An unmistakable excitement filled the air at Onteora High school on June 25 as the Catskill Mountains provided a picturesque backdrop to the 101 graduates participating in their well-deserved rite of passage.
Thanks to readily available vaccines and most precautions fallen by the wayside, graduating seniors were able to have a full ceremony to honor their accomplishments over the last year and a half that could be described as difficult at best.
“I can’t tell you how awesome it is to be back on stage and having an in-person graduation ceremony,” Onteora High School Principal Lance Edelman said to graduates and proud parents on the football field on a sunny early-summer evening.
“I think everyone in the community needed this. And Class of 2021, you guys totally deserve this. So I’m really glad we’ve been able to do this,” he said.
“But as you can imagine planning tonight’s event require the assistance of many individuals, probably more than any we’ve had putting together a graduation ceremony.”
Salutatorian Archie Lewis-Harris congratulated fellow classmates for persevering during difficult periods of online learning too be able to celebrate this day.
“Thinking about where we’re all at in life right now and what’s to come brings to mind certain lines from Hamlet,” he said.
“There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all,” he said, quoting the Shakespeare play.
“Everything will work out in life. Whether it’s right now or awaiting you in the future, all that is left is for you to be ready for it,” Lewis-Harris said.
He noted the Class of 2021 was the first class to merge in Fourth Grade at Bennett Elementary School after a major district reorganization. Each elementary school had housed kindergarten through grade six. Now, students attend Woodstock and Phoenicia elementary schools through the third grade, then go to Bennett for grades 4-6.
“Although it may have seemed like such a dramatic change at the time, it was the right change, and it undoubtedly altered our lives for the better,” Lewis-Harris said.
Valedictorian Simon Rands thanked the Onteora teachers and administration “who worked tirelessly to make the school year and this graduation ceremony possible.”
Said Rands in addressing his classmates, “during this most difficult and most ass-backwards senior year of high school, I’ve come to realize that the most valuable part of my life experience is all of you.”
Rands said he had taken for granted the simple presence of his classmates until recent circumstances. “And it was not until the pandemic forced us apart that it struck me how important you guys are to my education and to me.”
Through no fault of the teachers or students, he found online learning to be frustrating and said there’s no way to replicate being surrounded by bright and engaging students. “Whether you’re attending a four-year college or trade school, going into the military or the workforce, whether you’re staying with family or traveling abroad, I implore you. Keep seeking out knowledge.”
Class president Emily Peck noted what a difficult senior year it was for everyone, but pointed out the highlights.
“We missed our friends and our teachers and we didn’t get a Homecoming. There were also so many good moments from this year and all of our years at Onteora,” she said.
“We were the first class to come together in fourth grade. And even though many people miss their old elementary schools, students from all three schools were playing together at recess like old friends, then we all got to witness another transformation at Onteora,” Peck said.
“When we started middle school, school spirit was low. Sporting events were not highly attended and pep rallies were not very peppy at all. But throughout the six years of our time at our school, we had the school spirit grow. People now talk more proudly about Onteora,” she said. “Clubs have grown in prominence and membership. Appreciation has grown for the arts and the attendance of sporting events has increased greatly.”
Peck noted that in a way, the struggles of the pandemic have brought the Class of 2021 closer together.
“Whenever someone new started coming into in-person school, everyone was so excited to see them. Every day felt like a class reunion,” she said.
“We may have lost our senior year, but we have so many incredible experiences ahead of us. So here’s to our future.”