National Technical Honor Society members and four Eagle Scouts.

It also included athletes who helped teams win one lacrosse title, reach one baseball and multiple soccer and basketball finals, and track runners who won enough medals to found their own mint.

“Thanks for being so exceptional under such extraordinary challenges,” Soule said.

According to Kobe Kessler, chosen by the seniors to deliver the Challenge to the Class of 2021, those challenges included not only COVID-19, but also dealing with racial injustice and the deep political divisions that have surfaced in the United States and have not left the halls of VUHS untouched.

“We’ve also witnessed the continued political polarization in the United States that I have seen divide friends, family members, and classmates in our very own school building. In the middle of this crazy mess, here we all stand: a group of students attempting to form our own opinions and beliefs about the world all while simply trying to survive the school week,” Kessler noted.

LISTENING & THINKING

The way to move forward to handle these obstacles and more, Kessler said, is for he and his classmates to gain confidence in and develop their own critical listening and thinking skills:

“We can’t afford to simply listen and absorb all of the information presented to us, even if it is from sources that we trust and depend upon for good advice. And likewise, we can’t afford to shut out all that we are provided with because that would lead to a very unhealthy, and very uninformed world. The sweet spot is a balance of natural inquisitiveness and healthy skepticism. These are the attributes of a great thinker, something that we can all be if we choose.”

And he said the pandemic might have accelerated that process.

“I believe that the pandemic and all of the events that have transpired over this past year could help to bring about a revolution in individual thinking. It has forced us to focus on the things that really matter to us all,” he said.

“I’ve seen people close to me talk and debate about current events in ways that I would never have thought possible two years ago … My neighbors and friends are showing their courage and bravery by standing up for the causes that they believe in, and they are teaching me by example how to do the same. But it all boils down to one thing, and that thing is thinking for yourself.” 

Keynote speaker Lee Shorey, an educator who retired from VUHS two years ago after holding a variety of formal and informal roles at the school, focused on her affection for the Class of 2021.

The class had invited Shorey to speak, and she opened with an anecdote about talking about the invitation with another retired VUHS educator, Laurie Steadman, about her surprise and delight in being contacted.

Shorey told what Steadman said in reply: “Lee, it makes sense. You have always loved this class.” Shorey then explained how that remark sparked her speech, and while doing so sprinkled in the first of many song references — Tina Turner in this case.

“It was then I knew what I wanted to say to you tonight: Why I love you. Some might be wondering, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ in regards to teaching,” Shorey said. “To me, it’s got everything to do with it.”

Shorey said she had been “blessed through the years to work with teams of truly passionate professionals” who often would say, “I love that kid.”

“It’s the emotion of teaching a whole class, or just one student, and over time a mutual level of respect and purpose is reached and sticks,” she said. “With this class, it stuck.”

Shorey also cited the five VUHS guidelines: “Presence. Integrity. Kindness. Respect. Self-Challenge,” which she used to organize her speech.

“I know the last thing you want to hear about tonight is the five guidelines, but stick with me,” Shorey said. “I’m using them as a framework to describe how you made an impact on me. Me. I hope you remember to make an impact on every system, culture, community you’re part of.”

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