DERRY — It wasn't the usual grand sea of red caps and gowns filing into a massive venue filled with cheering families and friends.

But after several months of challenging remote learning and other online efforts, Pinkerton Academy gave its class of 2020 a most unique sendoff.

Pinkerton held a virtual graduation ceremony Sunday night and then gave hundreds of graduating seniors an opportunity over three days this week to come to campus in cap and gown to receive diplomas.

The hour-long ceremony Sunday included speeches, honors recognition and other traditional moments that typically made up a Pinkerton commencement.

Both Valedictorian Vanessa Montgomery and Salutatorian Mikayla Emerson spoke of the many challenges the senior class faced, but urged classmates to push forward, stay strong and find their place in the world.

Emerson told her fellow graduates that she was born in Wuhan, China, came to the United States and is now giving a speech as a native of COVID-19 "ground zero."

The Chester graduate said all are coping with change and in the future all will be asked about what this time was like.

"You endured change," Emerson said. "We've endured, we've adapted, we've made it here."

Montgomery spoke of the last several months as a "wow" experience, recalling the day, March 13, when remote learning started.

She urged her classmates to accept and overcome the obstacles and search the future for a positive outcome.

"Be 100% dedicated to what you are proud of," she said, adding remember the little things that "made life normal."

"It's an exciting end of our beautiful beginning," Montgomery said. "Turn your struggles into progress. Transform your losses into growth."

In his virtual message, Headmaster Dr. Timothy Powers wanted to leave the class of 2020 with a more contemporary view of what might lie ahead after the challenges of the past several months, quoting a popular song of the 1980s by pop group Roxette, "Listen to Your Heart."

Powers cited the lyrics in the song, "Listen to your heart when he's calling for you, listen to your heart, there's nothing else you can do," urging graduates to remember the other 37 months of time spent at Pinkerton, not just the last few, and to remember the good times and make their voices heard.

"You laughed, you learned, you made friends," Powers said. "May you all find something in your life that becomes a passion for you."

Several student honors and awards were announced during the virtual ceremony including Honors Diploma, and other achievements. Other college and university scholarships and awards along with community awards and honors exceeded more than $11 million this year.

Lists of other students recognition and awards scrolled on the Facebook screen at the end of the hour-long ceremony.

Finally, over the course of three days this week diplomas neatly stacked on a table on a stage constructed in the senior parking lot were distributed safely to the graduates in groups, each arriving in cap and gown in a vehicle, stepping out to receive the diploma, then exiting the parking lot as the next graduate readied to receive the honor.  Families and friends offered cheers from their safely distanced vehicles.

Some parents voiced concerns via social media as to how this week's diploma ceremonies were being held. One parent, Michelle Zenga McKinnon, said she and other single or divorced parents were being discriminated against with the school's one-vehicle-per-graduate policy.

McKinnon, also a member of the Derry Cooperative School Board and state Parent-Teacher Association president, said that because her graduating daughter would be riding in her father's vehicle Tuesday morning she felt left out.

"This should not be a one-vehicle thing," McKinnon said. "I should be able to witness my daughter graduate."

McKinnon said she was told by Pinkerton she would be allowed to stand near the parking lot area and watch during her daughter's set time to receive her diploma Tuesday.

In a statement, Pinkerton responded to McKinnon's concerns, saying the school is deeply rooted in tradition, but this year, traditional approaches simply will not work.

"Nothing about the situation we are in is easy, and we feel the disappointment in all of this deeply as we know our graduates and their families do," the statement read. "We have worked thoughtfully with local authorities and followed the recommendations of health authorities to create meaningful events that celebrate our graduating students and are as safe and fair as reasonably possible under the unprecedented circumstances of the ongoing pandemic. We understand that the limitations of this year’s graduation ceremonies are not ideal, and we sympathize with our students and their families regarding the difficulties that these limitations present."

The statement continued saying the school worked hard to create different experiences to honor graduates this year.

"We hope that all of us can work together, focus on the positive, and make compromises as necessary to help our graduates make good memories in the midst of all of this," the statement read. "They deserve that from all of us."

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