A Graduating Class Like No Other

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This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series about the unique history of Good Will-Hinckley. To read the previous installments, click on one of the following links: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V.

Across the country, high-school seniors are having to trade a walk across the stage and a handshake with the principal for “drive-by graduations” and ceremonies held in parking lots.

It’s just one of the many unfortunate realities of the COVID pandemic. Between the abrupt pivot to remote learning and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, today’s students are going through a lot—way more than my generation ever worried about.

For the students at Good Will-Hinckley, the story is much the same. And while our staff has done a remarkable job of making the transition as smooth as possible, I can’t help but feel sad for our seniors, who won’t get to experience the pomp and circumstance enjoyed by previous graduating classes.

After all, around here, graduation has always meant a little more.

Steeped in Tradition

In 1912, GWH held its first Senior Spring ceremony, establishing a tradition that would endure for decades.

Central to the ceremony were two artifacts. The first was a block of wood from the equator, four inches square and one inch thick, inlaid with four, smaller pieces of wood: from an olive tree in Jerusalem; the U.S.S. Constitution (better known as “Old Ironsides”); a rafter in the original Good Will cottage; and the pine crib of George Walter Hinckley himself.

MeANS Graduation 2019

On the underside of the piece was a square plate of silver engraved with a single, seven-letter word—a word that was only supposed to be known to alumni and graduating seniors. According to “The Chronicles of Good Will Home: 1889-1989,” Hinckley believed the emblem symbolized GWH’s mission to develop “strong bodies, sound minds, pure friendship [and] spiritual activity.”

The second artifact was a silver-plated cup, presented to the boys of GWH during a trip to a YMCA camp on the Pacific Coast. Each year in June, the senior class would walk to where the items were stored (the site has changed a few times). Next, an administrator would hand them to the class president, who would then lead a procession down to a small spring that runs right next to route 201 in Hinckley.

From “The Chronicles”:

“Upon arrival at the Spring, they would find the Juniors already present. The classes would line up on opposite sides of the Spring…The Senior class president would then lower the Cup into the Spring with an attached silver chain, lifted it up filled, and poured the contents on the ground. He would fill it again and pass it to one of the Juniors who, drinking from the Cup, would become a Senior.”

Part of History

In time, the seven-letter word was engraved on the bottom of the cup, so when the students lifted it up, everyone could read it—and know the secret themselves. That tradition continued until 2009, when GWH decided to adopt a new, more conventional approach: a baccalaureate ceremony, followed by a banquet for students and their families. During the meal, graduating seniors are invited to come on stage and share their story. By the end, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house.

Personally, I would love to make Senior Spring a part of our festivities again—to imbue the ceremony with a nod to GWH’s past. Maybe one day we will.

MeANS graduating class 2015
MeANS Graduation 2015

As for this year, we plan to hold two Senior Springs, on July 17 and 31, respectively. For both, we’ll be issuing two parking passes per graduate, ensuring more family members can attend. At 6 p.m., the seniors will be asked to leave their vehicles and sit in chairs six feet apart on the lawn facing the parking lot. We’ll have a small ceremony, complete with awards and the honoring of diplomas, after which the students will rejoin their families, with GWH staff seeing them off.

Matt Newberg, who joined GWH in 2019 as the head of school for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, summed up the importance of this year’s ceremonies—and I think he speaks for all of us:

“While the past three months have presented numerous challenges, we’re so excited to be honoring year’s graduating class. The MeANS community is ready to deliver a safe, meaningful experience to its students and families. The graduates deserve to enjoy this time-honored milestone, and the teachers, staff and administration are working hard to put the ceremony together.”

For the 30 seniors who are about to graduate, we know it won’t be quite the same—wearing a mask, adhering to social distancing. And yet, no matter how many graduates we honor in the years ahead, there’s one thing I know for sure: There will never be another class like the Class of 2020. Through troubled times, they’ve been able to accomplish what they set out to do. These graduates are creative, determined and resilient. In other words, exactly the kind of students that George Walter Hinckley always wanted to create.

If they made it through this, on top of everything else they’ve experienced in life, I believe they can make it through anything. No matter what obstacles the world lays at their feet, I know they’ll be able to scale them, empowered by an education they refused to give up on.

That, and seven little letters on the bottom of a silver cup. Because if anyone’s earned the right to know that word, it’s these seniors.