The field was damp, but spirits were definitely not. In fact, at Brewster’s 2021 Commencement Ceremony Saturday, May 29, so many special moments of joy captured the graduates, families, faculty, and staff that the unseasonably chilly weather was simply a footnote. Led by Class Marshalls Mitchell Coope, Dawson Cunningham, Katherine Martin, and Christopher Webb, the 120 graduates of the Class of 2021 processed from the Smith Center past the Bobcat and onto Brown Field, where their guests awaited, seated in pods of chairs spaced as a COVID precaution.
The fact that this ceremony could take place at all was in itself a reason to celebrate. As the 2020-21 school year moved from fall to winter to spring, Brewster’s community kept an outbreak of the COVID virus at bay through strict protocols outlined by the school’s COVID Task Force. Only the cooperation, patience, and flexibility of every person—adult and student—on campus could lay the groundwork for an in-person ceremony to even be considered. Spearheaded by Director of Campaign Operations Liz Baker McClain—and with the support of dozens of staff, faculty, and administrators—a COVID-safe ceremony came to fruition, with a livestream option for those who could not attend.
After a moving invocation from Rev. Gina Finochiarro, Head of School Craig Dr. Craig Gemmell set the stage for the day’s event with four words: gratitude, reflection, remembrance, celebration. “I’ve never felt so grateful to be attending a commencement ceremony because WE HAVE ALL MADE IT despite the wild changes our world has endured over the past stretch,” he pronounced. “We are all here because of the coordinated work of SO MANY.” He then led the students in rounds of applause for teachers “who dug very, very deep for a very long time to make this year the stunning success that it was,” staff members “who learned to perform their duties in very different ways and never missed a step,” retiring employees Tom Madden, Peter Mann, and Lynne Palmer “who led immensely long and equally impactful professional lives,” and finally parents. “How do we begin to thank the parents who trusted us with their children…and who partnered with us so beautifully through the challenges, the highs, and the lows of this year?” Dr. Gemmell said as students gave their largest cheers of the morning. He then asked everyone to stand in ovation for the “soon-to-be legendary Class of 2021” that has been “united and positive and mature and have more than risen to one mighty challenge after another this year!”
On the word “reflection” Dr. Gemmell asked the class to think about what they learned about themselves, their existence, and the world. His speech turned to the feeling of “remembrance,” acknowledging that this class has experienced profound personal losses as the world has lost literally millions of lives. “None of us were unaffected by this even if we at times became numb to the relentlessness of loss,” Dr. Gemmell said. “Our community was surely rocked by two particular losses during this year. Earlier this spring we mourned the passing of dear Maya James, daughter of longtime faculty member Emily James and her husband Martin; and sister to Marvell, Class of ’24 and Mary, Class of ’20. Almost simultaneously, we mourned the loss of beloved former Brewster student Terrence Clarke, who was originally a member of this graduating class before he graduated early to pursue his dreams.” Dr. Gemmell noted that grieving together allowed the community to bear these painful losses before moving to his final touchstone word of the day: “celebration.”
“Trauma has a way of reminding us to make the time to celebrate all that we have for which to be grateful,” he said, adding “As we enter into the commencement ceremony for the Brewster Academy Class of 2021, celebrate we must and celebrate we should because we are here and have accomplished so much against all odds because we’ve done so together!”
Dr. Gemmell then introduced Salutatorian Neilie Alperin, saying she “has been an academic powerhouse, a champion of issues close to her heart, and a contributor to the Brewster girls' varsity soccer team. Because she cares so much for them, Neilie's classmates, friends, and teammates care very much for her.” Neilie, who will attend Clemson University in the fall, spoke about the bond her classmates have formed, and her proclivity, since childhood, for asking questions. She encouraged the class to own their curiosity, saying “It is not a weakness, rather it is a strength. Despite the different paths and journeys we will take, we all are going to come into situations in which we will not know what to do. We are going to need to recognize that it is not only okay, but critical, to ask. Without the courage to explore our curiosity, we will never be able to get where we want to go. And along the way when we run into those questions that don’t have a definitive answer, we now not only have each other and those around us, but we also must remember that we have the ability to take it into our own hands and work to reach the answers we desire.”
Dr. Gemmell next presented the Headmaster’s Prize to Valedictorian Reese Richmond. Richmond, a legacy student (Dad Matt is Class of 1992), had asked her family not to let her grandmother—who was in attendance—know she had earned the top academic spot for the class, instead wanting her to be surprised when the honor was announced. Grandma Marty had a second surprise when Reese made her the star of her speech. “My grandma, Marty, has a little fun fact that she loves to share,” she began. “If you can spell the word ‘socks,’ then you can speak Spanish. S O C K S. In the English language, these letters combine to create the word ‘socks’ but in Spanish ‘es o sí que es’ is a saying that translates to ‘it is what it is’.”
She went on to say the Class of 21 has embodied the saying “it is what it is” while simultaneously adding our own special touch to it: “It is what it is, but let’s make it even better.” She explained: “As a class, we have taken a year that has been filled with so many curveballs and made the most out of a less than ideal situation. Despite the lack of normalcy, we created memories filled with happiness and laughter that will without a doubt transcend both time and place.” Reese then spoke of gratitude for second chances, and urged her fellow grads to live in the present and be themselves, never taking for granted the time we have on this Earth.
After the presentation of 12 senior awards (see list below), Assistant Director of College Counseling Tim Cushing, read the appointment of Gus Schoenbucher to The United States Merchant Marine Academy. (Mr. Cushing conducted the appointment on behalf of Rear Admiral Jack Buono, the Academy’s Superintendent, who could not be in attendance.) Nominated by Congressman Chris Pappas, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and Senator Maggie Hassan, Schoenbucher is one of approximately 280 appointees selected to attend the Academy from around the nation and the world, out of approximately 2,000 applicants. Mr. Cushing noted that “an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy is the equivalent of a scholarship worth approximately $262,000 over the four-year period,” and at the end of his schooling and training, Schoenbucher will earn a Bachelor of Science Degree, a U.S. Marine Officer’s License as either a Deck Officer or Engineering Officer, and an Ensign’s commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Dr. Gemmell introduced the day’s keynote speaker, Diane M. Foley, as “a woman who has endured the unimaginable and is the epitome of a person living a life of purpose.” She is the tireless president of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named in memory of her son, Jim, who was kidnapped in 2012, tortured for two years, and ultimately beheaded while covering Syria’s Civil War. Her work—her driving purpose—is to help Americans held captive abroad by shaping U.S. policy and working with the families of those kidnapped, as well as promote safe practices and protections for conflict journalists.
Mrs. Foley began her address by telling the Brewster grads, “You give us all hope for our nation and our world,” and then asked them to use their talents and intellect to become men and women of moral courage. She went on to describe raising her family in the Midwest before moving to Wolfeboro. She then challenged the students to consider answers to four fundamental questions: What really matters to you? What makes you happy? What makes you the most sad? And what would you change if you could? Of the last question, she said, “Your answer may give you a purpose…a reason for being. Helping families with loved ones held hostage and promoting journalist safety through the Foley Foundation has been healing for me.”
She closed her moving speech by quoting her late son, Jim, who once said, “For some reason I have physical courage; but that’s nothing compared to moral courage. If I don’t have the moral courage to challenge authority, to write about things that might have reprisals on my career, if I don’t have that moral courage, we don’t have journalism.” Jim found his purpose in witnessing the Syrian struggle for freedom and telling us their stories, she said, adding, “I sincerely wish each of you graduates a life filled with a passionate purpose that will give you deep joy. Dare to care deeply about yourself and others…May you have the moral courage to choose to make our world a better place.”
If you are still reading this account of the Commencement Ceremony and are thinking, “I’m reading this story, so I don’t really need to watch the recording,” think again. Because these words cannot capture the beauty of the ceremony’s vocal soloist, Alison Ansorg ’21, performing the song “Hero.” Following Alison’s lilting rendition of the Mariah Carey hit, the graduates received their diplomas. First, yearbook dedicatee Peter Mann read the names of the 15 students who studied and graduated remotely. Next, special guest Khun Korn Thepnorarat, Guidance Officer with the Office of Educational Affairs at the Royal Thai Embassy conveyed diplomas to the Royal Thai Scholars. Mr. Mann then returned to the podium to read out the rest of the graduates’ names as they each walked across the stage and received their diploma from Dr. Gemmell. Once back in their seats, all the grads moved their tassels to indicate their achievement, and with the signal from their Head of School, cheered as they tossed their caps in the air!
In his final message of the day, Dr. Gemmell reiterated what Diane Foley said earlier in the morning: “Dare to care deeply about yourself and others. Dare to be bold and think big. Dare to bring hope into our world,” finally imploring his students—now alumni—to “be daring in these ways and you will surely live lives of purpose. Good luck and godspeed.”
Click here to watch the livestream recording of the Commencement Ceremony.
AWARDS PRESENTED AT COMMENCEMENT 2021:
Headmaster’s Prize for the Valedictorian: Reese Richmond.
Postgraduate Award for the postgraduate with the highest academic record: Kopchon Sittithammachoti
Ronald “Buzzy” Dore Memorial Award for the graduate who exemplifies the qualities of our alumnus and friend, showing outstanding leadership in the areas of academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities, and who is a friend to all: Michael Provenzano.
Faculty Growth Achievement Award for the graduate who has shown the greatest improvement in general record during their junior and senior years at Brewster: Tuke Murch.
Jill Carlson Memorial Award for the female graduate who exhibits outstanding athletic abilities, determination, drive, and dedication, and displays an inquiring curiosity to learn about and experience life: Caroline Churchill.
Mabel Cate Tarr Award for the graduate whose record is one of outstanding contribution to scholarship and citizenship: Yezena Degu Endeshaw.
David Sirchis School Service Award for the student who, in terms of spirit, dedication, and contributions of service, has done the most for the Brewster community: Jillian Pollini.
Arthur J. Mason Foundation Award for graduates displaying good sportsmanship on the playing fields, in the halls, in the classrooms, and among students, faculty, and others: Reid Demain and Katelyn Charette.
Burtis F. Vaughan Award for the graduate who has most successfully combined scholastic and athletic excellence with the personal qualities of sympathy, sincerity, appreciation, and awareness in all his or her associations: Mitchell Coope.
The Faculty Service Award for the student who provides the strongest example and makes the greatest commitment to community service, who considers such service not as a responsibility or an obligation but rather as something that comes from a driving inner motivation to be of value to others: Chris Webb.
The Lives of Purpose Award for the graduate who has made significant contributions to their school and community through their time, actions, talents, and dedication: Kaylie Rosen.
Arthur M. Hurlin Award for the graduate who has done the most for the welfare, good name, and progress of Brewster: Katherine Martin.
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