Ponaganset names 'Ideal Chieftains,' sends 179 seniors into the world

Ponaganset names 'Ideal Chieftains,' sends 179 seniors into the world

Standing with their hands over their hearts for the national anthem during commencement last Friday, are, from left, Ponaganset High School graduates Jesse Bernardin, Andrew Berthiaume and Jacqueline Blanchard. (Valley Breeze & Observer photos by Elise Manahan)

FOSTER-GLOCESTER - With pomp and circumstance and plenty of music, 179 members of the Class of 2013 at Ponaganset High School - a school known for its musical accomplishments - were sent out to make their mark in the world during its 52nd annual commencement exercises Friday, June 21.

Unlike last year, when rain drenched an outdoor ceremony, this year's event was held in picture-perfect summer weather, under the bluest of skies, with everyone gathered in the expansive entrance circle at the front of the school. The porch at the main doorway served as the stage.

The boys wore green caps and gowns and the girls wore white as they filed into their seats to the measured strains of Edward Elgar's famous graduation march, performed by the high school's wind ensemble. Laughter, cheers, whistles, applause, even screams of greeting, welcomed the graduates. Several hundred people were in attendance, family members and friends pointing cameras and clutching bouquets.

What made this class special, Principal Sandra Nolan told the gathering, was its overall excellence - excellence in just about everything the graduates did, she said, in academics, on the athletic fields, in the arts, in the community.

"In real life, every day you graduate," she said, urging departing seniors to continue to strive for excellence in all they do. "Excellence is not a skill, but an attitude," Nolan said.

Supt. Michael Barnes provided concrete examples of the accomplishments generated by such excellence. The class was awarded a total of $3.5 million in scholarships and grants from colleges across the country, he said. They contributed to the school's outstanding performance on New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests. Ponaganset scores in math and reading this year were "the highest our district ever received," Barnes said, leading to "the largest combined growth (in scores) of any school in Rhode Island."

He offered the graduates the same advice he said his father gave him: "Find what you love to do and make it your career."

A graduation high point was naming of the "Ideal Chieftains," a title reflecting the school's Indian chief mascot. The annual awards go to the two graduates whom faculty members decide best personify "the life and personality of Ponaganset High School," Assistant Principal Todd Grimes told the gathering. Recipients are kept secret until graduation, and their names are inscribed on a plaque displayed prominently in the school.

Miranda Raynor was named the female "Ideal Chieftain" and, active in the community as well as in school, she is "a role model for all," Grimes said.

Taylor S. Field won the boy's award. Jacqueline Striano, associate principal, called him "humble, accomplished and well-rounded," with mechanical and computer skills in particular. "He is the guy who can fix anything," Striano said.

Connor Martin, one of two salutatorians in a tie this year, called graduation "frightening and sorrowful," as well as "exciting and liberating." He urged classmates to "follow your inclinations to discover your passion. Throw yourself out into the world." You never know what might happen, he said. He spoke of how, on a whim, he organized a band for a talent show and, to his surprise, "we ended up winning it." Enthusiasm is the key, he said. "You will not be noticed without a little enthusiasm."

May Hemler, co-salutatorian, said graduation need not mean "the end of our learning" because learning is a lifelong process that empowers. "When you find something you love to do, the power is incredible," she said, urging her classmates to never stop questioning. "Allow that nagging feeling of curiosity to take you along," Hemler said, because even failure can help you learn. "No wrong step is ever worthless."

Elizabeth Coffey, valedictorian, pointed out the dichotomy presented by the two terms used to indicate the ceremony held at high school's end: "graduation," which suggests something "final and concrete," she said, versus "commencement," a beginning.

Graduates are at an end and a beginning. "We are at a crossroads," Coffey said. "We can look back, but there is no reason to turn around." She told her classmates that "life won't get easier, but it will get fuller" and "much pressure (will be) on us to choose" wise life decisions. "The future is ours to create and mold," Coffey said, "but it will be bright only if we make it that way."

Performing at the graduation were the PHS Chamber Chorus, the PHS Wind Ensemble and the PHS Concert Chorus, led by Dan Coyne, director of the music program, and fellow teacher Derek Sabitini. Besides "Pomp and Circumstance," the student groups performed "The Road Home," "October," "That Lonesome Road" and "Profiles in Courage."

Even class advisers were in a musical mood. Advisers Barbara Parrish and Donald Reuker ended their remarks to the graduates by singing a brief song together. Nolan at one point attested to PHS' musical reputation. "There's not a place I go where someone doesn't say, 'Oh, Ponaganset, that's the place that has the finest music program in the state,'" the principal told the audience.

In addition to the well-performed musical selections, another outstanding aspect of the Ponaganset graduation were the many creative uses the graduates found for the mortarboards sitting atop their heads. There were the usual flowers and photos and names spelled out in sparkling rhinestones. But also, there was a hat adorned with a chunky black hockey puck and varsity letter. Another hat offered the message, "I'd rather be at Hogwarts," accompanied by a bright yellow lightning bolt. A green and white checkerboard pattern was the background for a PHS memento display atop a hat. "Adventure is out there" was the phrase inscribed on another graduate's cap.