AUGUSTA — Cloe Sisson saw her friends most every day of her senior year at Messalonskee High School, a contrast from most area schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

Messalonskee High School seniors with decorated mortarboards chat in the lobby Thursday night before marching into the Augusta Civic Center for graduation. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Sisson, 18, of Sidney and 144 classmates celebrated their high school graduation Thursday night at the Augusta Civic Center, thankful for having the option of in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

“I’m the type of student that really values seeing their teachers and friends, valuing those one-on-one connections you can’t have through a computer screen,” Sisson said. “At the beginning of the year, I was probably a little skeptical that it made a difference. But looking back, I was so grateful that I was able to go to school and have accommodations for students to create the best learning environment.”

Located in Oakland, Messalonskee High School is part of Regional School Unit 18, which enrolls students from Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney. While many districts offered educational models with students attending a combination of in-person and remote learning, RSU 18 gave students the opportunity to attend in-person classes every day or learn remotely.

Outside the Augusta Civic Center before graduation, Willow Blanchette and a group of friends reflected on the opportunity.

“I think it’s better than nothing,” said Blanchette of Oakland. “It kind of sucks with the masks, but it’s great to have our families here.”

Last year’s graduation was held at Messalonskee High School’s Performing Arts Center, where students graduated in groups of 10, with four tickets allowed per student.

“I thought we weren’t even going to have one this year,” said Hunter Holt of Sidney.

Just a month ago, Messalonskee High School Principal Paula Callan was counting seats for a limited-capacity graduation. When health recommendations changed about two weeks ago, this year’s graduation returned to traditional form, with students getting two tickets for floor seats and an uncapped number of guests in general admission seating. Guests were required to wear protective masks, but did not have to physically distance under the new protocols.

Luke Buck, the senior class president and valedictorian, delivered two addresses, one to open the graduation, the other at the ceremony’s closing.

In his first speech, his valedictorian address, Buck focused on the identifying a purpose in life, identifying and maintaining friendships and striving to help others to bring happiness.

The second speech, his address as class president, explained the acorns and a stuffed squirrel students had given Callan after she joked how she felt like a squirrel running back and forth. Buck recognized the moment as “bittersweet.”

“As we celebrate our accomplishments at Messalonskee High School, we leave behind a great amount of memories and friends,” Buck said. “Although we will miss these memories from Messalonskee High School, we have memories to make in the future.”

Salutatorian Taryn Drolet spoke of finding happiness in life through rewarding options.

“At the end of the day, it’s your life,” Drolet said, “so shape it how you want it to be, based on what matters to you.”

Sisson, a standout soccer player for the Eagles, is heading to the Netherlands for college. She said she will attend Amsterdam University to study the sciences. European colleges do not have their own school teams, so Sisson will continue her soccer career, playing for Wartburgia, a club team.

Sisson said she always wanted to spend a year abroad, having visited Amsterdam twice and fallen in love with the city.

She said she was not sure how her senior year would go, but the soccer season, prom and other events were special.

Class Marshals Brady Doucette, left, and Francesca Caccamo direct seniors marching into the Messalonskee High School graduation ceremony Thursday night at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Those moments made the year a lot better than I expected,” Sisson said.

Zed Sprague of Sidney said the COVID-19 pandemic served as “a learning experience” for him and his classmates.

“The pandemic tipped the world upside down,” Sprague said. “We persevered, and now we’re at graduation.”

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