DRACUT -- Shipmates navigating their way together through the hardship of construction of a new $60 million high school was the collective, signature attribute of 260 members of the Middies' Class of 2014, according to Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone.
It was also the theme of Friday's Dracut High School graduation ceremony, which included many references made by Stone and other speakers on the 70th anniversary of D-Day to the sacrifices made by Allied soldiers in Normandy, and fittingly featured a guest speaker who embodies the concept of overcoming destruction and adversity in Roseann Sdoia, the Boston Marathon bombing survivor and amputee.
Sdoia, who received standing ovations as she walked determinedly to the podium and her seat before and after she spoke, was introduced to the graduates and audience that packed both sides of the football field by her former Dracut elementary school teacher, School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara.
"A second after that first bomb exploded, chaos ensured. People were running in all different directions, and although at that point I was not exactly sure what had happened, I knew something was terribly wrong," said Sdoia, her voice breaking slightly as she recounted her life-altering experience in the April 2013 Boston bombing. "...What I didn't know was the overwhelming amount of love and support that I was about to receive from so many friends, old and new. So many friends that I had made from my days in Campbell School, all the way through high school, who not only came to visit me in the hospital but also came to help me when I got back home."
Life is about choices, Sdoia told graduates.
"Making choices to stay positive and look at things in the finer light has helped me overcome any hurdles to the recovery process, and take on every obstacle," she said. "Having the right mindset to approach challenges is essential to accomplish any goal in life."
Speaking earlier, Principal Richard Manley prompted the ceremony's first standing ovation when he asked 11 seniors entering the military after graduation to stand and be recognized.
"We are proud of members of the Class of 2014 who will serve their country in the Armed Forces of the United States of America," said Manley. 'They continue the proud and courageous tradition of those Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago this very day."
Alaina Gertz, class president, drew cheers when she declared her fellow graduates forever-members of "the Dracut High Construction Class of 2014."
"The Construction Class can now enter the adult world and overcome any challenge that is thrown at us due to our ability to endure any of the extreme hardships that cross our paths," Gertz said. "The difference between this school and other high schools is the key tool in life that we have learned, without realizing it: Acceptance. We have learned it is possible to work well in a classroom full of students, even when distractions occur. Despite the fact that the walls around us are changing every day... We have benefited from having endured."
Valedictorian Brittany Petros, who is bound for Harvard University, urged her fellow grads to regard their life's time as precious and manage it well.
"Time is one of those topics that is difficult to wrap your head around, like static friction, economics and the DHS parking situation," Petros said. "It's continuous, frightening, easily lost, always too fast, or too slow, possibly finite, or entirely infinite -- but definitely not both -- and either completely hypothetical or a fundamental quantity of physics depending on whether you're talking to a philosopher, or (DHS science teacher) Mr. (Alan) Chuckran."
In an advice-filled speech, Class Salutatorian Gabrielle Zabbo told her fellow seniors that "even with all the preparation in the world, understand that mistakes are bound to happen and will be a learning experience, good or bad."
Zabbo congratulated the Class of 2014 for showing a singular school spirit.
"At pep rallies we have certainly been the most rambunctious and spirited group," said Zabbo. "We survived the construction and persistent jackhammering that went on through classes, mid-terms and finals -- without being able to stick around to see the final results."
Stone managed to reference both the D-Day anniversary and Construction Class themes as he congratulated the graduates on their perseverance.
"You have endured jackhammers and heavy equipment, a temporary cafeteria and a shifting map of classroom assignments," the superintendent said. "Use your experiences to your advantage and use them to better yourself and others."