As the parade of cars — most outfitted with yellow and purple balloons — made their way down Front Street, graduates smiled and waved at the supporters cheering them on.
Escorted by police, fire trucks and ambulances, Greenport High School’s Class of 2020 began their unique graduation ceremony Sunday morning with a parade through the village en route to the high school.
As schools across the state adjusted to accommodate ceremonies with social distancing and limited capacity, Greenport turned its 139th Commencement into an outdoor event that allowed all 57 graduates to experience the special moment of receiving a diploma surrounded by classmates and with parents looking on.
The parade led the cars toward Coach Dorrie Jackson Memorial Field, where the graduates circled the field in their vehicles before existing and walking toward the bleachers. Many of the parents then congregated on the field in front of the bleachers where the graduates sat spread out.
“This isn’t quite the way any of us dreamed graduation day going, but nonetheless, congratulations to the Class of 2020,” valedictorian Joseph McInnis said.
Superintendent David Gamberg, who officially retires Tuesday, expressed his thanks to the community, calling his last six years in the district “very special.”
“[Greenport] truly is a special place and will have a special place in my heart as a I retire,” he said.
Many of the speakers touched on recent events, from the coronavirus pandemic to the social justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Our grandparents and parents who graduated from high school led the way toward a better future,” Mr. Gamberg said. “I have no doubt that each of you will be part of the story of recovery and better times for our community and for our country.”
He spoke about how the community rallied together to try to make up for the moments and experiences that the Class of 2020 lost after schools closed in March. He said there have been moments of heartache, but also moments of “heartfelt goodness.”
He cited examples of giving to others, showing appreciation to first responders and acts of courage and generosity.”
Mr. Gamberg spoke out the simple things in life that matter most: “family, friends and good health.”
“I think many of us realize the importance of not taking anything for granted,” he said. “We have also come to realize the significance of taking good care of ourselves and each other in our daily lives.”
Joseph McInnis, who will attend Dartmouth College, spoke about the diversity at Greenport.
“In other parts of the country that lack this kind of diversity, it’s easy to turn people into stereotypes to be feared and marginalized,” he said. “Here, we’ve always been classmates, teammates and friends. Because of this, I believe we Greenport students have a special ability. … I believe it’s a profound sense of empathy that enables us to step inside other people’s shoes.”
He also spoke about how the pandemic will lead to a new respect for science. He encouraged his fellow graduates to use their knowledge of science, their ability to think critically and research skills to stay safe during the pandemic and evaluate sources of information.
“Don’t let anyone try to tell you that what you’re seeing with your own eyes isn’t what you’re seeing,” he said. “Don’t let them try to confuse the facts by discrediting the scientists or other legitimate messengers of information simply because the truth is inconvenient to those who happen to be in power at the time.”
Salutatorian Emily Hughes, who will attend Suffolk County Community College, shared memories the graduates experienced together — and those they missed.
“We were also the best behaved class on the senior trip and prom,” she joked. “No problems. Not even a single person getting lost at Disney. And we most definitely mastered the art of senior skip day.”
Brandi Monique-Okesala, a Greenport Class of 2001 alumna, shared her journey to becoming an attorney and now assistant vice president of the insurance company AIG. She spoke about the obstacles she had to overcome in her life, both as a female and minority, and how people doubted she could be accepted into law school.
Any time she became discouraged during her journey, she thought of words her mother embedded in her: “Failure is never an option.”
“When you embark on your goals and dreams, you will face obstacles,” she told Greenport’s graduates. “Some of the obstacles may seem insurmountable. But do not let that discourage you.”