Whaler pride will shine at Academy

This is how 2010 senior class president Juanita Austin explains New London High School's typical graduation ceremonies:

"They're always loud, we're a very spirited community; and the auditorium, it's always packed, because everyone brings a lot of people."

Whaler pride shines brightest on graduation day, which is saying something about a school that takes its athletics extremely seriously. But for the uninitiated, who have never attended a New London High School commencement exercise, think electricity.

The 1,100-seat Scanlon Auditorium gets humming. It's loud. It's crowded. And family and friends hold nothing back when their graduate walks to the podium.

They hoot, and holler, whistle cat calls, blow horns, clang bells - and that's just the audience. Graduates sometimes bust a few dance moves, high-five the dean of students, or move the crowd to tears by sheer virtue of the fact that they've overcome extraordinary hardships to earn that diploma.

Graduations at New London High School are special because they're true community celebrations. This makes the controversy around moving this year's ceremonies to the Coast Guard Academy all the more silly.

It has nothing to do with politics, collusion or bribe-making, it's about making more room for the graduation celebration. Yes, the Coast Guard is interested in buying a portion of the city's Riverside Park, but its offer of Cadet Memorial Field for the high school graduation isn't about currying favor in the deal for the park property.

Those opposed to selling the park need to do their homework on the academy's long history of volunteerism in New London, particularly in its schools. The list is long enough to prove there was nothing suspect when high school Principal Tommy Thompson turned to the academy for help when the high school needed it. It's something the new high school principal has done many times before, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School before moving to the high school last year.

The senior class officers asked Thompson months ago if they could break the school's long-standing tradition of indoor graduations and move their June 18th ceremony outdoors, so that more relatives and friends could be there. Thompson, himself a NLHS graduate, told the seniors he'd do his best to make it happen, but because of renovations taking place at school athletic facilities, he'd have to find a location off-campus.

Not long after, Thompson was at the Coast Guard Academy for its Partnership in Education ceremony (PIE is just one program through which the academy has offered "tremendous support" to city students over the years, says Thompson) when he had a brainstorm.

"I just leaned over to Capt. Brown (Eric P. Brown , the academy assistant superintendent) and said, 'I'm in a bind, do you think you could help us?'" recalls Thompson about the day he asked if the academy might be willing to host this year's high school graduation ceremonies.

"I reached out to them, they didn't pursue this," he says, which is as close as Thompson will get to the Riverside Park controversy.

His senior class president is more willing to take on detractors who are suggesting the academy is only offering its facilities to enhance its chances of buying the Riverside property.

"Our decision was no way affected by the Coast Guard's interest in Riverside Park," says Austin, who is heading off to the University of Connecticut to pursue a degree in marketing. "And why do people have to take such a beautiful occasion, such a joyous occasion for everyone in New London, and make it political? That's absolutely ridiculous."

For all of her young life, Austin says the park has been "a sore spot" for the city. "It's been dilapidated for so long, as long as I can remember," she says. But if people have a problem with the park, or with selling some of its land to the Coast Guard, that, Austin says, has nothing to do with the high school graduation.

For Austin and her classmates, it's all about inviting more people to their graduation-day celebration. But even with a bigger, probably more boisterous crowd, I wonder if that renowned NLHS-graduation-celebration-electricity will be muffled on that big open field.

Whaler nation might decide the high school auditorium isn't really cramped after all, but cozy.

Ann Baldelli is associate editorial page editor.


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