Family, friends, teachers, administrators and Medomak Valley High School seniors gathered in two separate groups at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 9 to celebrate the graduation of the 105 members of the class of 2021.
Seniors in cap and gown were led to their graduation ceremony in a processional to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” They took their seats before an outdoor stage in front of the school, their families and friends cheering in the audience. This day, this moment, represented the culmination of their four formative years of education at Medomak Valley High School.
The seniors were seated in two long rows with a break in the middle where a single chair was draped with a graduation gown and mortarboard in MVHS blue. A vase of yellow flowers sat to the right of the chair and a photo of classmate Zachary Winpenny was placed in front. Winpenny was killed in a car crash on Dec. 16, 2020. That loss reverberated through this class of graduating seniors, many of whom had grown up with him.
Winpenny’s mother Michelle Abbatoni, who was in the audience along with his brother Aiden Abbatoni and other family members, said that one of the greatest fears for a parent who experiences the loss of a child “is that your child won’t be remembered.”
She said it was important to the family to participate in the graduation because “this was his class. This was what he was denied.”
A number of students received scholarships from the Zak Winpenny Memorial Scholarship Fund set up by the family in his honor to support the members of his class. After the ceremony Michelle Abbatoni expressed her gratitude for how the MVHS community continues to embrace her family in their time of loss.
In a deeply thoughtful speech, salutatorian Sean Sebrey spoke to the trials faced by the class of 2021, including spending its last two years of high school switching between in-person and remote learning and graduating during an unprecedented pandemic. Sebrey said he spent a lot of time contemplating “how to portray the story of our high school experience as something other than a sob story.”
“All of last year’s expectations of a return to normalcy seemed to amplify the weight of each loss we experienced,” Sebrey said. “We watched as so many things we looked forward to were taken away.” Sebrey referred to the death of Winpenny when he said that “all of this was overshadowed by a far greater loss.”
Sebrey said that the MVHS class of 2021 has learned “to roll with the punches, to be grateful for what we have and how to say goodbye to a classmate … We’ve grown accustomed to being dealt a less than perfect hand.”
“But,” Sebrey said, “as much as we are a class of underdogs we are also a class of champions.”
Sebrey listed some of the athletic, artistic, and academic achievements of the class of 2021, including a number of individual state championships and successful one-act productions. He pointed out that the class of 2021 had members of the best boys tennis team, the most decorated math team, and the first Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship golf team in school history.
“How perfectly our run of victories coincided with our greatest hardships,” Sebrey said. “Our ability to come together during hardship is a defining ability that we all share.”
Valedictorian Zachary Cheesman spoke with humor and introspection of the experience of this class of MVHS seniors.
“From having our final years of adolescence stripped from us, to suffering the loss of our forever classmate and friend, Zak Winpenny … We have come out on the other side matured,” Cheesman said.
Cheesman gave a tongue-in-cheek nod to some of the highlights of his MVHS education, from gaining a “strong repertoire of Chuck Norris facts” from algebra teacher Paul Forest, to learning to never argue with a Spanish teacher, especially Heather Faria because “she’ll rip you apart in Spanish, which is way scarier,” to having his faith in government and politicians “completely destroyed” by U.S. history teacher Keith Hill.
“Even with all this knowledge,” Cheesman said, “when it came time to decide what advice to give on graduation day I found myself stumped … But what I do know is that if you judge your success through the eyes of other people you will never succeed. True success is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s personal. It’s genuine. And it can only be attained by living according to your beliefs, your dreams and your passions.”
According to Cheesman, being an individual “is the most exceptional thing you can be.”
“Every one of us has gone through something in the past four years that has changed us permanently,” senior Emma Kunesh said. “We should be proud of what we accomplished here. But we should not dwell on the past; we should keep our minds on all the possibilities we see in the future.”
Before the graduates received their diplomas, Principal Linda Pease asked the family of Winpenny to the stage and presented them with Winpenny’s diploma in recognition of his membership forever in the class of 2021.
“Our hearts are with you. Our hearts have been with you,” Pease said.
Following the presentation, the members of the class of 2021 proceeded to the stage, along with their families to receive diplomas and congratulations from Pease, and applause and appreciation from their classmates and the members of the audience. When the last name was called Pease concluded the ceremony by proudly presenting the Medomak Valley High School graduates.
As one, the students moved the blue and gold tassels on their mortarboards from the right to the left.