August 19, 2011

“It’s Not About Me”

The high school auditorium was filled with excitement as the class of 2011 sensed they were nearing the finish line. It was already April, and the next few weeks were set to fly by with end-of-school-year events—prom, class night, final exams, all leading up to the main event. Enfield High School (Connecticut) was known for its exceptional graduations, and this year’s ceremony promised to live up to everyone’s expectations.

No one was more excited than Patrick Knighton, who had already participated in an Enfield graduation as a junior, leading the class of 2010 as a grand marshal. Patrick was chosen for this honor by the school’s faculty, citing his “positive attitude, responsibility, and good scholastic standing.”

In June, Patrick would again be leading the class—this time as senior class president. Appreciated and respected by teachers and peers, Patrick took his presidential role seriously, serving as a role model in community service and academic excellence. A member of the National Honor Society and recipient of numerous other academic awards, Patrick was also a member of the State Education Resource Center’s youth advisory council, copresident of the Enfield youth council, on the mayor’s advisory board, and volunteer at the local hospital. He coached Enfield High’s unified sports team, participated in varsity tennis and soccer, and was in a host of school clubs.

However, at the end of each busy week, Patrick took time out to rest and worship at the First Springfield (Massachusetts) Seventh-day Adventist Church, seven miles away, where he is a deacon and active in the Pathfinder Club.

An Unexpected Announcement
But back in the school auditorium, Patrick’s thoughts were on his upcoming graduation. Those thoughts shifted into high gear as he heard the announcement: “Graduation will be on June 25.”

Concerned, Patrick quickly glanced at the calendar on his cell phone and instantly knew that he was facing a crisis—June 25, 2011, was a Sabbath.

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Meet the Press: Patrick Knighton, senior class president at Enfield High School, shares his faith with the media. Photos: Daniel Wahlen

“At that moment, my heart just kind of dropped,” he recalled. “I was thinking, This is a major moment in my life. Graduation was one of the things I’d been looking forward to since kindergarten."

The ceremony had been scheduled for a weekday, but because of numerous “snow days” caused by the region’s unusually hard winter, it had been pushed forward to a Saturday.

The temptation to participate was strong. “I could conform,” Patrick reasoned, “and not let anyone know [about the Sabbath], and fulfill my responsibilities as class president. Or I could just drop out and get my diploma in the mail.”

“What Are You Going to Do?”
Texting his mother, Patrick explained his dilemma. Instantly her reply came back: “What are you going to do?”

Not realizing how big this decision was going to be, Patrick went home and decided to think and pray about it. “God,” he pleaded, “what am I going to do in this situation?”

He thought about his classmates—friends he had drawn close to over the past four years; he remembered his teachers and the confidence they had placed in him. And then he reflected on all that God had done for him throughout his life.

“God has been guiding me all along,” Patrick reminded himself. “And I am class president because of His will. I can’t go back on Him. I can’t forget about Him after all this.”

But was he really that strong? Could he make such a difficult decision?

Taking a Stand
In his earlier years Patrick had attended Seventh-day Adventist schools, where there were no Sabbath conflicts, but when he and his mother had moved to Enfield, with no Adventist schools in the area, Patrick had gone to public school. His mother, Vickie Knighton-Lowe, decided she was “going in with him,” and became a well-respected substitute teacher at the middle school where Patrick attended. She also became well acquainted with the staff at Enfield High.

But as much as she loved her son and his classmates, Ms. Knighton-Lowe was not going to attend a graduation service held on the Sabbath, and this determination inspired her son. “I saw how my mom was really standing up for God,” recalled Patrick. “She gave me a great example to follow.”

Not Ready to Give Up
Although Patrick had firmly decided not to march on Sabbath, he was not yet ready to give up hope of graduating with his class, so he decided to present his case before the school’s board of education, where he served as an alternate student representative for Enfield High.

Citing the school’s mission statement, “We teach our students to use their minds effectively and to demonstrate integrity, respect, and compassion,” Patrick explained that as a Seventh-day Adventist he observed Saturday as God’s holy day, and asked the board to consider scheduling the graduation ceremony on another day. As the 18-year-old student spoke, newspaper reporters took notes.

Following several minutes of open discussion, the board decided to postpone a decision until their next meeting, scheduled in two weeks. In the meantime, news spread about Patrick’s request, and copies of his speech were circulated.

At the following board meeting a different atmosphere prevailed. The room was packed with parents who greeted Patrick with angry stares. Many had written letters to the board, urging them to keep the Saturday graduation date. When the vote was taken, it was 7-1—the graduation date would not be changed.

Afterward Patrick was inundated with questions: Couldn’t a clergy member give him special dispensation to participate on a Saturday? Why couldn’t he march? He tried to explain that no clergy member could change God’s law. “God has been faithful to me—I must be faithful to Him as well,” he replied.

Pressing Through Discouragement
That was an especially dark night for Patrick Knighton. “I felt that I was standing up for God, but that He was abandoning me. I couldn’t see Him working.”

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Standing Alone: After Knighton refused to participate in graduation exercises on Sabbath, family, friends, and media attended a ceremony held just for him.

But God was working. Although unkind things were posted on Facebook and negative comments made behind his back, many classmates supported Patrick. In addition, he noticed that people were more inquisitive about his beliefs. Teachers approached him with questions, and commended him for standing up for his faith.

Media attention also increased, as local television, radio, and newspapers reported Patrick’s story. Word reached the U.S. senator for the state of Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, who wrote Patrick a personal letter, dated June 7, 2011.

Citing Patrick’s “principled decision” not to attend his graduation because it was happening “on the day you observe as your Sabbath,” the senator wrote, “That decision took strength of character that will make you successful in whatever you choose to do in life. If there is ever any way I can help you, please give me a call.”

A Surprise Opportunity
Just days before the scheduled Saturday graduation, Patrick was approached by his high school principal, Thomas Duffy, about receiving his diploma after graduation practice on Thursday morning, June 23. Patrick was delighted and asked if he could invite his family—which, he said, also included his church family.

The principal agreed that guests could come, so on June 23, 2011—exactly one year after he had marched as a junior grand marshal—Patrick Knighton graduated alone in a brief but meaningful ceremony in his high school gymnasium.

Dressed casually, his classmates rose to their feet in a loud standing ovation as their class president walked in full graduation regalia to the center of the gym. Seated in bleachers on the far side of the gym were more than 60 members of Patrick’s local Seventh-day Adventist church family, including Pathfinders in full dress uniform. Also present were Mrs. Connie Hall, and her husband, Pastor David Hall, youth director of the Nevada-Utah Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Mrs. Hall was Patrick’s first-grade teacher at Ruth Murdoch Elementary School in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and played a pivotal role in his spiritual foundation. When Patrick’s high school principal told him that he could invite whomever he wished to present his diploma, he immediately chose Mrs. Hall.

Other guests congratulating Patrick at the unusual ceremony included the mayor of Enfield, the superintendent of schools, the board of education chair, and another board member. Television crews and newspaper journalists were there to record the event.

Patrick was also awarded the prestigious Edward Boland Scholarship Award from the school’s social studies department, citing not only academic excellence but community involvement throughout his high school career.

“There is no question who does the most for this community—it’s Patrick. He’s involved in everything,” said Frank Taylor, chair of the school’s social studies department and teacher at Enfield High for the past 48 years.

Finding Your Character
After receiving his diploma and departmental award, Patrick stepped up to the podium to address his class. His theme—“Character.”

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Mentors: Knighton's mother, Vickie Knighton-Lowe (middle), and his first-grade teacher, Connie Hall (right), played pivotal roles in developing his spiritual formation.

“What makes each one of you unique and special is your character,” he told his 203 classmates. “Character is your thoughts, deeds, and actions that you willingly entertain when no one else is paying attention. . . .

“You see, life is about finding your purpose, your character—defining and standing up for what you believe in. When you have accomplished this task, then you have found a greater purpose, a higher calling, and this will lead you to a true sense of victory. Now, class of 2011, I leave you with three words: GO BE VICTORIOUS.” The class rose to its feet with thunderous applause.

The Aftershocks
Even though Patrick was voted by his classmates as the one “most likely to succeed,” what meant the most to him were the words shared during a special graduation party held in his honor that afternoon.

“I think I can speak for the student body,” said classmate Kevin Nelson, “when I say that this is very inspiring—the way that you can take a stand. It warms the heart.” Then turning to the Adventist church members who came for Patrick’s graduation, he continued, “When you all poured into the school—it was really special.”

“Patrick is really special,” remarked another classmate, Garrison Clark. “Everyone calls him ‘The Future President!’ ”

“He expresses his opinion, he’s a hard worker, he’s an individual,” said Patrick’s best friend, Ahmed Hammad. “We have different viewpoints, and we have a lot to talk about. I could not have chosen a better friend.”

Reflecting on the influence Patrick had on his classmates, his cousin Joshua Harris told him, “You made a difference on the young people at [your] school. They may not have a relationship with Christ, but they’ll be thinking about it, because you showed them that there is a Christ.”

Patrick is quick to give all the glory to God. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the kind of God that cares about a young teen like me.”

As far as graduations at Enfield High School, Patrick is grateful that no other student will have to face the kind of decision he did. In May the education board voted that all future graduation ceremonies must be held on weekdays.

“If more of us stood up for what we believe,” remarked Daphne Reid, an Adventist friend from Bloomfield, ?Connecticut, “the world would be a ?better place.”

Gina Wahlen was an interim assistant editor for the Adventist Review when she met Patrick and wrote his story. She continues to write from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published August 11, 2011.