By Hattie Bernstein
SHIRLEY -- Thursday night was the eve of the summer solstice, the next to longest day of the year, and the stars came out early.
Sparkling and shiny-faced, they marched by twos onto the stage inside the Ayer-Shirley Middle School auditorium. The girls, many wearing fancy dresses and towering over the boys, carried bouquets of baby's breath with carnations. Every boy wore a white carnation in his lapel.
They sat in folding chairs lined up in rows across the stage looking out into a sea of adoring faces. There were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
And there was music, "Graduation (Friends Forever)" by Vitamin C, followed by a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner played by the eighth grade band.
Principal Richard McGrath offered the opening remarks, describing the eighth-grade Class of 2013 as "polite," "well-behaved," "fun to be with," and "a really great group of kids." He encouraged them to stay true to who they are and urged them, as they head off to high school and beyond, not to change.
"Be the change," the principal urged.
The 125 graduates sat quietly, their postures stiff, their faces serious. Occasionally, a girl rearranged her skirts or a boy smiled at the classmate sitting next to him. But most of the time, the graduating eighth-graders were as still as statues.
Roberta Aikey, assistant principal, asked the students not to forget the people who had helped them reach the milestone they were celebrating.
"When you came here, we told you that you were special, that you could make a difference. But the most successful people in the world have one attitude they carry with them: they appreciate those who have helped them to get where they are today," Aikey said. "There are a lot of people here applauding you, but let's take a moment to say 'Thank you' to those people who have helped you get where you are today."
Then came the awards, 29 of them altogether, introduced with little fanfare, followed by brief speeches.
Jennifer McGrath was the winner of the Americanism Essay Contest sponsored by American Legion Post No. 183.
"Where does this idea of pride come from?" the student read from her essay. "It comes from our soldiers who risk their lives every day for our freedom. The pride comes from our failures. It's not how we fall, but how we rise. Our never-ending pride is what it means to be an American."
The Massachusetts Junior Conservation Camp Award went to Shane Boudreau who was told: "You'll be living in a two-person tent, with no cell phone, communing with nature during your two-week stay."
Andrew Poutry and Shane Boudreau received the Academic Boosters Good Samaritan Award; Jacob Miska was recognized with the Al Yesue Memorial Award for excellence in language arts and band; and Tim Holmes and Jennifer McGrath received the American Legion Auxiliary Awards for excellence in science.
Kiana Brown was honored with the Louise E. Gaskins Award for character and academic excellence, presented by Gaskins, who retired from the school district 22 years ago.
"This award is to honor character, integrity, respect, honesty and humility," Gaskins said.
Allison Steeves took the Ayer Shirley Teachers Organization Award for excellence in mathematics; and Ryan Messcher received The Bull Run Restaurant Award for excellence in history. Jacob Miska was named "Outstanding Boy" by American Legion Post No. 183.
There were other winners, too: Christian Hoffmann received the Ellen M. Tremont Memorial Award for character; Ben Richard won the Jeffrey P. Drobish Memorial Award, also for character; Jillian Folger and Larissa Hamamoto were the winners of the Keith M. Kidder Memorial Award for character; and Adrian Edmonds and Taybor Grant received the Kristina Marcinkewicz Memorial Award for showing special effort.
Taylor Wright was recognized for her creative writing with the Lambert's True Value Hardware Award. Bennett Wilson and Ryan Martone received awards for industry and character, the Laura Belle Minott Memorial Award.
Jennifer McGrath and Alex Pitano received the Leonard W. Quinty Memorial Award for baseball (Jennifer) and softball (Alex), and Dominic Neto was honored with the Liberty House Award for community service.
There were awards presented to Tim Holmes for excelling in language arts, the Noyes Insurance Agency, Inc. Award; to Ryan Fillebrown, the Officer Ben Jackvony Memorial Award for character; and the PTA History of Academic Excellence Award to Ryan Messcher and Jennifer McGrath for highest scholastic average.
The Richard D. Shea Memorial Award for physical education excellence went to Nick Richard and Brittany Gibbons. The Sandy Pond School Association Award went to Ben Hebert for community service; and the Shirley H. Griffin Scholastic Excellence Award was given to T.J. Cooper and Jocelyn Breault.
The Sterling-Shirley Grange No. 53 Award went to Kyle Snow and Rebecca Strong for showing the greatest academic improvement; and Nick House received the William McSheehy Memorial Award for demonstrating perseverance and a positive attitude.
Auston Abrams and Erin Shine were recognized for artistic talent with the Women's Auxiliary, Trinity Chapel Award, and the World Language Award went to Jennifer McGrath for excellence in French and Eliajah Yoftahe Gebru for excellence in Spanish.
At the end of the graduation ceremony, the school chorus sang "May It Be" from "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings," based on a recording by Enya.
"A promise is within you now," the chorus sang.
There was the point and flash of smartphone cameras, cheering and rows of sitting graduates jumped up at the same time, waving their arms in imitation of the famous baseball "wave."
A father called "I love you," to his daughter. A grandmother held back tears. And the graduates filed out, one by one, down the steps, across the front of auditorium, leaving the middle school one last time.
Outside, the sky hung over the graduates and their families like a pink and blue quilt, smudged in spots with bits of carbon. The sun was falling fast. But there was still enough daylight left to take pictures of the stars.