Merrimack Valley graduates circle the track before life’s twists and turns

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  • Merrimack Valley High School graduates line up in their cars with their families as they get ready to receive their dipolmas on the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday morning, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A Merrimack Valley High School graduate crosses the finish line at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to receive a special recognition award at the 2020 graduation on Saturday morning, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Merrimack Valley High School graduate Zach Williams rides into the New Hampshire Motor Speedway with his dad on Saturday morning, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Relatives and friends wave as a Merrimack Valley High School graduate passes by after receiving a special recognition at their graduation at NHMS on Saturday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Merrimack Valley High School graduate Aislinn McDonald rides in a party bus into New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday morning, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Merrimack Valley High School graduate Emily Philbrook waves to the crowd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after receiving her summa cum laude recognition at the school’s graduation on Saturday morning, June 13, 2020. Philbrook plans on attending Plymouth State in the fall. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Merrimack Valley High School graduate Emily Philbrook waves to the crowd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after receiving her summa cum laude recognition at the school’€™s graduation on Saturday morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack Valley High School graduation at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack Valley High School graduation at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack Valley High School graduation at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack Valley High School graduation at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack Valley High School graduation at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/13/2020 5:06:44 PM

A split decision emerged from the unique scenario Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Some students at Merrimack Valley High School’s graduation showed their traditional colors, saying they would have preferred if the ceremony had been held at their school. Others, looking around at the awesome sight of the 1.058 oval, which has hosted races with such drivers as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, thought the change was refreshing.

Generally speaking, students rolled with the punches and accepted their fate, with some more upset than others. It’s become the landscape in the Granite State, the canceling or postponing of major life events because of the contagious nature of the coronavirus.

At the speedway, a line of cars that went on forever stopped traffic dead on Route 106, entered the track at Turn 1, branched into two lanes, then stopped on the front straightaway, near the start/finish line. The line of cars covered nearly the entire oval.

A platform hundreds of yards away provided the stage for the scheduled events, at the once-unscheduled site.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by the school’s vocal ensemble, valedictorian Laura Earle and salutatorian Logan Cassin offered inspiring words, and, in the highlight of the morning, longtime English teacher and baseball coach Ray Bailey bid farewell after 36 years at Merrimack Valley. Prior to that, he had been on the staff at the Derryfield School.

“The people in the district are my people,” Bailey said, explaining why he left Derryfield. “It’s real life, and that’s why I love it.”

Bailey, who knows baseball fields like the back of his hand, found himself thanking students in unfamiliar territory, in front of 100,000 seats, staring blankly at the ceremony.

Before the parade, cars were joined by the flashing lights of fire and police, the vehicles lined up in neat rows, followed by a drive to Loudon on streets with waving residents.

Families were confined to their cars for most of the time, which contrasted with the mingling and reminiscing that had taken shape back at the school.

Later, about 170 graduates were called up individually, moving their cars closer to Turn 1 to be recognized before driving out of the track.

That format was fine with Madison Annis, who, while sitting in the back of a pickup truck, waiting for the show to begin, said: “This is much better than the traditional way, which in my opinion can get boring. Doing something different is exciting. The traditional way is not as exhilarating.”

Katelyn Orsini, who’s attending New Hampshire Technical Institute, agreed, saying, “This is more fun, more exciting.”

Khloe Hammell, who might one day go into cosmetology, saw both sides: “Of course I wish it was traditional,” she said, “but it’s nice to see all the classmates and people coming together to celebrate our class graduating.”

Conversely, a handful of students did not mince words when expressing their disappointment that their ceremony had been moved to Loudon.

“I think it’s really sad, because we’ve all been waiting for this for 13 years, and this is not what we imagined,” said Katelyn Clark, who will study business at Keene State College. “At my brothers’ graduations, I remember imagining myself there.”

And this from Makenna Garcia, who’s heading to NHTI: “I definitely wish it was the traditional way, and I’m pretty disappointed, seeing that they asked us if we would come to it if they postponed it for three months. About 95% answered they would. If there was a small chance of having a normal graduation, I don’t know why my school didn’t take it.”

Hannah Small, who had a bubble machine on her lap while waiting to join the parade, will study general education at NHTI. She, too, thought her high school should have followed the lead of others.

“I thought maybe they could have put the chairs six feet apart on the (football) field,” Small said. “That would have been a better way to go about it.”


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