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Hartford Rolls With Lumps and Bumps

  • Michaela Ricker, of Hartford, Vt,. receives a low-five as she is awarded her plaque for graduating with honors at the Hartford High School graduation ceremony in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 8, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Georgia Gray, of White River Junction, prepares to graduate from Hartford high School in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 8, 2018. Gray's adolescence was marked with turbulence including the death of her father and two years in the adoption system. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford High School history teacher Shannon Johnson takes a selfie with a group of soon-to-be graduates as they begin their graduation ceremony in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 8, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Hartford — As the community gathered beneath the setting sun on Friday, it was easy to appreciate the bright prospects of the high fliers among the 124 members of the Hartford High School graduating class.

“We’ve traveled the world and created new clubs and organizations,” salutatorian Michaela Ricker told her peers, speaking into the microphone at the podium. “I think it’s fair to say we’ve made our mark at Hartford.”

Ricker was one of a core group of roughly a dozen high-achieving students who were called to the front of the assemblage two or three times to be recognized for distinction as recipients of the School Directors’ Awards, and as members of the honors program and the National Honor Society.

Valedictorian Brianna Aubrey, who during her senior year made a Spanish-language presentation to the Model United Nations, is heading to Dartmouth College to pursue the study of neuroscience and education.

“There will always be a way to help others and to make the world better,” Aubrey said.

She and other student speakers, such as class president Morgan White, spoke about student trips to visit Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and the Sahara desert, and were recognized for senior capstone projects, including an original saxophone composition, and a demonstration of the keys to successful advertising.

But while the exemplary academic achievements of the students were on full display, the school district’s less obvious successes were embodied in the students who visited the podium only once, when they walked across the stage to collect their high school diplomas.

“Sometimes it’s not the lessons that you learn in the classrooms,” Superintendent Tom DeBalsi told the crowd during his welcome address, “but the lessons you learn in the hallway. And between classes, on the trips — at different events.”

And the way a school interacts with students outside of the classroom can be important for students who face significant challenges in their personal lives.

After receiving their diplomas, several of the female graduates stumbled in their high heels on the angled ramp that led off the stage, but Georgia Gray, 18, of White River Junction, coasted down it steadily in her flats, her face dominated by a wide grin and mirrored sunglasses.

For Gray — whose high school experience was marked by personal challenges that would have sidelined a less tenacious student — receiving the diploma alongside her peers was a triumph.

Her first year of high school was marked by tragedy.

“In my freshman year, I lost my dad,” Gray said, a couple of hours before the ceremony. “He took his own life.”

Gray said she tried to come to school the day after her father died. During English class, her teacher, Jon Grobe, was not aware of what had happened, but he noticed that she seemed upset.

“I started crying in the middle of class,” she said. “I was embarrassed.”

Grobe, she said, helped her get out of the classroom, which was the first of many times that teachers, guidance counselors and other staff helped her to balance her academic requirements with the tragedy she had just experienced, and its fallout.

For two years, while other students were having a more conventional high school experience, Gray became a ward of the state, living with Elizabeth Gibson, who had helped Gray's father raise her, as the courts decided who would get permanent custody.

“It was definitely an experience. People were in and out of my life. People said one thing and did another,” Gray said. “It was crazy.”

Gibson, who has now legally adopted Gray, says that, for the two-year period, Gray had to get permission from her caseworker to pierce her ears, to cross state lines or even to cut her hair.

Gibson said she knew Gray would pull through the experience. Gray got a job at McDonald’s, and doggedly pursued her studies, making the honor roll for the first time in the months after her father’s death.

“She’s my trouper,” Gibson said. “I call her my sunshine. She’s doing really well.”

Now, Gray is in the process of getting certified as a licensed nursing assistant, and is one of five graduates who plan to go to the Community College of Vermont. She plans to work her way through college, probably by washing and cutting hair — though she hasn’t decided whether she want to work in a salon, or at a dog-grooming business. She likes helping people, she says, but animals make her happy.

And Gray credits her success, in part, to the culture of the school.

“People in Hartford High have helped me out a lot,” she said. “They kind of have watched me grow up. If I’m sad, they understand.”

That culture, which emphasizes a support network for students who face adversity, can be seen in the Hartford School District’s graduation rates, which have exceeded the statewide average for the last five years, according to data compiled by the Vermont Agency of Education; the Class of 2015, for example, had a 96 percent completion rate, as compared with 92.4 percent statewide.

During the closing remarks of the ceremony, Principal Nelson Fogg said he expects that each student will find a meaningful place.

“I don’t believe in perfection as a human mission, nor do I think it should be a goal,” Fogg said. “The world you enter needs you. Lumps, bumps, warts and all.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Hartford High SchoolClass of 2018

Walker Albrecht, Community College of Vermont; Korrigan Allen; Havailah Arnold, Carleton University; Brianna Aubrey, Dartmouth College; Justin Bailey, work; Emily Ballou, Union College; Hannah Ballou, Bentley University; Alexandria Bartlett, McGill University; Jeffery Bartlett, RVCC; Joseph Batchelder, University of Rhode Island; Kylee Beaucage, Vermont Technical College; Justin Bettis, Paul Smith’s College; Patrick Bettis; Aidan Boettcher, Navy; Maya Bolger-Chen, Syracuse University; Sarah Boulanger, Quinnipiac University; Brianna Boyce; Elise Boyle; Patrick Brady, Emmanuel College; Callum Brittain, Wartburg College; Megan Bushway, Saint Francis University; Karlee Butterfield, Plymouth State University; Aiden Callahan; Natalie Charron, University of Vermont; Brianna Chase-Davis; Cooper Clay, work; Hannah Cooney, Quinnipiac University; Morgan Covell; Dylan Crowley, Vermont Technical College; Skye Currier.

Peter Dailey, University of Vermont; Andrew Daley; Amanda Dalley, Community College of Vermont; Haley Davenport; Ali Davis, Maine College of Art; Derek Davis; Olivia DeFelice, Saint Michael’s College; Tianna Denk, work; Noah Dickerson; Madison Druge, University of Vermont; Noah Duprey; Tyler Eldredge, University of Memphis; Lucia Gabriela Ellerson, Vermont Technical College; Morgan Fisk, Plymouth State University; Hunter Gaudette; Charleigh Gere; Georgia Gray, Community College of Vermont; Trevor Gunn; Tyler Hamilton, Bates College; Christo her Hartell, Vermont Technical College; Spencer Hayes; Benjamin Healy, Tufts University; Silas Hermens; Alexis Hunt, work; Seth Hurley; Dakota Jones, work; Morgan Jones, work; Cameron Keener, work; Riley Kehoe, Salve Regina University; Braytn Kelley; Quigliey King; Brianna Klauer, Northern Vermont University; Alexis Kline-Donato, work; Madelyn Koff, McGill University.

Kobe LaBonte; Andrew Lamb; Corey Lieberman; Hailie Lord, New England School Hair Design; Melissa Luce, Community College of Vermont; Patrick Marshall, work; Kyle Mason, University of North Dakota; Odin Mattern, Northern Vermont University; Lillian McCray; Patrick McGlone; Casie McGranaghan, Vermont Technical College; Sydney Meeker, University of Southern Maine; Lauren Miller; Zachary Moote, Champlain College; Sarah Morse; Steven Neily; Michael Olson, Wheaton College; Mehdi Orogi, University of New Hampshire; Amanda Paccione, Marist College; Adam Parker, Sage College of Albany; Francis Pascuzzi; Bethany Perkins, American University; Hunter Perkins, Bridgton Academy; Morgan Pero, Rhode Island College.

Erin Plante, Community College of Vermont; Clara Posner, Carleton College; Kyle Prior, Husson University; Django Pullen; Cassandra Reese; Kody Rhodes, Unity College; Michaela Ricker, University of Rochester; Elizabeth Robbins; Jessica Roberts; Mackenzie Roberts; Michael Roberts; John Rule; Alexander Rushton, Western Connecticut State University; Aidan Saturley, Colby Sawyer College; Anthony Scelza, work; Austin Shepard.

Ileana Sirois, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Brittney Smith, Plymouth State University; Bronwyn Smith; Alexander St. Martin, University of Vermont; Curtis Steins, Vermont Technical College; Cameron Stone, Lesley University; Macintyre Sunde, Haverford College; Tyler Tabor; Cody Thayer; David Thibault; Alexander Valley, Coast Guard; Brittany Wakefield; Samantha Walz; Eve  Warner, Russell Sage College; Kody Wessel; Shaelyn West; Morgan White, Kent State University; Eric Zietz, Baylor University.

Clarification 

This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances of Georgia Gray's life in the two-year period following the death of her father.