Williamsburg-area graduates look ahead toward bright future

Seven strangers sat around a big wooden table Monday, musing about their futures. Graduation is here, and the 17- and 18-year-olds are about to take a step into the adult world.

So what's next?

Dion Bartlett looks forward to the college experience. Maria Esch is ready "to embrace change."

And Jada Palmer? "I'm excited to sleep," she said with a laugh.

The three 18-year-olds graduate high school Saturday — Bartlett from Lafayette, Esch from Jamestown and Palmer from Warhill. Sitting with them, 18-year-old Emilio Maestas got his diploma from Bruton High School Friday.

Final ceremonies for Providence Classical School graduate Mackenzie Dumphy, 18, Walsingham Christian Academy graduate Kelau Smith, 18, and home-school student Zipporah Martinson, 17, were more than a week ago.

The group reflected on high school and speculated what changes the fall would bring.

Stereotypes

"Bruton was my first American public school," said Maestas, whose family moved around the world, including to Italy, Spain and Colombia, for his parents' jobs. "At first I was thinking about all the movies, like people getting beat up and thrown into a trash can, and I was a little terrified when I came. But it was a smaller school so it was nice — and nobody was getting thrown into trash cans."

The other graduates laughed, saying that reputation of public schools doesn't live up to the hype. Their senior year highlights included dressing up in costumes for Character Day, racing their classmates in a senior run around the school and creating mischief with a class prank.

Dumphy said her class of nine seniors filled Providence Classical with hundreds of balloons; Esch said someone brought a dog to Jamestown's senior run — both were quickly shown the door.

They talked about things they saw at the other schools via Snapchat, an image-sharing social media platform wildly popular with millennials. But some disagree with the idea their generation is dominated by technology and social media.

"That stereotype bothers me so much," Esch said. "I'm not one of those people who are like, 'This is ruining social connections.' It's just changing them."

Bartlett said social media means "drama." Palmer added that Warhill administrators sometimes had to intervene in Twitter fights.

Over their years in school, technology has become more prevalent each year. At some schools, including those in the Williamsburg-James City County division, students bring their own devices — anything from a smartphone to a tablet to a laptop — and the school provides the internet.

Public or private?

There are a few differences between public and private schools. Dumphy said technology is often left out of the Providence Classical classrooms.

Another is the intimacy. Dumphy graduated as one of nine; Smith as one of 40; Martinson as one of one. The public school senior classes — Bruton, Warhill, Jamestown and Lafayette — number in the hundreds.

"When I was at Bruton, We had like 15 kids (who were in) your little friend circle," Smith said. "But when I went to Walsingham, which was a small private school, everybody knew everybody, everybody is your friend."

Smith transferred from Bruton to Walsingham in 2014 to play soccer. Dumphy also tried public school, she attended Jamestown during her freshman year.

"I found that I didn't have the same relationship not just with my class, but with my teachers, too," Dumphy said. "When you have a close relationship with your teachers, they're really trying to help you succeed and not just trying to get you to pass a class, they really want you to learn and help you in other ways than just academically."

It can't get much more intimate than one-on-one instruction. Martinson said she liked homeschooling because lessons were individualized, tailored more to her needs. In addition to parents, a tutor helped her on the subjects her parents could not.

Since her parents were her teachers, Maestas asked, did they ever fail her?

No, she said — at least not since elementary school.

Esch liked the variety of people in public school, even though classes were sometimes too full.

"You have so many options for friends, you have so many people you get to meet with so many hobbies," Esch said. "You can expand your circle of friends and there's more options for classes and sports."

The people

It's the people that made the seniors' high school experiences, and it's the people they will miss most.

The list is lengthy: friends, teachers, volleyball teammates, lack of responsibilities and football coaches.

Bartlett played football for Lafayette for four years, going with them to state semi-finals last season.

"They're not even coaches, they're straight up family, definitely family," Bartlett said.

He's going to play football for a junior college near Los Angeles. The rest are staying closer to home, going to schools in Georgia, Tennessee and southwestern Virgina.

Martinson will keep taking classes at Thomas Nelson Community College for now, with plans to transfer to a four-year school after next year.

Smith will miss Williamsburg; Martinson said not so much.

The conversation grew somber while they reflected on their small town. Esch wondered how to explain to her new dorm-mates that she comes from a place where people in Colonial dress frequent the local grocery store.

They'll keep in touch with friends — one thing social media helps with. Esch has a friend in Bosnia she Snapchats with; Palmer has a pen pal in Utah.

Bartlett has his best friend's phone number memorized — a rare occurrence since the cell phone became commonplace.

"You see these people every day for four-plus years, and then just having to go to an environment where you might not know anybody, it's a little overwhelming," Maestas said. "You might never see them again, maybe in the future but that's just kind of weird to think about."

Lessons learned

After Saturday the last of the seniors will be graduated and heading to college.

They'll use the rest of the summer to work or relax, and to pack. They'll flip through yearbooks before tucking them away into boxes.

And they'll leave some wisdom behind.

"Choose your friends wisely," Bartlett said. Stick with people you aspire to be like.

Palmer said she learned to be comfortable all by herself — keeping in mind quality over quantity when it comes to friendships.

"Be confident in yourself," Esch added. "Realize how cool you are and it makes things a lot easier."

Don't get too comfortable, Maestas said. People should try something new and get out of their comfort zones. Esch called Martinson's last remarks "poetic."

"Don't be afraid to be a leader," Martinson said, with murmurs of agreement echoing around the table. "I feel like middle schoolers going into high school are like, 'We want to be like everyone else.' And no, you don't want to be like everyone else. Be different ... do something no one else is doing and you'll stand out."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Graduates

Name/high school/college

Maria Esch, Jamestown High School, UNC Greensboro

Jada Palmer, Warhill High School, Hampton University

Kelau Smith, Walsingham Academy, Randolph College

Zipporah Martinson, Homeschool, Thomas Nelson Comm. College

Dion Bartlett, Lafayette High School, Junior College in California

Emilio Maestas, Bruton High School, Virginia Military Institute

Mackenzie Dumphy, Providence Classical School, Virginia Tech

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