TOWNSHEND — A total of 47 seniors at Leland and Gray Union High School graduated on Saturday, but two seats were left open for two that did not make it.

Alexis Giallelli died in 2013 after battling cancer and Michelle Darling died in 2011 due to an accident; 2016 would have been their high school graduating year.

Another integral person to the Leland and Gray community was noted as well – Ann Chapman, who taught English at the school for 17 years until she died in April after her fight with cancer. Despite the loss of two classmates and a teacher, students and faculty were able to mourn as well celebrate their graduation on Saturday morning.

At the beginning of the commencement the 47 students marched toward their seats and each placed a wildflower in a basket that would be placed on two empty seats in remembrance of Giallelli and Darling. In the midst of sadness another L&G graduate took it upon himself to not let Chapman be forgotten: Senior Vincent Robert Polhemus and his dad made a granite bench in her memory that now sits in front of the school.

"It's nice for her to be remembered," said Alan Darling, Michelle's father.

The keynote speaker, Melanie Zwolinski, acknowledged the sadness of these losses, but then shifted to a lighter note. Zwolinski said she was inspired by a radio clip that recently said neurological studies have shown that dancing in unison helps with healing. Zwolinski then asked all the students to take off their green and white robes, which revealed their matching white shirts, and stand with her for a group dance.


"Shed your robes, don your glasses and move your hips," said Zwolinski.

Even under the blaring sun, the seniors danced to a pop song as Zwolinski instructed from a step stool. Family, friends and faculty then joined in.

Other goose bump moments were found during the commencement, particularly when graduating senior Celine Rollins met her goal of walking at graduation despite living with Cerebral Palsy. After she made her way across the stage to receive her diploma, the crowd stood to applaud her achievement.

"As long as you put perseverance into your work, you can do whatever you want," Rollins told the Reformer after graduation.

Rollins made the goal to walk at graduation when she entered her seventh-grade year at L&G and according to her mother, Lison, she had been working on walking for about a year and a half and Lison began crying when she saw her daughter make it across the stage to receive her diploma.

Other students made the crowd smile, such as valedictorian Nicolas Morrow and salutatorian Susan Francy. The duo gave a student address at the beginning of the commencement and made the audience giggle with their somewhat theatrical performance that was presented in a funny conversational tone.

Leland & Gray graduates get their diplomas.
Leland & Gray graduates get their diplomas. (Photo by Anthony Burdo)

"While we may not be diverse in the literal sense of the word, our backgrounds and ways of thoughts stretch far and wide," said Morrow. "We investigate things that are interesting to us and we're never afraid to ask too many questions."

Francy added that there was no doubt in her mind that her classmates would find their place in the world.

The two reminisced about their time at L&G and Morrow joked that many of their accomplishments were made through procrastination. "We wrote this speech yesterday," Francy added.

Continually they mentioned their victory of winning Spirit Week and also their class' involvement with sports, whether victorious or not. At the end of their speech they left the audience with a list of words of wisdom: "Anything is possible, never give up, the world is your oyster, the future is in your hands, just do it."

Faculty speaker Bruce Whitman, a teacher within the science department, highlighted some of the more memorable activities at L&G. He asked students to stand if they have participated in drama, sports, music, international travel, All State or All League, a co-op, volunteer work or if they have co-published a book or had one of their musical pieces performed by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. A student stood for each category.

"You get an idea of how these kids have seized opportunity here at Leland and Gray," said Whitman. "I've connected with these guys on so many levels and they've provided me with lots of laughter."

Aside from the memories Whitman noted, he also accepted a bet that he made with Rollins when she was in ninth grade.

"He had to eat a marshmallow if I took 20 steps in his classroom before I left (graduated)," said Rollins.

Whitman noted that he "underestimated" Rollins' ability, and sure enough she made the 20 steps before graduation. Whitman also described his deep disgust for the taste of marshmallows. Nevertheless, he ate the marshmallow and the audience cheered.

Principal Dorrine Dorfman reflected on her own time at L&G.

"I started at Leland and Gray six years ago, when (the seniors) were seventh graders, and now we're graduating together, this is my last Leland and Gray event," she told the Reformer.

Dorfman, who has been commuting from northern Vermont for the past six years, will work at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington.

"Every human being is a world of their own, and being able to watch this class grow over the last six years from entering as squirmy, curious or shy children to becoming adult men and women, is usually something only parents or relatives living close by can see," said Dorfman. "But perhaps not as much for when you see them every day for the past six years and see how they evolve and how their talents are enriched," said Dorfman.

Fifty five students were recipients of 35 scholarships awards on Saturday, one of which was new this year and in honor of Chapman, The Ann Elizabeth Chapman Memorial Scholarship.

"Ann had a unique ability to reach out and touch a part of us that we didn't know we had, to bring out the best in us, and she had the same affect on me as well," said Mark Chapman, Ann's husband. "Learning is challenging, but she asked and sometimes demanded that we meet that challenge, never alone, but always together."

The Ann Elizabeth Chapman Memorial Scholarship was awarded to a senior who in the past year exhibited the traits espoused by Chapman and who is pursuing post-secondary education beyond Leland and Gray. Those traits being kindness, generosity, collegiality, perseverance, enthusiasm, and humor. The scholarship was awarded to Vincent Pollhemus.

In addition, a scholarship in memory of Giallella was also presented at graduation, and her mother Cherish Clark not only presented the award but also provided some last thoughts from Giallella for her graduating class.

"She wanted each of you to know that she will never forget you and that her class of 2016 was the best the school had ever seen and that she will be watching over each and every one of you as you move on with your lives," said Clark.

Clark noted that she had started a college fund for Giallella but she was not able to use it due to her death before college.

"Cancer may have taken her body from us, but it never took her spirit, sense of humor, her strength, her willingness to fight, and always to give back and it never took that dollar," said Clark.

The money that was saved for Giallella will be used for a scholarship to a graduating senior each year, according to Clark. In addition, before she died, Giallella requested that the song "Humble and Kind" by Tim McGraw be played at graduation. The song blasted through the speakers, and several members of the audience were moved to tears.

After all the awards were given, the seniors threw their caps in the air and met with their family and supporters.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275