HAMILTON — It was as traditional as possible, in unprecedented times.
There were speeches from the class valedictorian and salutatorian, and imparting words of wisdom from school administrators. And at the end, members of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School's Class of 2020 threw their mortarboards in the air in celebration of their official graduation.
But there were also visible reminders of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There was no grand procession to the stadium. Graduates were limited to two guests each; they wore masks and were seated at least six feet apart on the football field. And when they were each called to the stage, the graduates picked up their own diplomas from the table.
Hamilton-Wenham held its graduation ceremony Saturday, almost two months after its original date due to COVID-19 school closures.
"You wanted to wait for graduation to happen late in the summer," said Principal Eric Tracy, referring to a Zoom conversation among the graduation class weeks earlier in which they discussed how — or if — they would hold the ceremony. "Somehow you all knew we could pull it off. And here we are."
Each student speaker addressed the pandemic and how it kept the graduating class from celebrating their milestone in the ways previous classes had before them. But they also talked about the relationships students had built both during and outside of school, how tight knit their class had become, and how they will go on to do great things.
Maeve Folger, winner of the candlelight ceremony speech competition, said the experience of being in quarantine over the past few months has only made the Class of 2020 stronger and more whole.
"Connecting with others is something that brings values and a sense of belonging to our lives," she said. "It allows us to form strong relationships and learn how to be independent. These past few months, we’ve been forced to be apart from people that we care about, showing me why these connections are so important."
Salutatorian Ava Halstead recalled her first day at Hamilton-Wenham as a freshman, remembering "feeling so terrified and not wanting to stand out."
But four years later, she and her classmates discovered their talents and passions, becoming performers, academics, athletes, artists and more.
"When you go off to college, a new job, whatever you're moving on to, never let yourself feel faceless in a crowd again," she said. "Each and every one of you have been able to develop such strong personalities, opinions, passions, here at Hamilton-Wenham. Keep those passions, explore new ones, evolve, grow, learn, but never just try to blend in. We have all worked too hard to become such strong-willed individuals, to ever just sit on the sidelines and feel unknown and unrecognized."
Valedictorian Erica Luo reminded her classmates that not only are they living through history, they are making history — and should continue to do so.
"We've already established a reputation of being outspoken at the school," she said. "So why not carry it on after graduation? It would be a shame to stand passively by while the world transforms around us."
Making history doesn’t mean everyone has to participate in something groundbreaking, either. "Just because your actions don't end up in a textbook one day doesn’t mean that they aren't important or impactful," Luo said.
But, she said, there are a multitude of issues facing the world that demand action from young people.
"Now is not the time to wait," Luo said.
In his remarks to the class, Tracy called students to action on racial injustice, global warming, biomedical issues related to untreatable viruses, food insecurity, cybersecurity, and inequities in education.
"Now more than ever, we need you," he said. "We need your passion, your drive, your intelligence, your ability to think differently and most importantly your love for each other."