By MEGHAN PIERCE
They may have finished their senior year virtually, but Conant High School’s class of 2020 is not the class that lost its spring semester of their senior year, but the class that persevered, student leaders said at commencement last night.
“When faced with an uncertain graduation and disappointment we did not despair, instead we all banded together to problem-solve,” Valedictorian Georgia Wren Wolterbeek said. “We used our voices for change.”
Commencement for the class of 2020 was held at Silver Ranch Airport in Jaffrey Friday evening, beginning with the National Anthem sung by graduating senior Hannah Lambert and concluding with a fireworks show provided by Atlas PyroVision Entertainment Group.
Conant High School principal Brett Blanchard opened with a comment on the wonderful weather for the 6 p.m. outdoor commencement. “This is the weather that these students have earned and have deserved.”
He also thanked the airport owners, Harvey and Lee Sawyer, “for graciously giving their property here so this could work for these students.”
Blanchard said the pandemic, while hard on the students, has shown their resilience in the face of adversity and revealed who the true heroes are in this world.
“With so much negativity surrounding the situation the past few months, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to at least mention one positive that we need to understand of this very poor situation,” Blanchard said. “I think the current times have shown us that societies’ models for toughness and perseverance have been in error. It seems that we have looked towards professional athletes, entertainers and social influencers as role models for how we should behave or what it means to be tough. In truth, in what we have seen during this situation is that they are largely pampered, out of touch and not resilient. What this current situation has shown us is that true models of toughness and perseverance have been in our midst all along.”
Among other community members, it is the local health care workers and emergency responders who have modeled how to behave when times get difficult, he said.
“What we have seen is that the people who are able to look long term, those people that wake up and despite having a bad day previously or maybe even a very tragic day, that they persevere, they keep the faith and they make our society better,” Blanchard said. “Our local police, fire and EMTs, who’ve been on the job any length of time, could never continue to maintain our local community if they did not have a deep sense of perseverance and toughness. Some of their days, especially recently, have been overwhelmingly negative that they’ve had to manage nonetheless.”
Assistant Principal David Dustin, who was chosen by the class to give a speech, said he too is impressed by the resilience of the graduating class and how they have pulled through this difficult time.
“We know that 2020 has not been going the way most of us anticipated that it would go when it began. I know from conversations that many of you looked forward to this year for a variety of things. Not the least of which was this was the year that should be starting the next phase of your life,” Dustin said. “I know that it’s a difficult disappointment in many ways to have your senior year disrupted by circumstances that are beyond your control. And that could — and I will emphasize the word could — stand in the way of the excitement, pride and hope that you should be feeling tonight.”
Dustin shared with the class that when he graduated from college, in 2009, it was the height of the Great Recession. He was looking for a job as a teacher, which he did not get the spring or summer after his graduation, because he was in competition with recently laid-off teachers for any teaching job at the time.
“It was a pretty scary time to be entering the world,” he said. “It was a bleak time. It was easy to lose hope.”
And while it is not the same as the pandemic, he said, it was the community and people closest to him that supported him and helped him pull through and that this class too has a community behind them. “You know you have a community here that cares very deeply about you. … The pushing through part, that rests with you.”
Dustin left the class with a challenge.
“I challenge each one of you to avoid defining this year as the year of the pandemic or the year of a not so nice place,” Dustin said. “Instead I challenge you to define this year, 2020, as the year you pushed through, found your passion and began a road to greatness. You can do this if you remember to be kind to your fellow humans, have hope, find strength in yourself and in those around you, persevere, and take the wonderful parts of yourselves forward as you begin your journey into your future.”
In her speech Abigail Drew, Senior Class President, thanked teachers for their support and for preparing the class for the outside world.
“Now it’s our time to face the world, our time to pursue our passions,” Drew said.
The class of 2020 has seen so much over the past two decades, she said, from the 2008 ice storm and the Boston Marathon bombing to various diseases including this most recent pandemic. “But despite all of those odds we still managed to graduate,” she said.
She encouraged students to always strive for greatness.
“We can’t always count on being born great or having greatness being thrust upon us. So please set extraordinary goals for yourselves and do anything in your power to achieve them,” Drew said.
Salutatorian to the class of 2020, Jillian Patria, joked that she didn’t see the pandemic coming, nor could she see her classmates and teachers all that well through her Chromebook camera during the spring semester’s remote learning experience. But because of the remote learning virtual classrooms she has seen her teacher’s kitchens and home offices and now her mind is blown by the knowledge that the teachers don’t live at the school.
Patria said each member of the class has earned their spot at commencement, even if they attend virtual classes in bed half asleep and making it through senioritis.
“I salute you for earning the seat you are sitting in, cause this was earned not given. We are the class 2020. It’s a new decade and even though it started with fires, pandemics and murder hornets, we’re stepping into the world with a solid foundation,” Patria said. “You have all been preparing for this for the past 12 years. And as Rocky Balboa said, ‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.’ But after spending this last 7 to 22 years with you, I know we don’t need rainbows to move forward. We are all going to make an impact on this world and I know I’m going to see you in the future and say, ‘Oh my God, I went to high school with them.’”
She ended her speech with a joke about the coming end of the stay-at-home order. “I may need glasses, but I can see clearly now that quarantine is gone, on Monday of course.”
In her speech, Wolterbeek also thanked all that have supported the class and made the Friday night graduation at the airport possible.
“Our time at Conant was cut short,” Wolterbeek said. “However, rather than focusing on events missed and being marked as the class without their senior spring, it’s more important that we don’t focus on what we missed during this time, but what we have done and will continue to do. From celebrating one another virtually, organizing car birthday parties, attending online classes — even if half-awake — continuing community services and more, we have shown not only perseverance but adaptability, which is going to help for the next chapter of our lives. And that doesn’t even touch upon the new skills and hobbies learned or the copious amount of fluffy coffee, Tik Toks and loaves of bread made during this time.”
But despite the challenges, Wolterbeek said she wanted to be clear the class is more than the trials they endured during the pandemic. They have learned to use their voices for change and now leaving high school, must rise up and continue to do so “to call out injustice and racism, to problem-solve and above all to serve others.”
Wolterbeek concluded by quoting Booker T. Washington, who said “Those who are happiest are those that do the most for others.”
She urged her classmates to live by this and continue to uplift and serve others.
“It can be easy to stay focused on our own issues or collectively the loss of our senior spring, but by looking to help others and remembering to be selfless, we can expand beyond what is easy and we can lead by example.”