“Look at this. We’re all here!” said Lyng-Seay Coyne, in the first moments of her moving salutatory speech delivered at the Shelter Island High School graduation on Friday, June 26.
The teachers, parents and graduates spread out over the grassy field next to the school seemed just as amazed to be in one place as she was.
When the senior class emerged from the gym on a perfect summer evening, led by Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., and their beaming teachers, they did not wear masks. Neither did most attendees of the outdoor ceremony, and some of the physical distancing was with the hand sanitizer stand at the entrance to the field.
The crowd that gathered to honor and be honored, numbered more than 150, and thanks to Building and Grounds Director Mike Dunning, who built a second stage, the graduates (including his son, Lucas) sat at a safe distance from each other.
Father Peter DeSanctis of Our Lady of the Isle has not been able to attend a Shelter Island graduation in 40 years since he was needed in church. But this year’s ceremony was a miracle, and not just because it took place on a Friday for the first time ever.
Kindness and service
The graduation of 2020 was a celebration of the resilience, strength and kindness that the 22 seniors displayed; persevering through a time of disease, economic hardship, racism, and political unrest to complete their work with distinction, and launch themselves into their futures, with the love and support of school and community.
“Surreal” was Craig Wood’s impression of the gathering. His parents had to stay home in Florida, and were making do with the livestreamed graduation of their granddaughter Audrey. Craig and Carrie Wood invited Audrey’s friends Theo and Grace Olinkiewicz to fill in. Theo and Grace, like all students at the school, have been isolated for months, learning at home.
“A lot of my closest friends are in this class,” said Grace Olinkiewicz. “I’m going to cry.”
Superintendent Doelger’s speech was a loving call-out with a personal message for every graduate that emphasized kindness and service to the community, from Dan Martin and Keith Taplin who have joined the Marines, to Class President Maria Carbajal, whose mother and sister stood by with an enormous bouquet of roses; Jennifer Cooke, “she has almost single-handedly kept the pharmacy open when others refused to go in to work…”; and the Morales brothers, twins who constitute 10% of the graduating class, “Beto, you are respectful and everyone has so much regard for you,” Mr. Doelger said. “Carlos, you are always smiling and respectful.”
He acknowledged that losing the best part of senior year fell as heavily on students as it did on parents. “Yes, you have been robbed of many things that you can’t get back,” he said. “Continue to do what you have been doing, which is leading the way. Make the world a better place by being kind to one person at a time.”
Don’t miss the show
Among the hardest-hit was Lauren Gurney, one of the first seniors to have their plans upended when softball season was abruptly cancelled as area schools shut down in March. “We are proud of our daughter, she and her class handled it very well,” said her father, Dave Gurney. “There were a lot of things that we were looking forward to, hoping for her to go out on that, but that did not happen. I want her to remember that her family and everybody who knows her is very proud of her, and we are looking forward to seeing what she has in store for us in her future. This is just the first step.”
In her speech, Salutatorian Lyng-Seay Coyne spoke of a favorite uncle who taught her to appreciate life in the moment by waking her up to go kayaking before sunrise. After paddling out into the water she saw the moment they came to call, the show, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” She urged graduates to see the show and enjoy every moment of its beauty and its peace. “The world is our oyster, as my mother and father like to say, and they are not wrong.”
Port of call
Valedictorian Emma Gallagher reminded listeners that this was a senior class born into the aftermath of 9/11, raised in a time of political turmoil, whose senior year started with impeachment, and went on to pandemic, economic depression, exposure of systemic racism and the rejuvenation of the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice.
With rhetorical flair, she invoked the first line of Pat Conroy’s novel, The Prince of Tides. “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call,” and turned it on its ear. “Our sustenance is geography. It is not a wound,” Ms. Gallagher said. “Our island anchors us with strength, love and gratitude. Shelter Island will always be our port of call.”
Her voice, and the audience’s heart, broke when she said, “Our last day of high school is one many of us struggle to remember. March 12. I remember Mr. Williams saying hopefully: ‘We will pick up where we left off tomorrow.’”
Her 20-minute speech ended with a call for tolerance and kindness. “When they go low, we go high,” she said. “People will try to bring you down, and will judge you no matter what you do or where you put your commas, so you might as well do what you love.”
The thing about commas got the biggest laugh of the night, as it referred to a controversial letter to the editor published in this newspaper .
‘Beyond this bubble’
Kathleen Lynch, President of the Board of Education, described the graduating class as one of the best groups of young people in the school’s history, “What I want for the kids to know is just that we love them and we will always be here for them,” Ms. Lynch said.
Seniors Henry Binder and Abby Kotula announced a gift from the senior class, the Perseverance Scholarship, for students who have experienced adversity. The scholarship, funded by money in the class treasury meant to be spent on such end-of-year festivities as the class trip, will help a future Shelter Island student get off the Island and “find greatness beyond this bubble.”
“We are not an ordinary class. We are a class that made a change,” Ms. Kotula said. “We decided to pay it forward.”