BBA drive-in commencement at Bromley honors 174 graduates

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PERU — What Burr and Burton Academy's 187th annual commencement lacked in traditional academic pomp and circumstance, it more than made up for in community spirit and invention.

The independent high school, unable to hold a traditional ceremony on campus due to the social distancing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead convened in the parking lot of Bromley Mountain Ski Resort on Friday evening to celebrate the achievements of its 174 graduating seniors.

A makeshift stage was built on the southern edge of the lot, with an oversized video screen overhead and a public address system to broadcast speakers' remarks to the gathered cars and trucks.

The school's leadership team, headmaster Mark Tashjian, associate head of school Meg Kenny and academic dean Jen Hyatt, all remarked on the extraordinary nature of the Class of 2020's senior year — how it was interrupted by the novel coronavirus, which closed campus in March in favor of online learning, and how the school community united to find solutions.

"These past few months have really tested everyone and I'm so proud of how you, the Class of 2020, have pushed through the challenges of remote learning to finish strong and earn your BBA diploma," Kenny said. "I thank you for your leadership as seniors and I truly honor your effort."

"We have given you our best and you have led this school in amazing ways, especially during these recent challenging times," Tashjian added. "Most of all they set a tone of respect for individual differences, support for each other and care for students in the younger grades. They have overcome a global pandemic. They have helped make us a better school and a strong community and I can say in all honesty and sincerity that I will miss this group."

Tashjian took a moment to send special greetings to the 18 international students who were unable to attend commencement due to the pandemic. "They brought with them their own culture and their own talents. Our hearts are with you today. We wish you were here in person," he said.

Also on speakers' minds was the turmoil in communities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd's death has sparked protests and riots across the country.

"First things first, I believe it would be inappropriate for me to not mention the situation in this country," salutatorian Danielle Mackenzie said as she began her address. "I just wanted to say I am proud to come from a community who stands for justice and social change. A community that is not silent. A community that will never be silent in times like these."

Tashjian offered hopes that BBA would "set an example for our great country for what a community of patriots looks like."

"We are different in myriad ways, including but not limited to our skin color, our family background and political views. Yet we are united in our love for our children, our love for education, our love for Vermont, and our love for the beautiful ideals of this country," he said.

Mackenzie thanked music teachers Neil and Julie Freebern for helping her find a path. "They would never have predicted that this small, timid musically untrained girl would ever end up studying music seriously," she said.

Citing her own example, Mackenzie urged graduates and adults alike to try new things.

"Learn a new language. If you're going to college, look at every major and minor they offer. Ask questions about everything," Mackenzie said. "Watch the news. Sing. Dance. Make pottery. Make pottery badly. Paint badly. Paint well if you're blessed with that kind of talent. Just try things. There's no repercussions for exploring and there's no shame in doing something badly. We all have to start somewhere."

Valedictorian Leah Mowry, the fourth generation of her family to attend BBA, took advantage of the drive-in graduation and based her address on lessons from the animated film "Cars." She showed a brief clip from the film on the video screen before starting her speech.

"It is rare to speak to a parking lot full of vehicles. As I stand here and look out at your idle cars I can't help but imagine your windshield as eyes and hoods as ginormous smiling mouths," Mowry said.

"My hope is that you can make the connection between the cars in the movie and the people in your life," Mowry said. "Not only do we choose what kind of person we want to be but also what kind of people we surround ourselves with.

"If life were a movie, be Lightning McQueen. You are the star of your show with personal goals and aspirations that orient you," she said. "It's easy to get wrapped up in our own little worlds, but eventually we realize how much we rely on the people around us. "

The commencement address was delivered by BBA Spanish teacher Susan Ritchie, who is retiring after a long and distinguished career at the school.

Ritchie, who graduated from Burr and Burton Seminary in 1974, marveled at how BBA has grown and evolved since she was a student, and how technology allowed students and faculty to take on the challenge of online learning on the fly.

"What I hope for you is you take this adaptive spirit, this persevering spirit, this positive spirit forward with you as you navigate the new paths ahead of each of you," Ritchie said.

In her address, Ritchie related how she attended college in Michigan thinking she would study geology, but instead pursued a degree in Spanish education. That opened up a new career path that led to her a rewarding career with opportunities for travel, she said.

"I thought I knew my path. It turned out not to be my path, but an incredible new path that opened up one that I hadn't even been looking for," Ritchie said. "A path that led to an incredible lifetime of joy in teaching and traveling. May you all be lucky enough to recognize the path you might not yet know is ahead of you, to be brave enough to let yourself off the hook if your chosen path really isn't the one, and to be adventurous enough to try the fork in the road."

"Being curious is a good thing. Being curious is how you learn. I learned a lot. I learned that no matter what we are all human beings and we all have the same needs. We need love, to need to be cared for and we need to be respected for who we are," Ritchie said. "I hope you will all experience and embrace a similar sense of curiosity and open mindedness as you navigate your paths. "

Attendees' cars and trucks, parked 6 feet apart, reflected the celebratory tone. Some were decorated with green and gold balloons and streamers; others hosted tailgate picnics with graduates, family and friends.

The graduates had already received their diplomas individually over the past week. But those present were able to hear their names called and see their graduation photos shown on the oversized video screen.

Tashjian said he was grateful to have spent time with BBA graduates and their families as he awarded diplomas to each of them separately.

"The past four days I've been able to witness the love shared among families, the joy of purposeful accomplishment and appreciation for all the great BBA team offers to our students," Tashjian said. "It's been an honor to share this moment with you and while we lost much this spring we gained as well. We gained a reminder that we are all in this together, that the closeness of this community can transcend our physical proximity."


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