A Waterville Senior High School graduate blows a kiss to her former teachers Thursday evening, following the graduation ceremony on the lot at Central Maine Motors Auto Group in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Waterville Senior High School’s graduation ceremony Thursday evening was like none in the school’s 142-year history, as police and fire vehicles — their lights flashing and sirens blaring — escorted 101 seniors in as many vehicles into the lot of a car dealership off Kennedy Memorial Drive.

It was an unusual — but colorful and emotional — ceremony, with parents and other family members, along with friends and educators, cheering for the seniors by honking horns, clapping and shouting congratulations from inside cars and trucks.

Everyone had to remain inside their vehicles because of the coronavirus pandemic. Students wearing caps, gowns and masks were called onto the stage in groups of 10 to receive their diplomas.

Earlier, they had lined up a few miles away, at the high school parking lot off Brooklyn Avenue. They sat inside vehicles, flanked by signs, flowers and purple-and-white balloons — the school colors.

About a half-hour before the ceremony was to start, the parade of seniors’ vehicles flowed onto Brooklyn Avenue and then onto Vose Street. It then turned right onto Western Avenue, left onto First Rangeway, right onto Kennedy Memorial Drive and left onto Airport Road, where the vehicles arrived at a car lot of Central Maine Motors Auto Group.

Along the way, well-wishers who were not able to attend the graduation ceremony for lack of space cheered from porches, sidewalks and driveways as the seniors passed by.

It was a well-orchestrated event, made possible by Chris and Linanne Gaunce, owners of Central Maine Motors Auto Group, who were determined to ensure the seniors — including their son, Daniel — got to walk across a stage and receive their diplomas in front of a crowd.

“The Gaunces are pretty amazing people,” Pam Trinward, a member of the Waterville Board of Education, said before the ceremony began. “They’ve always gone above and beyond for the community, but this is just over the top. It’s unbelievable.”

Trinward presented diplomas to seniors from a large stage under a huge white tent. Principal Brian Laramee welcomed the crowd on the windy, hazy evening.

Many seniors and others, including children, stood through vehicle sunroofs or from open-air Jeeps and pickup trucks. Some stretched out of car windows.

Charlie and Nancy Gaunce, the parents of Chris Gaunce, watched the ceremony from inside a van.

Laramee recounted the events of the past three months, starting when the Class of 2020 was forced to adapt to a new and challenging reality when school buildings closed and students began to learn from home, separated from teachers and classmates.

The challenges, difficulties, twists and turns led to valuable lessons, one of which was that rainy days will eventually turn into sunny ones, according to Laramee.

“Class of 2020,” he said, “it’s been a pleasure to be your principal and I wish you the best always.”

Class President Lauren Pinnette introduced retiring math teacher Scott Rivard, who was chosen by the senior class to speak at the outdoor ceremony.

Rivard delivered a poignant speech about a young man who was in a serious car accident and awoke at the hospital, surrounded by his family, and was told his condition was serious but he would pull through.

His mother told him he had a long road ahead of him, and he would have to learn to walk again. He spent 117 days at three hospitals, 109 of those in traction, and after he was released from the hospital, he was in a cast for six months and used crutches for another 18 months, Rivard said.

The young man majored in electronics in college but eventually found his real passion — teaching math and science. He worked as a teaching assistant at a high school and attended college at night, Rivard said, noting that like that young man, Waterville seniors are resilient — although they may not realize it now.

The seniors, he said, have gone through a lot because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that will not define them.

“What you are made of defines you,” he said. “Think about this: It is the same boiling water that will harden an egg and soften a potato.”

Rivard said his favorite flower is the sunflower, because it is tenacious, grows big and tall and is always turning to follow the sun across the sky.

Waterville Senior High School graduates celebrate during the commencement ceremony Thursday evening at the lot at Central Maine Motors Auto Group in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

When there is no sun, he said, “they turn toward each other and share their energy.”

Rivard then told the seniors they have already made the world a better place — and will continue to do so.

“That young man in the story,” Rivard said, his voice breaking with emotion, “did not let that car accident define him. Now, 40 years later, he’s standing before you, retiring with you as you graduate. He is optimistic about our future because he knows it is in great hands. Yours. Thank you.”

Rivard’s speech drew loud applause and cheers, and prompted many to honk their horns.

Pinnette thanked Rivard for doing so much for the senior class, the school and the community.

“We will never forget the positive impact you have made in so many of our lives,” she said.

Before leaving the high school parking lot prior to graduation, seniors sat inside vehicles with their families, lining up for the parade of cars.

Senior Amaryllis Charles, 18, drove a van whose hood sported a large, handcrafted graduation cap with flowers made by her mother, Katie Tredeau.

Charles said she might take a year off after graduating to get a job and an apartment, before applying to colleges to study political science or art.

“I’m anxious,” she said, “but I’m just glad high school is over, and so grateful we get to have a ceremony and everything gets wrapped up.

Tredeau said she is proud of her daughter.

“She’s an activist and artist, and she really participated in so much — soccer and track and the Latin Club, and drama, and she was in ‘Grease,'” Tredeau said. “I’m just so proud of her and I know she’ll do amazing things in the future. She’s a strong advocate for others and has an amazing heart.”

Madaya Kavis, 18, was with her parents and other family members inside another vehicle, whose back window bore the words, “Congrats, Madaya, you did it!”

“I’m so excited,” Kavis said. “I’m going to nursing school — University of Maine (at) Augusta. I want to be a trauma nurse.”

She said she felt the graduating class, school and educators had made the most of a difficult situation by planning the parade of vehicles and the graduation ceremony at Central Maine Motors Auto Group.

“I think that they tried their hardest,” she said, “and were able to pull this off for us, which is really nice.”

Kavis and her parents, Amanda and Daniel Evans, said Kavis had a tough time with medical issues while in high school. She overcame a lot and was resilient.

Proudly, they said Kavis, a softball player since fourth grade, was the only freshman in her class to make the varsity team.

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