EAST MONTPELIER — Jim Willis has been teaching math for 53 years, and on Friday evening, the man who is suddenly between jobs showed he has a way with words. Not big ones, but good ones.
Chosen to speak at the 47th commencement of U-32 Middle and High School, Willis delivered for the seniors who selected him and who he joined heading for the exit after the ceremony was over and he was satisfied they’d done what he’d instructed.
“As soon as this gig is over I want you to run to the people that raised you … and give them a hug because without them you wouldn’t be here,” he said. “You hear me? That’s an order. Tell them how much you love and appreciate them. They loved you as best as they possibly could. Guaranteed.”
It was simple advice from a plainspoken man with an infectious smile and a love of life and it was delivered long after the teacher who confided he’d just lost the best job he ever had turned his back on the audience.
It wasn’t to be disrespectful, Willis came to speak to the students, many of whom tried without success to prevent his job from being cut during a recent round of budget deliberations.
That, Willis said, was a flesh wound compared to Travis Roy, the Boston University hockey player who lost the use of his arms and legs 11 seconds into his first collegiate game. Though it happened before they were born, Willis told graduates Roy wasn’t much older than they were when his life changed in two seconds time.
Willis half-apologized for the sharing the sobering story.
“I didn’t come here to make you feel crappy,” he said.
Willis, who arrived with his speech and roll of toilet paper he lovingly hurled at Assistant Principal Jody Emerson right in the middle of it, came to make them think.
He succeeded, bouncing between jokes and a listen-to-what-I’m-saying-to-you demeanor.
Willis, who has already landed a job at Spaulding High School, has been at it for awhile.
“I had Abraham Lincoln in the third grade,” he joked before suddenly shifting gears.
“Life is tough … It ain’t easy,” he said. “I guarantee each one of you you will suffer many setbacks … but how you deal with those setbacks will define who you are as a person.
“You’re going to get kicked in the butt. Get up and move on with it,” he added.
Willis warned against drinking and driving, he urged respect for veterans and offered some health tips.
“Wear sunscreen when you go outdoors. Cancer sucks,” he said. “If you don’t smoke or vape don’t start. Don’t do it. If you do smoke or vape, get help and stop, cancer still sucks.
Willis vouched for the value of a smile and urged graduates not to waste one minute of their young lives.
“Live in the moment guys,” he said. “Enjoy life, it’s a blast. Live in the moment!”
Then he brought down the house when ordered them to run and hug the people who raised them as soon as the ceremony was over.
“That’s a hard one to follow,” Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate said after Willis walked off the stage.
It was, but there were other memorable moments in a graduation that was forced indoors due to weather.
Some were part of the script.
Selected by fellow graduates to speak, Lucy Wood and Max Sabo offered both parting thoughts and congratulations to their classmates.
Wood went first, noting the graduates didn’t remotely resemble the students who arrived at U-32.
“We’ve evolved into stronger versions of ourselves ready to face the world,” she said, noting school was an important part of that evolution, but there was a whole lot more to it.
“The deepest learning we experienced came from fights with our parents, conflicts with friends, breakups, summer jobs and many late nights trying to finish our assignments,” she said. “Through these experiences we learned what it means to be people and we learned about who we are.”
Sabo said he is ready for what comes next.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” he said, suggesting U-32 had provided a “foundational” education and noting graduates had learned to answer other questions along the way.
“How do you manage the work? How do you balance responsibility and free time? With jobs? With sports?,” he asked. “How do you communicate with adults? Schedule appointments? … To me these are the important questions that prepare us for life after high school.”
Sabo said U-32’s Class of 2019 was ready in more ways than one.
“We’ve learned … how to pick ourselves back up, how to fend for ourselves, listen, empathize, problem solve,” he said, suggesting as they ready to scatter in different directions the graduates were poised to be successful.
Graduates heard briefly from outgoing Superintendent Bill Kimball.
Kimball, who spoke first told graduates they were “ready to go.”
“Today starts a new part of your life,” he said. “So as you go out on your own adventures, have fun, go exploring, try new things and remember the great times, good friends and all you’ve gained here at U-32.”
Dellinger-Pate expressed a similar sentiment, advising parents their children were ready.
“They are prepared to contribute to their local and global community,” he said, adding: “They are ready to engage with the world in and out of central Vermont.”
Not, Willis later advised, before hugging the people who raised them and loved them the best way they knew how.
MONTPELIER — There were bittersweet moments at the Class of 2019 graduation at Montpelier High School in the Capital City on Friday.
Bitter-ish as the school said a fond farewell to Mike McRaith after four years as principal and students reflected on parting ways with family, friends and the community. But oh-so sweet for some, with Violas Elsie (Huckins) Aldrich receiving her high school diploma at 93, after moving from Middlesex to Connecticut in 1942 in her junior year and never completing her high school education. Daniel Joseph “D.J.” Currier also graduated with his daughter, Sophia.
Ceremonies began with the processional, led by the Catamount Pipe Band, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.
Class President Apollonia Tabacco welcomed the assembled.
“Together, we have faced and overcome many challenges and we grew at every turn,” Tabacco said. “When faced with situations, both in our communities and nationally, we responded together.”
She went on to note how MHS students joined student activist movements to protest climate change, as well as pushing for new gun control measures in the Legislature. A crowning moment for the school came in February last year, when MHS became the first public school in the nation to raise the Black Lives Matter flag, she added.
Tabacco also paid special tribute to McRaith.
“Today, we honor a very special member of our class, as well. This person has been a leader, a role model and a mentor and a kind face in the halls,” Tabacco said. “He guided this class from freshman year to senior year, grew with us through every moment and adversity and is now leaving MHS with the Class of 2019.
McRaith received a standing ovation as Tabacco presented him with his own departing diploma.
Superintendent Libby Bonesteel thanked staff, faculty, families and the community for supporting graduating seniors through their school years. She also recited from a quotation hanging on her office wall that encouraged students to dream, laugh, love and grow.
“Good luck. We’re watching you get after this thing called adulting and everyone here at MHS is cheering you on,” she added.
Class Vice President Evie Caserta said graduating was something she wanted to do since her freshman year. “I’m really happy to be standing here right now,” she said, to applause.
Caserta’s theme was “memory,” in tribute to her grandfather, when she realized that he loved his robot cat more than her, because of Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother bought the cat to give him something to take care of in his declining health, Caserta explained.
“My grandfather believes the cat to be real,” she said.
Caserta said it made her appreciate her memories of school, on sports fields and in cultural pursuits and student activism movements.
“So, I urge you all to think about the memories we have made over the last four years. Memories are precious,” she said, and asked that students remain connected to each other and the school.
Student Randi Carpenter said her education outreach had led her to find the Community College of Vermont career center and its digital media arts program. After graduating, she said she was going to pursue a career in graphic design at Champlain College.
“Find something your passionate about, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and you may just end up what you’re meant for,” she said.
Student Zach Taylor said growth and development into adulthood was like carving a statue. He admitted that he had both suffered and succeeded, ultimately overcoming adversity to find a career path into medicine.
“You hold in your hand the chisel that carved the statue of yourself. So, keep sculpting yourself and create your own unique image and don’t forget who you are, especially in the face of adversity,” he added to a standing ovation.
McRaith — who is leaving to become assistant executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association — was his usual comical self at graduation, complaining that “Sail on Solons,” the high school’s theme song, was a hard act to follow.
“Thank you all for the support of these students,” he said, adding thanks to faculty, staff, senior advisors Adina Trager and Liz Swindell, and longtime teachers retiring, Sue Abrams, after 39 years, and Andrea Mayotte, after 33 years. He also recognized incoming principal Renne DeVore, who was present at graduation.
He went on to recount a favorite visit in Vermont, to Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, where there was a performance about an unsuspecting carrot that winds up on the dinner table. He provided animated movements and sounds of the carrot, to much laughter.
“I don’t identify with the carrot, I’m not the carrot,” McRaith said, addressing the students. “I’ve really followed you more than I’ve done any leading these four years.
“Seniors, I do want you to think about what leadership has meant as you continue down your paths. Leadership takes moral courage. To step up and lead means having some level of bravery and some level of conviction. I want you to recognize, when someone else is leading and putting on a carrot suit, support them — instead of eating them!
“It has been such an honor to be with you these four years. Keep leading, keep supporting the leadership of that which you believe in. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, I’m really going to miss you and congratulations to the Class of 2019,” he added.
Performances included contemporary tunes sung by the MHS honor and concert choir, a jazz piano performance by Remi Savard, a classical musical performance for double bass and cello, and a modern dance display.
School Board member Michele Braun presented diplomas, prizes and scholarships.
MONTPELIER — City officials are trying to resolve a conflict between the Montpelier Farmers Market and this year’s annual Toy Run motorcycle rally to support Shriners Hospitals for Children.
In its 32nd year, the motorcycle rally attracts between 600 to 800 motorcyclists for a ride from Berlin at noon to the State House via Main and State streets in Montpelier to deliver toys and donations for patients at Shriners Hospitals.
But the Aug. 10 rally may have hit a major roadblock this year because the farmers’ market now normally occupies State Street on Saturday mornings until 1 p.m., followed by two hours of breaking down stalls, blocking the traditional route of the rally in the city.
In an effort to reach a compromise, farmers’ market officials offered to close the market at noon and proposed the motorcycle rally delay its start until 2 p.m., but rally officials said the offer would not work.
Rally officials said the event was a longtime calendar fixture and should take precedence over the “for-profit” farmers’ market, which should either move to another location or cancel the market Aug. 10.
It led to a bit of a dust up at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, with terse exchanges between supporters of both sides.
Holly Wilkins, president of United Motorcyclists of Vermont (UMV), said the motorcycle rally had been “a tradition for a generation of Vermonters who ride,” and should be allowed to stake its claim to the long-established schedule for the event.
“We have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of toys, and cash and checks, that go to toward Shriners Hospitals,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said she contacted the city in April about a special event street closure permit for the rally.
“I found out that the farmers’ market had been granted street closure in our time slot,” Wilkins said. “We had not been given any heads-up about this.”
Wilkins said she contacted the farmers’ market “about giving up one Saturday” in its 26-week season for the rally.
“All we need is a fraction of one Saturday to keep our current time slot because we know if we change this routine, we will lose participants — it’s just a given. It’s just so hard to get people anyway, with their schedules,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said Devon Byers, the farmers’ market manager, offered to close the market an hour early, at noon, so the rally could start at 2 p.m. Wilkins said she told Byers the rally could not alter its schedule that much.
Wilkins also complained that the farmers’ market had already submitted a street closure request for its season next year and said Byers told her rally organizers they would have to change its schedule or route for the Toy Run in 2020.
Don Henn, a motorcyclist and former president of UMV, appealed to the council to consider the impact of diminishing the successful outcome of the rally.
“We’ve been doing this for 32 years and it’s all about the crippled and burned kids,” Henn said. “As Holly said, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in toys. (The farmers’ market) is here for profit and they can’t give us one day?”
One resident said he took exception to the farmers’ market being called a “for-profit” activity.
“That glosses over the fact the farmers’ market has dozens of very small vendors, whose livelihood depends on its operation,” he said, adding that he hoped a compromise could be reached.
Michael Parent, the potentate for the Montpelier Shriners, said the Shriners appreciated the efforts of rally participants to support sick children and said he also hoped for a compromise.
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said the city had always supported the rally.
“As far as compromise, that’s a key word,” Facos said, adding that efforts were being made to meet the needs of both parties.
Resident Vicki Lane said she strongly supported the Toy Run.
“I don’t think anything should prevent the Toy Run from happening as it’s happened, always,” said Lane, suggesting the farmers’ market should move back to the Heney parking lot for one day to allow the rally to proceed.
Compromises proposed included moving market stalls to one side of State Street, which would allow bikers to travel in the opposite lane, or ask bikers to travel down Langdon Street, bypassing the market, before turning onto State Street.
The council tabled a decision on the street closure permit application for the Toy Run until its next meeting to allow for more efforts to reach a compromise.
Byers could not be reached for comment.
MARSHFIELD — A student with disabilities at Twinfield Union School now has her own adaptive tricycle thanks to a Massachusetts nonprofit.
Sixth-grader Jordynne McKinstry, who uses a wheelchair, had been using a borrowed adaptive tricycle to get exercise as part of the school’s walk or bike to school event this past spring. Twinfield worked with Local Motion, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for biking and walking, and RAD Innovations, an adaptive bicycle maker out of Cornwall, to get McKinstry access to the tricycle for three weeks.
McKinstry uses her arms to pedal the handcycle instead of her legs. The Times Argus profiled her in March.
The story caught the attention of Kevin St. Jean, president of a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, nonprofit called Cameron’s Crusaders, which provides financial assistance to families for medical issues. St. Jean said though he doesn’t follow the Times Argus or Twinfield on Twitter, he saw McKinstry’s profile on his feed and decided he would use his nonprofit to get her a tricycle of her own.
St. Jean said the organization was started three years ago after his nephew Cameron died from cancer. He said he saw first-hand what it’s like for a family to try and make ends meet while dealing with a serious medical issue.
He said his organization has previously purchased adaptive tricycles, and he wanted McKinstry to be able to ride her tricycle whenever she wants. He said the tricycles can cost thousands of dollars.
McKinstry was presented with her own tricycle at a ceremony at the school Friday. St. Jean said the tricycle, built by RAD Innovations, cost $5,000, but RAD agreed to cut $1,000 off the price. St. Jean said his organization raised the rest.
“When you see the smiles, it makes all the hard work that we do to raise the funds worthwhile,” he said.
Principal Mark Mooney kicked off the ceremony by talking about heroes in front of the whole school. Mooney said heroes aren’t just people you see on a movie screen or an athletic field.
“There’s heroes among us every day. And Jordynne’s one of my heroes because Jordynne gives so much. When she comes in every day, it makes my day better with her great attitude and her positivity. So this couldn’t happen to a better person,” he said.
David Black, co-owner of RAD Innovations, said the tricycle McKinstry now owns was designed for people with spinal injuries in mind. Black said the tricycle can be operated by the hands or the feet.
That’s important for McKinstry because Twinfield school nurse Alice Day, one of the organizers of the school’s walk and bike program who helped McKinstry land the trial-run trike, said the hope is McKinstry will be able to peddle the trike using her feet in the future.
When asked how she felt about getting her new trike, McKinstry said she was excited and proud.
“Excited and proud is a pretty good answer if you ask me,” Mooney said.
The school then gave McKinstry and those involved in getting her the trike a standing ovation.
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