NORTH STONINGTON — Families set up chairs, spread blankets and greeted old friends, enjoying a sparkling evening for the 63rd Wheeler High School graduation Wednesday on the lawn behind the old high school.
Mothers held back tears, dads were stoic, and children chased each other in the sun. It was a perfect setting for 45 graduates to step over a significant threshold to adulthood.
Melissa Bland, whose daughter, Lanette Hernandez, is a graduate, was surrounded by family members including aunts, siblings and friends, as well as Lanette’s grandmother, Rosetta Anderson, who came from California to see the ceremony.
Bland said her daughter “was petrified yesterday about the weather, but excited to see it was a nice, warm day.” According to her mother, she made high honors and will be a student at the University of Rhode Island in the fall.
Before that, Hernandez, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, will work part-time this summer and attend the United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Orlando this summer.
Maria Giesing, whose son, Joe Giesing, was graduating, said the event was bittersweet. “He’s gone through 12 years of North Stonington schools,” she said. “It feels like family and we know everybody, but he’s starting the next phase of his life.”
“I’m just happy he’s graduating,” said Mike Giesing, his father. “He’s an 18-year-old boy and ready to move on.”
Maggie Steele said her son, Finn Steele, would study business at Johnson & Wales University in the fall.
“We’re just thrilled,” she said. “Wheeler is such a wonderful school. This is the first class to graduate from the new high school…. I know the graduates are very excited.”
Most speakers touched on the graduates’ transition in March from the old high school across the street, which is now housing elementary school students, to the new high school.
“We learned to open our minds to conflicts and to differing perspectives,” said Grace Anderson, the class president. “Our class has grown up through the process of this building project. We have seen the framework rise throughout our senior year. To have the honor of being the first graduating class from the new building is more than we could have asked for.”
“Our class is intelligent, driven and unique,” Anderson said. “Moreover, we are tenacious … and driven in our quest for knowledge and success …. Together we made a positive impact on the community through this building project.”
“The lessons taught by the faculty at Wheeler go further than a curriculum,” Anderson said. “These lessons are about perseverance, curiosity and determination that will take us further than grades, money or talents.”
Christine Wagner, who chairs the Board of Education, told the graduates, “You will find as you go down life’s path that learning never ends even after school is out. Find yourselves, we are all unique and have something special to offer this world.”
“Be kind, stay true to yourself, get involved in your communities, always help others and be honest,” Wagner said.
Principal Kristin St. Germain thanked the class of 2019 for “their role in our new school.”
“Their willingness and enthusiasm to stay involved … will forever be appreciated by the many students who will enjoy the new environment that all North Stonington students will relish for a long time to come,” St. Germain said. “The class of 2019 has certainly sacrificed a lot over the course of the last two years of our school modernization project.”
“They approached these challenges and changes like champions,” St. Germain said, “and started new traditions, like the beautiful cap decorations you see before us tonight.”
“The class of 2019 was given lemons and they chose to make lemonade,” St. Germain said.
Superintendent Peter L. Nero told the class, “We live in a society and a world where the lines are blurred between fame and infamy, a society that is a long way from the beliefs of the town that we live, work and go to school in, North Stonington.”
“It is a town of hardworking people who love their town and their country and who want to raise their children with values you will not find in other communities, and most importantly, where people do not take short cuts,” Nero said. "Graduate candidates, you come from a town and were educated in a district that is the result of love and devotion of your families, teachers, friends and town residents.”
“Your genuinely care about each other and that is not very common,” Nero said.
Class speaker Shannon Curioso, who is a social studies teacher at the school, said, “We were charged with building a bridge between our past and our present, and adapting to our new surroundings.”
“Senior year rolled around and you were put in the unique position of building another bridge, by saying goodbye to a school most of you had attended since the sixth grade, to a new school; gorgeous, but not longer familiar to you,” he said.
“In this instance, you showed real growth and resiliency,” Curioso said. “You had the distinct responsibility for reflecting on what was and imagining what could be. You strategically built a bridge between the past and the present, and created groundwork for the future.”