WOONSOCKET – Just as adversity is said to produce great art, great students, too, can emerge from the most challenging academic circumstances.
And so it is with Woonsocket High School's class of 2011.
Despite facing some of the toughest graduation requirements with fewer resources than ever – or perhaps because of it – this year's crop of graduates is especially fine-tuned for the challenges of the future.
“Be proud of yourselves,” School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois told the graduates. “You have survived in these times of economic hardship and financial difficulties. You've had programs cut.”
Those were among the entreaties and advisories set forth as 378 members of the class of 2011 picked up their diplomas during yesterday afternoon's commencement exercises.
Because of inclement weather, it was one of those rare graduation rites held in the gymnasium of the Cass Avenue high school instead of the usual outdoor venue at Barry Field. Tickets for the bleacher seats were limited just two per grad, with the overflow funneled into the auditorium to watch the festivities on closed-circuit TV.
But it hardly seemed to matter. The celebratory atmosphere was all the more tangible in the crush of admirers who filled the stands, bearing bouquets, balloons and cell phone cameras.
“I too graduated from right here in the gym and I'm extremely honored and humbled to address you as the mayor or our great city,” said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
Fontaine told a string of personal anecdotes about members of the graduating class who'd impressed him with their character, integrity and – yes – sheer brains. But before he even mentioned her by name – before anyone who hadn't bothered to read the program notes indicating that she was the salutatorian – it was clear that Jennifer Pierel is one of the stars of the class.
The festivities began when Pierel sang a melodious version of the national anthem – only to be frequently interrupted by applause as she stretched a phrase in just the right way or hit one of the high notes in perfect pitch.
Moments later, she traded melody for rhetoric as she delivered the salutatorian address. She recalled the class' milestones – the achievements of its athletes, a dramatic production of "Godspell" that nearly suffocated amid budget cuts, the pressures of living up to expectations.
Remember them all, she implored her classmates.
“It is definitely possible that these have been and will be the most memorable years of our lives.”
Valedictorian Julie Ann Briere had plenty of advice for her fellow grads, too. One fitting tidbit for the digital generation: “Explore instead of spending all day in your bedrooms playing video games.”
“Live a little,” she said. “Fall in love. Travel the world. Right now we're young and we need to live it up.”
Schools Supt. Robert Gerardi, whose tenure with the district officially ends at the end of the month, said he was particularly impressed with the achievements of the class of 2011. Thanks to new requirements established by the state Board of Regents, students had to complete graduation portfolios and final projects in order to earn a diploma – the most challenging standards yet for high school students.
Calling for a round of congratulatory applause on their behalf, Gerardi said, “Let us celebrate how exceptional these students are.”
Some of the students he got to know rather well, Gerardi said, while there were others “I just admired from afar.” Either way, the superintendent said, “It's been my pleasure to know this wonderful class of students. I know they're going to be great leaders of the future.”
Fontaine said some of his encounters with these exceptional students made him feel as though he was getting lessons in character. Fontaine, who had a role in a school production of “Grease” last year, met a student actor who wouldn't let autism hold him back. Then there was the boy in the ROTC program Fontaine gave a lift home the other day, only to learn he had already enlisted in the Marines.
And there are students like Pierel, he said, as smart as they come. Smart enough to land a secure job in the sciences, if that's what she wants. But she's on her way to Rhode Island College to major in musical performance.
“Some of the most important things we do in life we don't do for money,” said the mayor. “We do it because it's our dream.”
Finally, Fontaine said the education students received at WHS is vital, but what they do with it may spell the difference between success and failure. It's right there in the Declaration of Independence, the mayor said – all men are created equal – but it doesn't always work out that way.
Fontaine said he had met people as high up on the totem pole of life as the president of the United States and the “lowest of the low,” like that homeless couple living in a squalid hole in the ground behind Main Street.
What is it, Fontaine asked, the determines where people who all start out with the same opportunities end up?
“You are that difference,” Fontaine said. “It's who you are. This is the point where you are ready for greatness.”