For the 266 members of the W-H Class of 2021, the postponement of graduation to Saturday, June 5 due to threatening weather was just another bump in a road of adjustments they’ve had to make since COVID-19 closed classrooms in March 2020.
“I think it would be appropriate for us all to take a moment and reflect on the journey that has brought us here today,” said Principal Dr. Christopher Jones in his welcoming remarks. “There have been hardships overcome, joyful moments, and relationships both created and lost, but we have persevered.”
He then released two graduation balloons in memory of two W-H teachers who passed away during the school year.
Perseverance has been a hallmark of this class, and the community supporting them. The outdoor ceremony — another departure from recent tradition — was something of a graduation for the seniors’ families, teachers and the towns in which they live, as well.
Retired School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, speaking at his last commencement ceremony, may have spoken for many when he forcefully exclaimed, “Goodbye, COVID!” to open his remarks.
Student speakers also related how the challenges of the last 15 months or so have affected them, as well as how they have not permitted the pandemic to dampen their outlook.
There were also timeline corrections — as speakers had to edit speeches on the fly, referring to “this morning,” instead of the “this evening for which they had prepared.
“The whole world seemed to have caved in on us, in some of our most important and memorable years of education,” Class President Delanie MacDonald said in response to the many admonitions her class had heard to “look on the bright side” during the pandemic during her welcoming address. “Were they perfect? Absolutely not. But they served as a gentle reminder to always be grateful for what you have, not envious of what you don’t.”
Still, she saw some humor in the events of the past year or so.
“This year taught us that imperfection isn’t just OK, but has actually been kind of welcoming,” MacDonald said. “What a relief to not have to dress up, fix your hair, remember which outfit you’ve already worn that week, and so on. This year allowed us to be more ourselves than ever before.”
She challenged her class to embrace the imperfect as they go on with their lives.
“There’s no question that this year was a disaster,” said Salutatorian Payton Bourgelas. “It felt like we were in a constant cycle of adapting and then readapting and then tearing it all down and starting over. … Perspective on what truly matters in our lives. Perspective that the ‘little things’ are what we will carry with us long after our time at W-H.”
She singled out, the teachers who gave space to students having trouble with stress, the prom at Gillette Stadium and the Senior Day organized for the class as examples of the little things that may not have been a lot, but were enough to show seniors that someone cares.
Such life lessons were reinforced by Valedictorian Abigal DeLory.
“Don’t be scared to try new things, whether it’s crocodile pizza on a trip to Australia or a new extracurricular activity,” she said. “Question everything, and challenge the status quo. … Treat people with kindness, just like Harry Styles always says. You never know what someone is going through, and a small act of kindness can go a very long way. … Everybody is on their own path, and no single path is objectively better than another.”
Citing her own intention to travel the country during a gap year before deciding on her future, DeLory concluded by advising her fellow classmen that they have the freedom to choose their own adventure for life, “so choose wisely.”
Winner of the student speech competition, Anna Williams, offered thoughts on the meaning of goodbye.
“High School is going to change you in unexpected ways, but do not try to avoid this change. This change is good. This change will help us grow. This change is what we need to use to make this world a better place,” she said. “As we go through life, we are going to experience failure and obstacles needed in order to reach success. However, it is these failures and these obstacles that are pointing us into the right direction–to achieve our goals.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak advised the graduates on life lessons is 27 years as an educator have taught him, including that they remove the words “should’ve, would’ve and could’ve” from their vocabulary.
Hayes, in addition to kicking COVID to the curb, advised students to soak in their last day among their entire class and the teachers that supported them over the past four years.
“In the face of many obstacles, you have chosen to rise, grow and succeed instead of wavering,” he said, noting those traits show their character. “You faced a pandemic head-on, not only for one academic year, but for two.”
Jones, in relating a difficult story of his own high school challenges on the wrestling team, advised students that the only thing that truly made their experience meaningful was not quitting because it seemed hard.
“You found out along the way one of the most valuable secrets to life: No matter how down and out you are, you always have more to give and just on the other side of that is where your success lies,” Jones said.