Members of the Lexington High School Class of 2022 were sophomores when the COVID-19 pandemic upended their academic and personal lives. Since March 2020, like students across the country, they’ve been unable to experience many of the high school opportunities and milestones they anticipated most – from international language immersion field trips to junior prom.
But last week, mainstay traditions for celebrating the completion of high school returned with fanfare: senior prom, an all-night graduation party, and an in-person graduation.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that we are not doing a drive-by, or four ceremonies in one day – that we are doing this together as a community, in person,” LHS Principal Andrew Stephens said last Sunday during opening remarks met with hearty applause. Along with their diplomas, each graduate received a personalized “love letter” from an individual educator describing their positive impact on and importance to the school community.
Decked out in indigo robes and tasseled caps, some of the nearly 600 graduating seniors exchanged fist bumps and little spins while filing into the cavernous Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, as parents and family members on their feet cheered from the surrounding stands. In addition to LHS graduates, 13 Lexington seniors graduated from Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School June 3, while LABBB graduates received their diplomas this Thursday, June 9.
Select Board Vice Chair Doug Lucente summed up the mood at the LHS graduation Sunday: “All 34,500 residents of Lexington have been given 570 reasons to smile today,” he said. Lucente commended students for their contributions to the Town of all forms – from academics, to the arts, to volunteering, to sports.
But Stephens began the ceremony with a more somber moment of silence to recognize loved ones who could not be present, and to “symbolize our collective and individual sympathy and prayers” for communities grieving during this moment of celebration – from Buffalo, New York; to Uvalde, Texas; to Tulsa, Oklahoma; to Ukraine.
State Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-15th Middlesex) acknowledged the crushing sorrows and challenges of the present moment, too – and stressed how the graduates give her hope. “Folks, this generation is more ready and able than any before it to tackle the challenges of the day,” she said. “Our students know only the fast-paced world dominated by technology and the internet, but they are not daunted or diminished by this reality. Instead, they embrace it, and have mastered it in a way that allows our young people to be the most creative, innovative and action-oriented generation we have ever seen.”
Lucente wasn’t just speaking as an elected official on Sunday: Like those in the stands, he was a “fellow proud parent,” and waved at his daughter in the sea of graduates.
“I’ve had a couple months to think of something profound to say in my role as a parent, and the only word I can come up with is ‘wow,’” he said. “Wow, that was fast; wow, you’ve impressed us beyond belief; and wow, I can’t wait to see what comes next.”
Lucente limited himself to 10 seconds of advice for the graduates “from all the parents in the room,” easily remembered by ABCD: Always call home; you Better call home; Call home; and – you guessed it – Don’t forget to call home. “Don’t text us,” he admonished – “we want to hear your voices; please call.” Parents expressed vocal agreement from the audience, before Lucente switched to Zoomer language for the benefit of the graduates: “Slay, 2022.”
Former School Committee Chair and now-Clerk, Kathleen Lenihan, also wore the double hats of Class of ’22 parent and public official on Sunday. Something about life transitions makes people want to share advice, she reflected – and while applauding Lucente’s specific advice, she admitted that in many cases, graduates have no way to know whether the advice foisted upon them is any good.
So Lenihan turned to advice she received as a high school senior herself that has long served her well. When in typing class as a senior, she and her friends were talking about how they would be best friends forever; her teacher, Mr. Johnson, laughed at their certainty and said this was unlikely. The students’ indignation turned to concern as he asked them whether their parents spoke often, or at all, of their childhood friends. But, seeing their reaction, Johnson offered hope, too – he told the students that they could, in fact, remain friends, but would have to consciously decide to do so to prevent life from getting in the way.
“You need to decide that your friends are important to you, and to work at keeping them,” which means “making space in your new life for your old friends,” Lenihan said – by talking regularly and seeing each other in person, not merely staying connected on social media. “Your childhood friends are special.”
That said, looking forward, graduates can also be excited to make the first adult friends of their lives, she added. “These are the friends with whom you will go on ill-conceived and poorly planned road trips; celebrate your 21st birthday in ways that have the potential to differ ever so slightly from the laser tag parties when you were 10; and get your first apartment.”
Astronomy and Physics teacher Glenn Allen delivered a faculty address informed by his teaching disciplines to express confidence in the graduating class. “You will not let inertia carry you in a direction that you do not want to go; you will let your impulses guide you along your true path, even if you encounter some friction and resistance along the way,” he said.
Class President Darren Tran, who will attend Harvard College in the fall, was one of three LHS students to deliver remarks to graduates. Like Allen, he acknowledged that the Class of 2022 was a spirited group.
“Given the chaotic nature of our class, and the many personalities sitting here today, we know keeping the ship afloat was pretty difficult at times,” he said. “But, well, we made it here now – and only a few more hours until you can let us free, or, it’s us letting you free, who knows.”
On a more serious note, Tran acknowledged what the pandemic had taken from their class. Referencing the etymology of the word “sophomore,” including the Greek “moros” for foolish, Tran reflected that students typically have their whole lives to be fools, but only a year to be (high school) sophomores. “It’s funny,” he said, “because we had only half a year.”
The pandemic interruption of high school changed everything, Tran recalled, and forced students to confront themselves and their values. Quoting the protagonist of his favorite movie – Remy, of Ratatouille – Tran explained how he and his peers claimed agency in change. For him, this included learning to cook – a way to support his mother, a single mom.
Senior year is supposed to be exciting, Tran reflected – but, in reality, it is immensely stressful much of the time. For him, it was even more so – because he was diagnosed with a heart condition; “basically, one side of my heart was too big.” This challenge, too, Tran took in stride: “Hey, it turned out great for the Grinch,” he quipped. “We often are dealt cards that have no meaning behind them…It is important to realize that sometimes, the answers don’t exist in a form that is…easy for us to understand [or] meant for us to understand.”
Tran encouraged his class to “let our hearts speak just a little bit louder” moving into the next chapter of their lives.
Student Speaker Selena Davis will attend the University of Rochester next year. Thinking back to her first day of freshman year, Davis tried to remember her playlist in the car – but mostly recalled her nerves as she first approached Lexington High School. After overcoming them, and getting to know many of the unfamiliar faces in her first year and a half, COVID hit: “No more passing your friends in the hallways; crowding around those long tables at lunches; hanging out in the Center after half-days; or face-to-face personal connection.” When she returned to school in-person after months of remote learning, Davis felt like a freshman in the car outside all over again, she said – but also felt united by pandemic challenges with her classmates across identities and life experiences.
Like the opening speakers, Davis was drawn to reflect on national moments of sorrow and grief which have shaped her class’ conscience – from the murder of George Floyd in 2020 to heightened Asian hate exacerbated by the pandemic. Bearing witness to injustice at such a formative age, Davis reflected, had taught her and her classmates the importance of being a good ally, and always listening to the perspectives of those “directly affected by racial injustice.” Students, she added, had led LHS in making progress on this front: “Our school relied on us – yes, us – to help begin these courageous conversations – through classes like Black Literature, or LexChat.”
Affirming Ciccolo’s optimism, Davis expressed conviction that the class of 2022 had already learned from each other and “become better – better people, a better community, a better world.” Now, they could “help grow the next community.”
Powell Zhang, who will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fall, drew several laughs from his classmates with a speech in equal parts wry and sincere. Zhang expressed thanks to all LHS staff, from custodians, to counselors, to librarians, to nurses, to LHS educators. “To our teachers, who have the thankless task of guiding us along the path from rambunctious freshmen into somewhat respectable human beings – thank you for your tireless effort stuffing knowledge into our brains, even as the world got turned on its head,” he said. “Thank you…to the administration, who tried their best,” he added, admitting that this was a bold statement considering “all of them [are] right behind me.”
For families, Zhang also had words of thanks. Parents, he said, could breathe a sigh of relief after 18 years of effort – “at least for about four years, until we graduate college and come back to live in your basement.”
From gratitude for his classmates, Zhang pivoted to reminisce on four years defined largely by unpredictability. “1,376 days ago, we walked through the front entrance for the first time – and promptly got stuck in an overly congested hallway,” he said. “Six schedule changes, three AP test formats, and a year and a half of virtual learning later, we’re just one speech [more or less]… from walking onto this stage and receiving our diplomas.”
This was some measure of success for all graduates, Zhang said. But what did success really mean? Zhang recalled his first day of Environmental Earth Science class freshman year, and how his teacher had shown a slide introducing the class for the “2018-19” school year – and said the dash between 2018 and 2019 was the most important part of the slide, because it represented all of the time between beginnings and endings. For Zhang, the dash between 2018 and 2022 represents “all the knowledge gained, friendships fostered, and memories made.”
“Sometimes, we get distracted by the endpoints and try to rush through the dash,” Zhang said. “To this inexperienced high schooler, success means making that dash worth remembering.”