Class of 2003 Prepares for Commencement

By CHRIS BURRELL

They stepped outside the classroom walls. They coached youth basketball and soccer teams. The wrote poetry and read it aloud at a downtown coffeehouse. They watched what was going on in the world around them, and they spoke out.

For the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Class of 2003, there was little time for gripes about having nothing to do on the Island.

"They were like a throwback to the sixties," said Spanish teacher Barbara Murphy, who will retire with this class. "This whole thing about Iraq has awakened a lot of thought. They really tried to discover and investigate and find out what they feel. They didn't just take what somebody says and run with it."

This Sunday beginning at 1:30 p.m., 187 seniors will walk across the stage at the Tabernacle on the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground.

They are a class that has weathered the fallout of politics, whether it was policy-makers on the Vineyard canceling their overseas trips for two straight years in the wake of terrorism and war or legislators in Boston deciding this was the first class that must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System - the dreaded and time-consuming MCAS exam.

Perhaps this Vineyard Class of 2003 was simply shaped by the times, toughened in their four years that saw the mighty economic engine of the 1990s start to sputter. Some of them surely suffered from the stresses of a housing market that threatened their very presence on the Island.

But in the face of such events, this class stood the test. If they were on the road to failure and dropping out, they signed up for the high school's alternative program - the Rebecca Amos Institute (RAI) - and recommitted themselves to the classroom. Of the graduating class, 10 are from the RAI.

This class was neither passive nor silent.

"We have a lot of smart, opinionated people who know how to speak their mind," said Elyse Madeiras, a senior from Oak Bluffs who is heading to Bridgewater State College in the fall.

Alex deGeofroy was one of those outspoken students. The co-editor of the high school newspaper, Mr. deGeofroy did a tour of duty as the student representative to the regional high school committee.

In that post, this senior never shied away from blunt comments. He lobbied for a system that would allow students to critique their teachers, and he told school committee members that students were being shortchanged in their instruction on how to write lengthy research papers.

His twin brother, Drew deGeofroy, the student paper's co-editor, looked back on the year and on his class and told the Gazette this week that his classmates were unusually creative and bright. "They wanted to make a difference," he said.

Then he thought back to the war protest, the one that ended in a walk-out and the suspension of at least two students.

"I was suprised about the courage they showed in doing something like that," he said. "It was the first time in the history of the Island school that that had happened. It was purely amazing."

Outside the political sphere, members of this class plugged themselves into the Island community, volunteering, trying out mentorships and being energized by the act of helping.

"I helped coach basketball for fifth and sixth graders and a mini-kicker soccer team. A lot of kids did that," said Miss Madeiras. "I just wanted to. I really like kids, and it was just this year that I started thinking about what I wanted to do."

Her sights are now set on a career in education. The same was true for Ben Retmier, the senior who headed up the student-run SafeRides organization. Somewhere along the line of driving his peers home when they called needing to get out of an unsafe situation, Mr. Retmier from West Tisbury decided he liked this experience of giving back.

Next year, he won't go to college. Instead, he signed up for City Year, the domestic version of Peace Corps, and will work with teenagers. He also wants to be a teacher.

High school guidance counselor John Fiorito said the seniors weren't just logging time to build their resum├ęs. "They were really into it. There was a Big Brothers, Big Sisters program every Tuesday at the Oak Bluffs School where they were donating time with elementary kids," he said.

"They got involved in the community and got hooked," he added.

Mr. Fiorito said that senior Althea Miller started a mentorship position at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, where she worked as an assistant in the third and fourth grade art classroom. She built her own art portfolio and was so popular that the charter school was calling her up to substitute teach, Mr. Fiorito said.

High school social studies teacher Elaine Weintraub said that when she needed help leading a tour of the African American Heritage Trail, she turned to her seniors. Nine of them were working for her as teaching assistants.

"They may not have been the most academic or ideal characters, but three of them turned out to trek through the snow with me," she said. "It was a class of real personalities."

Willingness to help did not mean these students didn't know how to have fun. On eighties day, some seniors dressed up like Pac-Man and the little ghost from the retro video game. On Halloween, another cast showed up at school dressed in full Star Wars regalia.

It was clearly a class of young people who didn't mind sticking their necks out, whether it was for serious or silly purposes.

"We're all really comfortable with each other. We can be who we want to be and not worry about being judged," said Curtis Chandler, a senior from Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Chandler has tested that axiom. A six-foot, five-inch lacrosse defenseman recruited by Providence College, he also likes to read poetry. "It's a unique side of me I don't generally show," he said.

Whether it's sports or the arts or volunteering, this was a class that learned to juggle time commitments, said Mr. Fiorito.

"Our class has done a really good job of keeping ourselves busy," said Grant Joiner - lacrosse goalie, bassist in the pop band NRG and a would-be accountant going off to Arizona State.

"This class was quite introspective, but they didn't just sit there. They had a sense of fun," said Mrs. Murphy. "This was the kind of group we haven't seen in a long time."