GLOCESTER – Early on a mild June Friday evening in Glocester, 216 soon-to-be Ponaganset High School graduates were on their way through the school yard to the athletic field for their graduation ceremony.
“This is my second year here. We missed out on a full year. I’m very excited for this next chapter in life,” said Arianna Scott, 18, of Foster.
“It’s a life change. The start of something big in life,” said another grad, Ashley Matteau, 18, of Killingly, Conn.
“I don’t really know how to feel,” Duncan MacLean, 18, of Foster, said of the crossroads day in his life. “I’m gonna miss my friends,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to the, “next step in life.”
Jon Burlingame, chairman of the Glocester School Committee, was waiting for the graduation to begin to speak to the crowd. Among the graduating class was his daughter, Leah Burlingame. His niece Jordyn Albanese is also a member of the class.
Burlingame was pleased the class was getting to have graduation out in the pleasant weather.
His son graduated from Ponaganset during the pandemic restrictions.
“That was tough,” Burlingame recalled.
Senior Class Advisor of the Class of 2022, Heather Bovenzi, an art teacher at the school, said the graduating class is, “very special,” because they’re, “very kind,” and, “very inclusive,” and, “worked very hard.” Bovenzi said the graduating class is also quite creative, and she’s, “very proud of them,” and will miss them as they move on with their lives.
The new principal of Ponaganset, Amanda Grundel, hosted the commencement exercises.
Grads and council members Kristen Briggs and Chloe Skene-Poirier, on behalf of the class of 2022, welcomed the audience.
Briggs said upon entering into their high school years, the class was oblivious to the good friends and other rewards they would reap or create at Ponaganset.
Back then, the class was also “oblivious to the two years of high school we would practically miss out on, the masks that would takeover our outgoing personalities, and the missed dances, spirit weeks and celebrations that brought us so much joy; however, through all the covered faces, black zoom screens, and lost sports seasons we still became those cool high schoolers we dreamt of being.”
“To say that Ponaganset offers an inclusive community,” said Skene-Poirier, “would be an understatement.”
What’s more, “when we truly want something, work for something, and are passionate, anything is possible no matter the circumstances,” said the grad.
Class Advisor Ashlee Burns seemed to delight in recalling moments of laughter with the students, of discovering their personalities, and witnessing their achievements.
Grad Lily Marie Wells-Dannenfelser acknowledged individual achievements of the students and congratulated Supt. Michael Barnes on his retirement from Foster-Glocester Regional Schools, Supt. Renee Palazzo, on her promotion from school principal and Grundel on her move to principal. Each of the administrators and the class advisors were presented a bouquet of flowers.
Barnes was with the school for 34 years as teacher and administrator.
In his speech he said the, “sense of community,” is one of the things he, “truly valued about Ponaganset.”
“Being able to close out this year with students not wearing masks, hosting events in person, being able to see people smile while talking face-to-face has helped us all reconnect to the Ponaganset community,” said Barnes.
“We couldn’t have got here without each other,” said the class Salutatorian Alyssa Perretta.
The class only got to have two normal high school years and is sick of hearing about Covid, she said.
The students made a comeback from the difficult conditions, and won championships in athletics, band, and chorus, “despite hardships,” said Perretta, who is off to Yale.
Grad Myles Realejo recited the Ponaganset High School Alma Mater, written by retired Ponaganset English teacher Thomas Hall, who was in attendance.
In the traditional presentation of the class gift, grad Jenna Greene acknowledged gifts from previous graduating classes displayed on school property.
She said that her graduating class, “went through something unimaginable,” a, “worldwide pandemic” that prevented students from coming to school and, “severed many connections with our peers.”
Grad Skyla Kohanski spoke of the class of 2022’s gift to Ponaganset, which is the creation of a “kindness garden.”
In fall of 2020, “post-quarantine and amid hybrid learning,” the class chose to create a message of, “hope, inclusion, and kindness,” through a kindness garden of flowers and a bench. Each student had a rock to paint, choosing their own message to share with forthcoming visitors to the garden.
The acceptance of the class gift was the role of junior students, Class President Abigail Bigelli and Vice President Rachael Sayler.
Bigelli thanked the seniors, “for being such great role models.”
Sayler, speaking of Covid shutdowns and restrictions, explained she and the other students, “persevered through this hardship,” adding that watching the 2022 class graduate was bittersweet.
“Remember that everything in your life is change,” Palazzo told the grads.
The new superintendent urged the grads to, “always choose happy.”
She shared with the group that fear can mean, “forget everything and run,” or, “forget everything and rise.”
“I encourage you to rise on the next phase of your journey,” Palazzo said.
Recognition of, “Ideal Chieftains,” was presented to grads Campbell Boyden and Jacob Joseph Seares by teacher and class advisor Heather Bovenzi.
The valedictorian, accomplished musician and scholar Abigail Bousquet, is graduating with a 4.79 GPA, among other achievements.
In her speech, Bousquet recited the Ponganset High School Inclusion Pledge students take every year.
She spoke of an “inclusive” music program at the high school and said her, “positive memories of inclusion have been clouded by too many troubling memories of seeing exclusion.”
Bousquet mentioned an, “intolerance for differing identities, and recent events have further proven there is much growth to be had in our community when it comes to demonstrating true acceptannce,” seeming to refer to last week’s news, that students allegedly posted online a controversial flag and an obscenity about Joe Biden, which resulted in comment from the school administration.
“We cannot pick and choose when and to whom to be inclusive,” said Bousquet. “When it comes to hate, there is no such thing as an isolated incident and ceasing to acknowledge this is tolerance..”
“We must meet unacceptable behavior with real consequences to prove there is no place for hate in our community,” she added. “Change is important and change is necessary. We must step out of our comfort zones and find ways to embrace the uncomfortable when meeting new people, new cultures, and new concepts because doing so is the key to making truly inclusive change. We must pause our judgment; we must ask the hard questions and be willing to truly listen to those answers, and this is how we will continue our growth past this day of graduation.”
Bousquet is heading to Brown University.
Musical performances were provided by the Ponaganset High School concert band , the PHS chamber chorus and by singer-guitarist Kyle Curran.
Dean of Students Michael Calenda presented the diplomas, and Burlingame delivered a congratulatory message at the conclusion of the ceremony.
Referring to advice from motivational author Nando Parrado, a survivor of the 1972 Andes mountains plane crash ordeal, Burlingame urged the grads to, “live for the present.”
The past can’t be changed, and there’s no “guarantee what tomorrow will bring,” said Burlingame.
The commencement exercises were closed by Grundel amid cheers.
Editor’s note: The above article was edited to correctly reflect Jon Burlingame’s role and his daughter’s name. We apologize for the errors.