A Special High School Graduation

Why write about a high school graduation? They are all pretty much the same, right?

Not at Casco Bay High School in Portland ME.

Our daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Peter, have two children who attend this extraordinary public school. Jo has just completed her freshman year, and Jasper graduated two weeks ago. The Ellis family moved to Portland four years ago. Their reason for moving from Mt Rainer, MD was due in part to their kids getting into this school.

Embry and I arrived from our Hawaii wedding trip in time to attend the awards ceremony the day before graduation. The graduates wore their caps and gowns and were seated in several rows facing the audience of parents and friends. There are only about 100 students in the graduating class—very small for a public high school. And the students are quite diverse. The school uses the lottery system to assure that the student population matches the Portland population according to several categories including class, race, and income. Forty-four percent are minority students, and forty percent will be the first in their family to go to college. About the same percentage are from “economically disadvantaged” families.

 I can’t remember what all the awards were—I counted 38 presentations in all with many students receiving multiple awards. (Jasper was tied for the most awards, five, along with several other students.) But what I will remember for a long time were the roars of approval and cheers that erupted from the class when the winner of each award was announced and the hugs and high fives among students once the ceremony was over.

My goodness, I thought, these kids really love each other. What is going on? How many diverse public high schools in the U.S. are you going to find with this kind of camaraderie and bonding? How many schools of any type—public or private?

I think the philosophy behind the school plays a big role. Casco Bay High School is what is called an “expeditionary learning school.” There are about 150 such schools in the U.S., which are based on the philosophy of a German educational visionary, Kurt Hahn, who also founded Outward Bound. By design the schools are small, and their approach emphasizes empathy, respect, hands-on experience, cooperation, teamwork, exploration of the natural world, and a host of other similar concepts including diversity and inclusion. On day one of your freshman year, you are assigned to be in one of the six or seven “crews” where you will remain a member with 14 or 15 other students and a faculty crew leader for all four years. Each crew reflects the diversity of the student body. The crews meet often throughout the year and together go on adventures such as camping, kayaking, canoeing, travel, mountain climbing, and hiking. While nothing is ever perfect and it is true that there are often conflicts within families and close groups, it seemed to me that a lot of these students over the four years had bonded as brothers and sisters.

It would be hard to top the awards ceremony, but the graduation event the next day came close. Each 14-member crew sat together on the stage of the downtown Portland performing arts theater, which was almost full. Three things stood out. The first were the short “speeches” of four or five words that every student made before they lined up to accept their diplomas. Cheering from the audience was so loud that I had a hard time hearing what was said, but I got the gist. The second were the diploma presentations. Polite handshakes with the principal were replaced by embraces, and as graduating seniors approached the principal, who was awarding the diplomas, there were several back flips, numerous cool dancing moves, and three or four graduates who crawled or “alligatored” to receive their diplomas. Decorum quickly morphed into raucous joy and borderline chaos.

 What impressed me most, however, were the PowerPoint-like slides that appeared on a large screen behind the students as they received their diplomas. The first image included their name and where they were going to college (or for some taking a gap year). The second image was a short paragraph describing why this person was special. Each description was thoughtful, often amusing, and always positive and affirming. There were no cliches or ho-hum descriptions.  A lot of thought had gone into each one. Crews were responsible for preparing the comments about their fellow members though I suspect the faculty crew team leader was the person who pulled the comments together.

I could not help noting that only a handful are going to a prestige college or university. Almost half are going to the local community college (probably because it is free), several to the local college, the University of Southern Maine, and more to the University of Maine. Not a single student was going to an Ivy League School, and only about 10-15 percent were going out of state. Why not more? These students seemed fabulous to me, and Casco Bay has the reputation of being academically rigorous.

 I compare this with the experience of both of our children who attended private—and, yes, elite—prep schools in Washington where in both schools it seemed to me that about half the graduating students were going to Ivy League or other highly selective colleges. Andrew went to Penn and Jessica to Brown. Certainly, while these are great high schools, the students couldn’t be all that much better than the Casco Bay students, could they?

Getting selected by admissions committee at highly selective colleges when applying from a public high school seems a heavier lift compared to the prep schools—even from excellent and academically rigorous schools like Casco Bay. There is also the issue of cost and affordability by working class families. I know that this issue has been the focus of higher education reform initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field (and that these efforts are the focus of pushback). Still, it seems to me  there is a ways  to go.

But then  again, as Embry pointed out to me,  there is way too much emphasis on the benefits of so  called “elite” colleges and universities, much of which falls into the category of educational snobbishness, a charge which I have to admit, sadly, that I am guilty of. One could argue that you can get a good if not better education at schools which are not “highly selective.” And they are right. It all depends on the teachers you have, the philosophy of the school, and what each person puts into the experience. What is important in our world today, however,  is to get that college degree.

And in that regard Casco Bay High School has succeeded big time. Every single student  graduated this year, and every single student got into college. The school has opened up a world of opportunity for  many who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks at a conventional high school.


The Ellis family–Jo, Jes, Jasper, and  Peter

(Our grandson, Jasper, is going to a great school, the University of British Columbia, which is listed among the top 60 universities in the world, though it is not well known or considered “elite” by most people in the U.S.)

The other thing that made this graduation special was that the Casco Bay High School Class of 2023 was “the covid class.” Because of the pandemic, the school closed in early 2020, requiring the students to take classes online for 18 months. All the graduating classes of 2023 all over the planet Earth have been through a lot. They have good reason to celebrate at graduation time.

Over the weekend, Jessica, turned to me and asked, “Now, Dad, do you understand why we moved to Maine and now do you understand why it was the right choice?”

I nodded yes.


A Special Wedding

Back in Washington after a two week journey, first to Kuai (in Hawaii) for the wedding of my first cousin (once removed), which was my seventh and most likely final officiating role. Then Embry and I headed back to the East Coast where our grandson, Jasper Ellis, graduated from Casco Bay High School in Portland ME. This was a great journey, which involved seven different flights, six time zone changes each way and remarkably no disasters. For a change every flight was on time.

The two events were special. My cousin, Jackson Cole, married Tori Nakamatsu, who grew up on the island. They had met in college in Seattle where they still live. The guests at the wedding were a mix of Anglos, mostly from Nashville (mainly family) and Hawaiians from Kuai. The event was fabulous: gorgeous bride, handsome groom, warm and loving friends and families. The weather was perfect, and the venue was in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet Earth.

 The rehearsal dinner attended by about 40 people was in a public park overlooking the Pacific with food provided by a food truck. To get to the wedding rehearsal, you had to walk past several five-star resorts with Mercedes lined up to accommodate the rich and famous from all over the world, many attending their glamourous destination weddings. Guards could be seen protecting the resorts to keep out the riffraff.

 I was so glad that this wedding event was in a park—not in a resort– with locals gathered around tables nearby with kids kicking soccer balls and playing Frisbee.

There were about twice as many attending the wedding the next day on an old plantation available only for use by native Hawaiians and also overlooking the ocean. Fabulous music by a guitarist not much younger than me followed (playing mostly 60s rock and roll music) under a big tent where the wedding reception and feast occurred. The event was magical.

The only glitch was that I had failed to fill out all the paperwork that the state requires from the officiant. In fact, I was not aware that any paperwork from me was required other than signing the marriage license. On my six previous weddings I never filled out anything except to provide bona fide evidence of being an ordained minister, which, of course, I am along with millions of other Universal Life Ministers.

A few days ago, however—over two weeks after the wedding– I got an email from  Jackson politely informing me that someone from the state had determined the marriage was not legal because the officiant had failed to fill out the forms within the required five day period following the wedding. To be legal the wedding would have to be repeated in Hawaii—this time with all the forms properly filled out. When the notice from the state was received, Jackson and Tori were back in Seattle and we were back in Washington, plus repeating any wedding—especially one as special as this—would be a non-starter for anyone. What to do…?

I expressed my astonishment and dismay via email to my cousin, apologized, and said I would try to do what I could to satisfy their requirements without having to repeat the wedding in Kuai. Within minutes his email reply came: “Hey, Joe, no problem. We are having a reception in Seattle anyway. We will just get remarried there when we have the reception.”

Not exactly the way I would like to see my marriage officiating career come to an end, but a wedding experience is spiritual as well as it is legal, and that is what counts. There is nothing the state of Hawaii can do to take the spiritual part away. (And thank heavens for the reception opportunity in Seattle!)

Our grandson’s graduation was also special—and quite unusual. Stay tuned for the next blog post.


Homeless and Penniless in Kuai

Embry and I are in Hawaii, on the small and lush island of Kuai where on Saturday I will officiate the wedding of my cousin, Jackson, and his fiancé, Tori, who grew up here. Four days ago all my credit cards and bank accounts were shut down. I spent the better part of the last three days trying to straighten things out before I became “homeless and penniless.” Here is the story:

To break up the long trip out here—over a dozen hours on two flights covering six time zones—we spent two days in the Bay Area where we visited Embry’s friend and namesake, her three year old child and family, then three days in Honolulu where we visited another  dear friend from our college and graduate school days. No problems with using an ATM or paying with a credit card. Then in Honolulu when I tried to pay for dinner with my PNC Visa, it was rejected. The second effort, using a PNC debit card, was also rejected, but my Bank of America debit card was accepted. Two hours later I got an email from Bank of America stating my B of A account also was shut down. I did not have any other access to credit and no cash left in my pocket.

Now to be honest, this was not a real  problem because Embry’s cards were all working. But still. And picture the implications for someone who was traveling alone.

Before the ordeal  more or less  ended late yesterday, I had tried and failed six times to  get the matter fixed. Half of the agents announced that the accounts were now working, which unfortunately turned out to be wrong. The other half gave up since without a working password they could not access the account. I was at the point of tearing out what little hair I have left on my head, when it occurred to me that a different approach was needed. Here is the conversation when I  explained the situation for the seventh time:

Me: You have got to help me. I do not have a valid debit or credit card. I am on the remote island of Kuai. I have no cash. Plus  I am homeless and penniless.

PNC (female voice): All you have to do is go to PNC.com and change your user name and password.

Me: I have tried and failed six times. It always rejects my password.

PNC: No, it doesn’t. You must be doing it wrong.

Me:  You try it.

PNC: Tell me your password.

 (It was pretty long.  Since I was hacked a couple of weeks ago, I was determined to come up with a password no one could guess. It was RXMcAG476CB35%SW3131%*$– not the real one of course, but close.)

PNC: It does not work. I am afraid that without a valid password, the only way that your account can be unfrozen is to go to a local PNC  branch.

Me: The closest PNC branch is over 2,000 miles away.

PNC: There is nothing that can be done. You must go in person to a branch and show proper identification.

Me: But you do not understand. I am in Kuai. I have no cash and none of my cards work. I am not able to stay in a hotel. I am not able to call an Uber or taxi. I am not able to eat. I am starving. I am elderly–Joe Biden’s age.  (Admittedly mostly lies, but I was desperate.) Please help me!

PNC: Certainly, there must be a homeless shelter somewhere on the island.

Me: But how do I get home, how do I eat? How do I even get to the homeless shelter with no money?

PNC: Provide a legitimate password.

Me: I am taking all my money out of PNC and moving it to Bank of America.

PNC: Not without a valid password, you aren’t.

The PNC rep then hung up.

You might conclude that this was not one of my better days. But after regaining my self-control, I decided to call yet again, starting with the homeless and penniless sob story and when my password was rejected demanding to speak to her supervisor, then another and then another supervisor until I finally reached the President of PNC Bank. Ok, maybe he was not the president of the bank, but he seemed to  know what he was doing, was able to access my account and unfreeze the debit card. The Visa remains locked. In all I think it took about eight hours on the phone with about a dozen reps. Most were polite and cordial, but only one was (partially)  able to solve the problem. And, oh yes, I now have a new password, which is only eight characters long.

Question of the day: what if I had been traveling alone? What if I did not have the persistence and faith that I ultimately would prevail? What if? What if? And will they ever get the Visa to work?

Stay tuned….