BMR charges to graduation after a long, strange year

BMR charges to graduation after a long, strange year

Juleus Koenig receives congratulations from his father, Joshua, after graduating with High Honors from Blackstone-Millville Regional High School last Friday night. (Breeze photos by Charles Lawrence)

BLACKSTONE – After a year that will be remembered as one of the most challenging in history for local students, the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Chargers were back at it, this time proving that not even a pandemic could keep them from walking the graduation stage.

The Class of 2021 celebrated their commencement in an outdoor ceremony last Friday, June 4, marking the return of the traditional graduation to the Blackstone Valley. Between the enthusiastically cheering families, the proud graduates, the elaborate mortarboard decorations and the jokes about the narrowly avoided rain, the ceremony was as much a celebration of a return to normalcy as it was a rite of passage for the most recent BMR graduates.

Principal Michael Dudek kicked off the remarks with a quote from his own yearbook from St. Mary’s School in Worcester in 1998. “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been,” the name of an album by the Grateful Dead, perfectly encapsulated both his own high school experience in the 1990s and that of this year’s graduates, he said.

“This has been quite the trip for all of us, especially you, but I firmly believe that this time has made you all better individuals,” he said. “As you move ahead on your next journey, remember that with change comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes new experiences and personal growth.”

Dudek encouraged graduates to remember the lessons of the past year, including that family matters more than they realize, self care is not the same as self indulgence, loneliness makes for poor health and nature will allow them to live large when the world seems small.

It was the final graduation ceremony for Dudek, who is set to leave BMR at the end of this year. Jill Foulis, a current assistant principal at Monson High School, is scheduled to take over as principal in July.

Valedictorian Natalie Hawkins, who plans to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall, continued on the theme of perseverance through the past year. She thanked all those who allowed her and her classmates to excel during high school, including the janitorial and lunch staff.

“They always go out of their way to bring happiness and kindness to our school,” she said.

Hawkins spoke candidly about her struggles with mental health and congratulated those who overcame their own difficulties to make it to graduation day. She highlighted the importance of living in the moment, especially following a pandemic when students never knew what opportunities were guaranteed or how much time they had left with people.

“I know some of you might have thought you would not make it to graduation, or might not have wanted to come today for many reasons, but you did, and that in itself makes me so proud of all of you,” she said.

For Salutatorian Gabriele Martinelli, graduation marked the final achievement after nearly 700 days of high school. Though she enjoyed the many opportunities at BMR – particularly as a member of the Chargers Marching Band under the direction of Todd Shafer – she said it was the small victories that she learned mattered the most.

“No one can define an accomplishment for you, because it all depends on you,” she said. “Some days are harder than others, so simply getting out of bed and coming to school or logging on to a computer is something to celebrate.”

She also encouraged her fellow graduates to explore the world, especially after a year with fewer adventures than expected.

“I look forward to getting on a flight again and going to new places,” she said.

While the ceremony was full of lighthearted moments, it also included reminders of the seriousness of the pandemic. Class President Kiara Spooner began her speech with a moment of silence for all those who lost their lives to or were affected by COVID-19. She went on to thank her teachers and family and commend her classmates as members of “the strongest class.”

“My mother has been my rock for 18 years, and I know that I would not be standing here before you all if it wasn’t for her pushing me to be my best each and every day,” she said.

The class of 95 graduates included musicians, artists, scholars and future members of the U.S. military. Most students received their diplomas from Dudek, Supt. Jason DeFalco and Assistant Principal Keith Ducharme, though a few received their diplomas from parents who served on the BMR School Committee. Member Tara Larkin presented the diploma to her son, Ethan Larkin, and member Erin Vinacco presented the diplomas to her children, Julia and Nicholas Vinacco.

The ceremony was delayed an hour to the threat of rain but ultimately continued on the front steps of the high school per BMR tradition. Many family members were in attendance, a change from last year’s ceremonies when the school was forced to hold a drive-thru celebration due to the threat of COVID-19.

The seniors listen to the speakers, anxiously waiting to receive their diplomas at the 2021 Commencement Ceremony.
7093 The graduation ceremony ends and the graduates begin a new chapter in their lives. Valley Breeze photo by Charles Lawrence