PAWTUCKET — Perhaps 30 minutes before the festivities of Tolman High School's Commencement, Dr. Linda Gifford, a guidance counselor, stood inside the James W. Donaldson Gymnasium offering congratulations to members of the Class of 2011, boys clad in red caps and gowns, the girls in white.
Suddenly, Mckenzie Hosford tapped on her shoulder, and Gifford spun around. When the elder saw Hosford, she immediately gave her a massive hug.
“It's been quite a journey,” Hosford told her.
“With a happy ending,” Gifford smiled back.
When asked what made this particular class so special, Gifford – herself a 1990 THS graduate – noted, “I think it's their different personalities, and how they all mesh together. They all work in such collaboration with each other.
“I actually had Mckenzie in first grade,” she added. “There were five (seniors) who I had in first grade at Potter-Burns (Elementary), but I know a number of others as they went to school there, too. I saw where and how they started off, and where their perseverance
has taken them. This is the first Tolman class that I started off and ended with, and it's gone by so fast.
“I got so close to so many of these kids. They'd always knock on my door to ask for advice or just to talk. This group brings back memories that I had as a student here, and I love it. I think very highly of Tolman and the education it provides. It bothers me when people have negative comments about it.”
Wednesday night's ceremony delivered bits of frivolity and fun mixed with philosophy and reflection.
In his “Congratulatory Remarks,” Principal Fred Silva explained economists have indicated that, by earning their diplomas, these seniors have increased their earning potential by $1 million over their lifetimes.
“Mark Twain, towards the end of his life, was asked by a young reporter if Twain thought his success had been based on luck,” he noted. “Twain knew the reporter thought that he had received much more than he was due in life, and answered 'Yes.' But then he went on to define luck, doing so as “Preparation meeting opportunity.
“We have little control over opportunity, but we have complete control over preparation,” he continued. “Our DECA (distributive education) students could not anticipate winning the state competition and competing on the national level when they began their projects this year, but they prepared themselves, and went on to dominate the state competition and represent us well on the national level.”
He also said the same of the Tigers' Chorus earning an “excellent rating” at the R.I. Choral Festival, an event in which it never before had attended; and the varsity boys' volleyball team. Just last Friday, Tolman defeated Barrington, the same school it had lost to in an tourney-opening round, to snag the state crown.
“When you entered Tolman, you could not anticipate where you would go after (Wednesday) evening, yet you prepared. Your preparation has led you to opportunities. Some of you have chosen to join the armed forces. Some … have decided to join the workforce. Others have chosen to continue your education at a two- or four-year college, and you apparently have done well.”
He then told all, over the past five years, no high school in Rhode Island had been more successful placing students in highly-selective universities and programs than THS.
Silva also mentioned preparation doesn't always lead to opportunity.
“Allison Buja, a member of the Class of 2011, completed her journey on this Earth in 2009, (and) Allison is in my thoughts this evening,” he said. “I know she is with us in spirit, and ask you to keep her in your thoughts.”
He revealed that his grandmother, who was born in 1880 and lived to be 94, couldn't have anticipated seeing two world wars, the Great Depression, nuclear power or men walking on the moon.
“I believe Twain and my grandmother had the answer: Preparation,” he said. “In our world, another word for preparation is education. We are in a world where our education must be ongoing and continuous. The skills that we have emphasized during your time with us are skills that will allow you to be lifelong learners.
“My wish for you is that you remain curious, that you will continue to learn and adapt to your world,” he added. “Opportunity will find you.”
Silva told them they couldn't have achieved such greatness without their own efforts, but also the love and support they received from their parents, families, teachers, administrators and fellow students. He asked the graduates to thank each and every one of them.
“(Now) you will pass into the ranks of our alumni,” he said. “But you will always be Tigers, and your imprint will always be on Tolman.”
School Committee Chair Raymond Spooner Jr. told the 243 grads he had attended the Shea High Commencement just 48 hours before, and Mayor Donald Grebien had asked the Raider seniors to stand and scream, “We are Shea!”
He then mentioned, “Nobody comes into this house and outdoes us!” He told the seniors to stand and yell, “We are Tolman!” and they acquiesced, but not to Spooner's liking. Spooner, who received his diploma from Tolman back in 1979, requested another, more spirited bark, and the rafters shook.
“Don't ever be a stranger if you're in the neighborhood,” he stated. “You'll always be a part of the Tolman High family.”
After greetings and congratulations by Grebien and Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke, Kelly Vieira delivered her salutatorian speech, one in which she claimed she didn't like negative comments about her soon-to-be alma mater.
“In truth, we're a mixture of different people who all bring different things to the table,” she said. “Tolman is actually a good representative of the world: Different people together in one place, trying to make it all work out.
“All those times we came together and proved all those negative (comments) wrong, those times define Tolman,” she continued. “Maybe we can go out into the world and show people that getting along with others isn't so hard. If we realize it was possible to do here, it can be possible anywhere in the future. If we leave here with that hope in our hearts, it can spread to every person we ever meet.”
Following the Tolman Senior Ensemble's singing “The Great Escape,” valedictorian Alyssa Browning offered these wise words.
“What has determined out experience is the group of people that has surrounded us during our years at Tolman,” she stated. “Sitting on stage during (graduation) rehearsal, I looked at the face of every person who will shortly walk the stage with me. I realized more than ever what great people are in this school, and I noticed a commonality on every single face – pride.
“This is something we must strive to never lose,” she added. “We must leave this building and enter the world … and recognize that we are just as prepared as anyone else. Our Pawtucket roots and our Tolman Tiger education are not topics to jest about … They undermine it's true value. In Pawtucket and at Tolman, we have lived lives of acceptance and diversity. We have befriended those like us and different from us.
“Much like we take pride in ourselves, we must take pride in our pasts, and advocate for our city and school. When we do great things in this world … we represent where we come from and the people who raised us. Our pride shows the next years of Tigers to be even more proud and confident.”
Juan Villa read the 2011 Class Poem, one titled, “Our Victory.” In it, he paid tribute to fallen Tiger Pfc. Kyle J. Coutu, who died while serving the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan about 16 months ago.
Toward the end, Villa stated, “So bring on the silver, bring on the gold, for we are all victorious, and we deserve it all! We are the greatest class, our names engraved in 'Graduation Heaven,' so – please – a huge round of applause to the Class of 2011!”
Seconds later, the graduates stepped forward to receive their diplomas from Cylke, Assistant Principals Barbara Savella and Dennis Smith and Senior Class Advisor Noreen McVay.
Upon the last recipient's name being called, the class recessed to Corey Smith's “I'm Not Gonna Cry.”
Naturally, on this momentous occasion, some students couldn't help but submit to their emotions.