Marching into Knott Arena clad in stark black gowns, Middletown High School graduates celebrated a legacy of accomplishment.
Roughly 86 percent of the graduating class had been offered at least one scholarship, said MHS Principal Lee Jeffrey. And though school officials hadn’t finished tallying the total monetary value of the scholarships, she estimated it was more than $4 million.
“We just had an incredible group of students this year,” Jeffrey said, beaming.
Along with their black caps and gowns emblazoned with the Middletown High School crest, many seniors also wore red heart pins in memory of Hiedi Rashelle Baker, a classmate who died from cancer in 2015.
Baker would have graduated this year and was beloved by both students and teachers at Middletown.
“She was just the sweetest, kindest student,” Jeffrey said. “She never complained. You would never have known she was ill. Her personality just shone through.”
Among the many accomplished students were seniors who planned to follow in their family’s footsteps after graduation. Garrett Johnson, 18, a member of the senior class executive board, will be the third person in his family to attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.
Johnson’s father, Randy, started the tradition, and was later followed by his oldest son, Parker. Like his older brother, Johnson was recruited to the academy for football, but later hopes to apply to flight school and become a Navy pilot.
According to Randy, his son is one of only about 275 students in the academy’s Class of 2021. The five U.S. service academies — including the Merchant Marine Academy — are notoriously competitive. Johnson said his high school activities included four sports (football, basketball, track and lacrosse), Eagle Scout, membership in three separate branches of the National Honor Society and volunteer work.
“At these schools, you’ve gotta be the total package,” he said. “You can’t just be a brainiac or a jock. You’ve gotta be well-rounded.”
Another graduate, Sam Buchanan, also followed in his mother’s lightly tread footsteps. In August, Buchanan will head to Manhattan to study commercial dance at Pace University, a private school in New York. The decision makes sense, he said, given that he’s been dancing at his mother’s studio — the Dee Buchanan Studio of Dance in Middletown — since he was 2.
“We had known I wanted to pursue dance for a while,” Buchanan said. “But it’s going to be a big change for sure, moving from a small town, where there aren’t many dancers, to a city where there’s so much competing talent.”
Luckily for Buchanan, he won’t be going to New York alone. Kenzie DuMars, a fellow graduate and his frequent dance partner, plans to attend Marymount Manhattan College in the fall and pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance.
Like Buchanan, DuMars has been dancing at his mother’s studio since age 2. The pair even won a “champion of champions” award last summer for their duet at Nationals for Dance Masters of America, a competitive dance organization.
“I think I’m mostly anxious and excited because I think I’m ready to move on to this new chapter,” DuMars said, “I’m just looking forward to practicing my independence and auditioning in a real-world setting.”
Other students chose to stay closer to home, but were no less challenged on their path to graduation.
As Lauren Farrell, 17, held her 1-month-old daughter after the ceremony, she couldn’t help but reflect on her 12-year path to graduation. The last few months were particularly difficult, she said, juggling schoolwork and doctor’s appointments, but Middletown staff were supportive and worked with her schedule.
Though Farrell’s daughter, Zahra, was unplanned, the graduate has kept pursuing the goals she set before becoming a mother. Farrell plans to study biology at Frederick Community College before transferring to a four-year university, and ultimately hopes to work as a microbiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Though her graduation experience has been slightly different from her classmates’, Farrell said the feelings of accomplishment are largely the same.
“You do feel more mature because everyone else is going off to senior week and you’re staying at home,” she said. “But mostly I feel like these 12 years of school are finally worth something.”