Perfect weather, large crowd provide backdrop for Norwich Free Academy graduation

Norwich — The 484 graduates in the Norwich Free Academy Class of 2019 have one boast over the 160 graduating classes that came before them — none could have had a more perfect weather day for their ceremony on the NFA athletic field.

Bright sunshine, at times mellowed by wispy clouds, an occasional cool breeze and even a clearly visible waxing gibbous moon put an exclamation point on Wednesday’s ceremony and probably contributed to the overflow crowds, traffic backups and tight parking throughout the Chelsea Parade area all afternoon.

The extended family of graduate Aaron Skyers, some of whom came from as far away as Florida and Georgia, believed they got the best spot on campus for the ceremony. The family camped beneath a shade tree near the packed sunny bleachers, with lawn chairs for grandmother LaTrelle Evans and aunt Angie Evans, and a blanket for the graduate’s little sister, 4-year-old Isabella Sullivan.

Skyers’ great-grandparents, Melvin and Matria Evans of St. Mary’s, Ga., elected to avoid the prospects of a long walk from a parking spot and watched the ceremony, broadcast live on NFA TV, at a family member’s home.

“I see you, little brother!” Bianca St. Sume shouted to graduate Schadrac Gabriel from the corner of the bleachers on the opposite side of the athletic field, where a large group of family and friends waited for him to walk across the stage. Gabriel is the youngest of five siblings to graduate high school. “Now he’s on his way,” his sister said, pretending to wipe away a tear. “Last one.”

As she watched the graduates enter the field in their bright red and white graduation gowns, NFA board of trustees Chairwoman Sarette Williams noted one message on a mortar board: “I want to be a part of a wide adventure somewhere,” the message read.

“On behalf of all NFA graduates everywhere,” Williams said, “I promise, you will be part of a wide adventure somewhere.”

The more formal speeches Wednesday carried that theme, as well, describing the graduates’ NFA experiences as pieces in a larger puzzle and as a long journey along paths and highways of their choosing.

Graduate Sarah Carter, the ivy orator, described NFA as a multicultural world, guided by teachers and coaches who also gave them freedom to grow.

“Thank you to all who have stood behind us these past four years,” Carter said. “You have helped us navigate the contours of this beautiful campus, offered advice and wisdom to help us make strong and sound decisions and provided us license to make mistakes and learn from them to do better next time.”

Carter said NFA gave graduates the chance to “experience a world similar to the one we now enter” — more technological, more multilingual, and more multicultural. She called her NFA diploma a piece of a puzzle that will become “global currency.”

Class Speaker Ashley Lawton said she realized something on a routine drive a few weeks ago, while entering a highway ramp. All roads in the United States, she said, are connected, from the best paved highways to the rocky, treacherous rural dirt roads. It’s up to each of her fellow graduates to find the right path, take detours to avoid obstacles and to change directions occasionally to find their ultimate destinations.

“Remember, through it all, there is no point to a road if you have no destination,” Lawton said. “Your destination is your goal, your dream, your hope. Your destination drives you to endure the difficult times. It drives you to strive for better, even when times are good. Always keep your destination in mind and never settle for anything less than your goal.”

In a long-standing NFA tradition, the academy welcomed the class of 50 years ago to participate in graduation as part of its 50th class reunion. One alumnus is chosen to address the graduates.

Class of 1969 graduate and Preston farmer Gerald Grabarek, current and past member of numerous local boards and commissions, urged the graduates to become involved, locally as well as globally, as they find their paths through life. He recalled advice to students from his NFA history teacher, Harold Soloff, to get involved in local government, and many did.

“But we need your help,” Grabarek said. “Volunteer, contribute, write, text or email your elected leaders and let them know your thoughts on issues. Hold leaders accountable for their policies.”

Grabarek echoed Lawton’s words in describing their upcoming life’s journey as a path that will take them in different directions. “Try something, give it your all. If it doesn’t work for you, try something else,” Grabarek said.

But along the way, the longtime dairy farmer said, “Try some physical work. Building, creating or growing things will lead to greater self-confidence and self-satisfaction and reward your mind, body and soul.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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