Though their senior year was anything but traditional, the Kingston High School Class of 2021 had a classic sendoff last Friday, with friends and family packing the bleachers at Dietz Stadium for the event.
The COVID-19 pandemic ebbed and flowed both locally and globally during the 2020-21 school year, but with vaccinations ramping up in the weeks leading up to final exams, a sense of semi-normalcy began to take hold. But until mid-June, a full-on traditional ceremony was still not possible, with two socially distanced, attendance-limited events planned; even that would have been a step forward from the 10 small ceremonies held over two days for the Class of 2020. But with infection rates dropping across the state, school districts were given the option of opening up their high school graduation ceremonies, and other than a request that unvaccinated people continue wearing masks, it may as well have been a commencement exercise from a pre-pandemic era.
Except, of course, that COVID-19 and the ongoing response to the pandemic informed how the Class of 2021 lived their lives, both on and off campus. It was anything but a traditional school year, but in her class president’s welcome speech, Alexandra Mitchell said her fellow graduates are familiar with the unfamiliar.
“We were kindergarteners as the first African-American president was elected, as America underwent the largest recession since the great depression,” Mitchell said. “We experienced, not just hurricanes like Sandy; and terrorism, such as the Boston marathon bombing; and school shootings including Sandy Hook Elementary and Parkland, Florida. We’re the generation that has been engulfed into social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. We lived through two tense presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, and felt the widening division in society based on political ideology. We watched movements such as Occupy Wall Street, March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter pursue change in our country. And oh yeah, we went to school in the middle of a pandemic.”
Mitchell called hers the “guinea pig class,” and not just because of their unprecedented senior year, but for much that preceded it.
“We were the first fifth graders in the middle schools, one of the first classes to undergo the transition to Common Core, and the first ninth graders in the brand-new East and West buildings. We watched as the MJM and Tobin buildings were torn down…We experienced bomb threats and middle school clowns where there shouldn’t have been clowns, and power outages due to a transformer on campus blowing up. Despite all of this, we’re standing here, somehow about to graduate.”
Mitchell added that fully remote learning early in the 2020-21 school year was no picnic either.
“I’m going to be honest: It is incredibly difficult to force yourself out of bed on a Tuesday morning when your education is defined by an 8×13 inch screen, and when there seems to be little to no hopefulness in the world. And for that, I’d like to applaud every member of the class before me.”
Student government president Brenden Arbiter said he struggled with writing his speech.
“To be honest, I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be funny, or if I wanted it to be motivational, or if I should just address the pandemic like every other speech we’ve heard this past year,” he said. “As individuals, we have our entire lives to do whatever we want. We can go and excel in college and get any degree we want. We can try to expand our dreams and become singers or rappers or movie stars. We can simply just do nothing and take in the world for what it is. But the point is we have the power, to do whatever we put our minds to. Throughout my four years of high school I struggled so much trying to understand what happiness truly means and how to achieve that for my future. However, the older I get, the more I realize that happiness is built off of standards that we set up for ourselves. Life is meant to be a journey that we explore and where we go is based off of our own decisions…Life is deeper than just grades, college, jobs and family. Life is about experiences and memories that last a lifetime.”