July 17, 2020

A graduation surprise: $1,000 gifts for the ‘fortunate few’

Social distancing was a priority during the June 21 graduation ceremony of the 19 members of the Class of 2020 of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison in the school’s gym. (Photo courtesy of Laura Jayne Gardner Photography)

Social distancing was a priority during the June 21 graduation ceremony of the 19 members of the Class of 2020 of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison in the school’s gym. (Photo courtesy of Laura Jayne Gardner Photography)

By John Shaughnessy

Curt Gardner wanted to add a touch of drama before the graduating seniors learned which of their classmates would receive a special $1,000 graduation gift.

When the revelation came, it stunned the graduates—and nearly everyone else at the graduation ceremony of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison on June 21.

As the school’s principal, Gardner told the 19 graduates that an anonymous group of Shawe alumni wanted to give a “fortunate few” of them the special gift—as a sign of their support for the senior class that was impacted in so many ways by the coronavirus during their final months of high school.

“I would like each graduate to remove the envelope that is currently taped under your seat,” Gardner instructed the members of the Class of 2020. “I want you to open that envelope very carefully. Then if you find a $1,000 check in your envelope, you are a winner and one of the ‘fortunate few.’ And I want you to stand and remain standing, so that your family and friends can see your good fortune.”

As the students reached under their seats and opened their envelopes, a few leaped to their feet quickly, their smiles of surprise and delight showing their good fortune. Then others stood, holding their checks high. And when everyone had finished opening their envelopes, they realized that each of them had received $1,000 from the alumni group.

As the surprise and smiles spread throughout the school’s gym, Gardner told the graduates that they are now part of the “fortunate few” to become alumni of Shawe. He also encouraged the graduates to remember this gift as they go forward in their lives.

“In the future, find ways to bring this same happiness to others,” the principal said. “Be charitable.”

‘It was like a ‘wow’ moment’

As one of the 19 graduates in this year’s class at Shawe, Nate Pawlak says it’s a moment he will never forget.

“My classmates and I have talked about it a lot since then. I remember thinking initially that this is awesome that a few of us would be getting it. But I thought, ‘There’s no way this is going to happen for me.’ All the people I’ve been talking to had the same feeling.

“When we all started standing up, I thought, ‘This just makes sense.’ This is awesome that we all got it.”

Nate says his class especially appreciates the alumni group recognizing how hard it was for them to lose so much of the home stretch of their senior year, a time usually marked with a number of senior-related traditions.

“The thing I missed the most was the normalcy—missing all the people I would see on a day-to-day basis,” says Nate, the class valedictorian, student council president and a pitcher on the varsity baseball team.

“I missed going to baseball practice and seeing the teammates and the coaches. I missed the teachers and my classmates. I wished I was in the classroom with them.”

He says that feeling reflects the closeness of the 19 graduates, 18 of whom will attend college while the other one has enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“Shawe, it means family,” Nate says. “Being such a tiny school, your entire class becomes your family. You learn things about them, and you’re surrounded by them for more than eight hours a day if you do sports and other extracurriculars. You build that relationship with them that goes past friendship or an acquaintanceship. It’s family.”

That feeling is shared by Ambar Materano-Sanchez, who arrived at the school 2 1/2 years ago after her family moved from Venezuela to Madison. Even with a starting point of very limited English when she came to Shawe, she ended up as the class salutatorian.

“I feel love for Shawe because they helped me with everything,” Ambar says. “I feel all the support my teachers and classmates gave me. When I started at Shawe, I didn’t know much English, but I felt welcome. It was just like a family, and it was like I was a part of that family.”

Her voice also fills with joy in talking about the gift from the alumni group.

“It was really cool,” says Ambar, who will use the gift to help begin her education in nursing. “When everyone got it, it was a big surprise for everyone.”

Beyond the special features of the graduation ceremony, Nate also praised the school’s administrators for “the ton of extra effort they did to make the seniors feel special” as their time in high school came to an end.

He mentioned the yard signs the administrators delivered to each of their homes, signs marked with their name and the news of their graduation from Shawe.

“They also had a parade for us,” he says. “We got in our cars and drove past the school, and all the teachers and parents were cheering us on.

“The administration had already done so much for us, and it was the icing on the cake that an alumni group would do this for us. It was like a ‘wow’ moment.”

The start of the surprise

As the president of Prince of Peace Schools in Madison, Phil Kahn was one of the few people at the graduation ceremony who wasn’t surprised by the $1,000 gifts to the graduates. Yet even though he knew it was coming, he was still delighted by the generosity that the alumni group showed.

“One alum contacted me,” recalls Kahn, a 1987 graduate of Shawe. “The discussion started out just asking about the senior class and how they were holding up during this difficult school year.

“I told this person that they were a very strong group and have handled it as well as you could expect. They were very positive and supportive of the school and each other. We are very proud of each one of them.”

From that conversation, a group of alumni donors came up with a plan to give each of the seniors $1,000— “as a scholarship to help with any expenses they have for college or their futures,” Kahn says.

The members of the alumni group just insisted that they remain anonymous.

“I thought this was a great example of how strong the ‘Shawe Family’ really is,” Kahn says. “This group of alumni is older, but still worried about the students graduating today.

“Shawe is a special place. This is just one more example of how, from the start, the Shawe family looks out for each other.” †

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