At Charter School, an Affirmation of Doing Right

By C.K. WOLFSON

It was as if the buoyant mood and fellowship at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School's graduation created a force field that staved off Saturday morning's threatened rain. More than 150 smiling, mingling people gradually made their way across the grass behind the volleyball court, and handshake by handshake, hug by hug, ambled into the large white tent.

At the amplified sound of Green Day's The Time of Your Life, the Class of 2003 appeared from the school building: Freya Grunden, Xavier Powers, Kristian Seney, Kerry Sertl and Abraham Stimson.

Instead of mortar boards and black commencement gowns, they wore wreaths of flowers, pastel and floral print shirts. Instead of forming a procession, the five graduates strolled to the stage as a group. As the crowd beamed and applauded, they took their seats in front of a large drawing made by the school's director of development, Paul Karasik, depicting them with things that expressed some of their interests.

As the cameras clicked around her, former board member Betsy McIsaac commented, "You don't need a wide-angle lens."

As the speeches and various traditions unfolded, the theme that emerged was one of individual growth and expression, a personalized celebration of both accomplishment and possibility. The informality - first-name basis all around, and comments about each graduate's unique style - had the effect of enhancing the significance of the ritual.

Charter school director Bob Moore, often mentioning all five by name, spoke of their collective character as demonstrating "a quiet, kind humility." He said, "You've taught us how to serve our community with little or no fanfare. You've been both leaders and teachers."

Susan Phelps, president of the school's board of trustees, spoke next, stressing the collaborative practices of the charter school community. "This class," she declared, "is a real affirmation that the charter school is doing something right."

Keynote speaker, assistant director Claudia Ewing, her face beaming like a proud relative, directed her remarks to the graduates. "Each of you has left an indelible mark," she said.

She shared one of her childhood experiences: finding a "lucky rock," a stone with a continuous, contrasting stripe which, she believed, brought good fortune. Looking into the faces of the graduates, she told them that each person has "the freedom to give meaning to things as we choose, and the opportunity to choose how we respond." She smiled. "Each of your paths is paved with lucky rocks. Trust the wisdom within you."

One by one, the elementary school classes presented handmade gifts. The senior class members put wampum pendants around the graduates' necks, reminding them that according to legend, wampum always brings the traveler home.

Marsha Winsyrg directed Niole Nelson, Mary Sage Napolitan, Nora Karasik, Ruby Hoy and Julia MacNelly in the Junior Bell Choir's perfected version of Pachelbel's Canon and her original composition, Alleluia.

When the class advisor Lori Shaller stood to present the graduates' awards, she acknowledged each student's accomplishments, mentioning their culminating portfolio projects, which explored broad themes in various disciplines.

Each student in the charter school's third graduating class began emerging as a clearly defined, singular presence: Kristian with his computer and creative skills and dedication to community service; Kerry, her strong family bond and, because of her interest in forensic medicine, her "Jessica Fletcher" tendencies; Freya, with her strong sense of justice and passion for stage management; Xavier, the shy scientist, musician and writer - "You can't always tell what he's thinking from his expression," and Abraham, the photographer, writer, Irish fiddler, sailor and "Renaissance man."

Then it was the graduates' turn to speak.

Kerry declared, "The words, ‘I can't do it,' don't exist," adding, "I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't come to the charter school."

Xavier defined life in general as "one big Blues jam. You improvise, there are fluctuations in rhythm and melody, and," he smiled, "sometimes you trip up." He also made a point of thanking his mentor, Maynard Silva.

Abraham explained that he learned to take responsibility for his education. "One of the greatest things the Charter School did for me was to give me a sense of purpose," and he continued, the means to back it up.

The graduates' gift, which they presented to the school, was further demonstration of their creativity: a mosiac-covered bird bath, which they had been working on in secret for weeks.

Three college scholarships, a total of $3,250 for each graduate's college education, were presented in animated fashion by Mr. Karasik. Lindsey Henderson, mother of the late Sean Henderson, handed each a $50 bill for "pocket money."

After Mr. Moore and Mrs. Phelps presented the diplomas, it was official, and the enthusiastic, overflow crowd responded with a standing ovation.

While music played, people meandered toward the food-laden reception area. Youngsters began playing basketball, taking turns on the swings, turning the empty stage into a dance floor.

Among the people who enjoyed the offerings of salads, fruits and desserts were Nat and Pam Benjamin - who commented on the high level of nurturing provided by the school community, and peace activist Chris Fried, who declared, "This is not a machine that cranks out kids. It's a loving experience."

Ursula Ferro, the school's initial, interim director, admitted the ceremony brought tears to her eyes, "a very powerful and poignant experience." She said, "It is so wonderful for this small Island to have this alternative. It's not for everyone, but it's suited to them and their goals."

Board member Jon Lipsky noted, "It's a shame that every high school student can't be viewed as an individual. That's what this school is about. It's a good foundation. You know how to be a learner."

And a smiling Maynard Silva, who served as Xavier's mentor, declared, "In most schools they teach regurgitation; here they teach inspiration."

Mr. Silva's son, Milo, having completed his sophomore year, offered his first impression of the school. "A breath of fresh air," he remembered, "a kind of utopian reality."