Graduation night at Wayfinder Schools

Posted on Wednesday June 9, 2010

On May 28, over 120 people filled Hall Mountain Hall in Camden to celebrate the graduation of Wayfinder Schools’s Residential Class of 2010.  Students Tyler Sabattis of Indian Township, Khia Newell of Lincoln, Zech McIntosh of Gardiner, Billie Pirruccello of Benton, Ian Betts of Deer Isle, Eric Knight of Union, Karen Johnson of Lewiston and Natalie Paul of Freeport earned well deserved high school diplomas in an emotional ceremony that left hardly a dry eye in the house.

The celebration began with a Community Potluck at Wayfinder Schools, and ended, several hours later, with staff and students embracing each other as they broke into an impromptu version of “Lean on Me.”

In between, there was a beautiful processional down Washington and Main streets, speeches, a video and slideshow, the awarding of diplomas, and a group dance.

Tyler Sabattis lead the processional with a Passamaquoddy honor song and drumming, and each student carried a colorful staff they had made themselves earlier in the week.

Each student was dressed in a different color cap and gown, and along with their colorful staffs, Sabattis’s drumming and singing, and the huge crowd of friends, family and supporters that marched alongside them, the students made a fabulous, traffic-stopping picture as they made their to high Mountain Hall.

Residential Program Director Joseph Hufnagel opened the ceremony by looking proudly upon the students and asking the crowd, “Have you ever had a dream come true?  Because this is one of mine.”

Hufnagel then asked each member of the crowd to and acknowledged staff, board members, volunteers, student employers and co-workers, friends, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, former students, and every person who has supported the school and the students over the years.  Hufnagel is fond of saying, “Without community, we’d be just another school,” and a quick look around the room on Friday night made that abundantly clear.  The community support for these students was overwhelming.

Hufnagel spoke with pride of the students, their accomplishments, their new awareness, and their responsibility to themselves.  He closed by telling the students that he loves them all, and it was abundantly clear just how much he meant it.  Hufnagel has become a father figure of sorts to the students, while simultaneously becoming a new father himself.  Hufnagel and his wife, Amy, welcomed a new baby in April.

Lead Teacher Carrie Braman was next to take the floor, as she spoke with pride about students Karen Johnson and Natalie Paul, citing Johnson’s kind heart and Paul’s love of magic and belief that anything is possible.

Residential Overnight Counselor Alix Gillian Martin spoke fondly about Billie Pirruccello and Ian Betts.  She reminisced about swimming with fellow ocean lover Pirruccelli, and dancing “goofy” dances with Betts.  She said her feet ached to dance with Betts one more time, and she read a poignant Mary Oliver poem to Pirruccello.

Residential Overnight Counselor Maureen El Hajj and Culinary Instructor Cathy Ames spoke of Eric Knight and Zech McInstosh.  Ames talked with pride of Knight’s cooking abilities while El Hajj spoke of her love for McIntosh, despite what she called their equally strong “stubborn streaks.”  She and McInstosh shared one of the most extended hugs of the evening.

Residential Overnight Counselor Scott McPherson took the floor sporting a suit and tie, along with a green Mohawk, as part of a promise he made to the graduates if they completed their requirements on time.  Martin and Hufnagel made similar promises, and sported slightly more subtlety colored hair, although Hufnagel’s hands bore tell-tale and significant traces of blue hair dye.

McPherson, who was expecting a new baby any day with his partner, Caitlin, thanked the parents in the crowd for entrusting the staff with their children, and spoke highly of Khia Newell and Tyler Sabattis.  He cited Khia’s acceptance at two colleges and Tyler’s holding of the Passamaquoddy language, and told them they can do anything they set their minds to.

After the awarding of diplomas, several parents, grandparents, friends, tutors and school supporters stood to congratulate the students.  One volunteer tutor said she’d learned more from the students than they had probably learned from her, while one proud parent said, “If there were more schools like this one, we’d all be better off.”  Several parents, teary eyed, thanked the staff, while one parent said, “You uncovered the diamond we always knew was there.”

Head of School Dottie Foote kept her closing remarks brief, but not before turning traditional commencement sentiment on its head.  Rather than asking the students to make the world a better place for others, she asked the audience to “ferociously” commit to making the world a better place for the students.

After an enthusiastic response from the crowd, the kids tossed their caps in the air and broke into their favorite all-school dance, The Cha-Cha Slide.

Eleven Passages Program students will graduate in June.