SALEM — There are two things that set the Class of 2021 apart: The unimaginable amid a global public health crisis, and the resilience to grow in spite of it.
"Whenever you doubt or question yourself moving forward in life, remember what you accomplished to get here — an experience unlike what your parents and teachers experienced back in the day," said Superintendent Steve Zrike. "High school was hard enough without having to overcome a once-in-a-generation pandemic."
Overcome, they did.
Salem High graduated 238 seniors on Salem Common Friday night. The ceremony was held in an open-air, public space amid the ongoing pandemic, although COVID-19 related restrictions in Massachusetts were relaxed as of Memorial Day weekend. Most of the attendees spread out and watching from lawn chairs, blankets and other park-appropriate items.
It was a different kind of graduation — and this was a different kind of graduating class.
"We've had four different principals in the last four years, but we still walked through those front doors eager to learn," said class president Valantis "Val" Christoforos. "We moved through the halls of Salem High School masked and distanced, but we did it with resilience. This whole time, we could've said, 'Woe is us,' but instead, we took our challenges and said, 'Yes, it is us.'"
Christoforos implored his peers to continue that energy into the future.
"You're strong. You're capable. Take what we've learned over the last four years, and apply it to wherever you go and whatever you do," he said. "No matter what negative events life throws at you, don't say, 'Woe is me.' Instead, say, 'Yes, challenge, it is me.'"
Salem High Principal Samantha Meier gave her departing address as she leaves the district at the end of the year. In her remarks, she said the pandemic required the graduates learn "how to balance the expectations of a typical school year with increasingly adult demands."
She then offered this quote: "To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."
"Do not seek to avoid criticism. Do not do 'nothing,'" Meier said. "Take action where it's needed. Make bold moves even though you may be called reckless. You won't always be successful. There's something to be learned in every failure and every success."
Meier pressed the students to not shy away from speaking up when it's vital.
"When you see injustice, when you see inequity, call it out. Offer solutions. There will always be those who disagree and those who criticize, and you won't always be right," she said. "That's OK. Every time, embrace it as comfort and find what makes you grow."
Deya Arnold, the class salutatorian, had similar advice for her classmates.
"I've found the greatest mistake of all is to not make mistakes. You see, it's through our mistakes that we learn, grow, and improve," Arnold said. "It's through our mistakes that we live."
Valedictorian Christin Napierkowski said they've endured so much turbulence and change, but are stronger for it.
"We're kind, strong, accepting, determined, inclusive and resilient in the best possible way, and we all know the world needs more of that," she said.
Visit bit.ly/3ged3ee to read live coverage of this event.