As the graduates of Fairfield Area High School prepared to accept their diplomas during their graduation ceremony on June 1, speakers focused on the students’ perseverance through the challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Honey K. Strosnider, the class vice president, commended the students for their work and thanked the community that supported the students.
“Every one of you has made an impact on the graduates who sit here today,” Strosnider said. “These last four years have been a period of growth and preparation for whatever our futures hold. We’ve gone through challenges, no doubt, such as COVID and its restrictions. However, we’ve kept our heads high, which has allowed us to be here today. As we start this next chapter, please let it be known that we graduates are extremely thankful for all of the support we’ve been given and are excited to make you all proud.”
Kaden L. Hunter, the class president, highlighted the potential of his class, pointing the students out as “the future of our society.”
Hunter said he expected to see his classmates succeed. He pointed to the district as a way the students are connected.
“Though we do not all have similar dreams and goals, our dreams and goals were all derived from the 13 years that we spent in school,” Hunter said. “Whether or not we realize it, our school helped us develop social skills, communication skills, leadership skills, logical thinking skills, and so much more, including our ambitions. We were taught how to be kind to others and accept peoples’ differences, respect others’ opinions and solve problems in our lives. Though there were no lessons teaching these important skills directly, they were developed as a result of the amazing community that the school provided.”
Hunter reflected on the change the students saw in a short time from being overwhelmed freshmen to the unique struggles they faced as high school students in a pandemic.
“Now we are standing on this stage today and there is nothing that we cannot do,” Hunter said. “The COVID-19 pandemic shut down our normal education. Nobody had time to prepare for such unfortunate circumstances. We struggled, we lost sleep, our mental health at risk, our quality of work depleted, but you know what? We adapted. We pulled through. We grew and we became stronger. Our class endured it all and we became unstoppable as a result.”
Hunter praised the students for drawing from their own strength and for their commitment to bettering themselves and their community despite injustices and tragedies.
“Despite all of the hardship in the world, all of the things that are used to tear us down – discrimination, violence and ignorance – this class became stronger, smarter, more tolerant and open-minded,” Hunter said. “Together, we fought all of the societal issues trying to hold us back. This amazing ability to prevail led me to conclude that our generation of free-thinking individuals will conquer a future that is free of these hateful societal implementations.”
Hunter said division is “the number one thing holding back our society,” adding that he felt his classmates and generation could work to be the solution.
“We’re divided by religion, race, gender, sexuality, class, and the list goes on,” Hunter said. “Why do we allow these things to divide us? Why aren’t we all just human beings? Is it easier to be hateful than respectful? It shouldn’t be, and I believe wholeheartedly that this class and this generation of individuals will be the generation that brings us closer together and closer to uniting us as human beings. Albert Einstein once said, ‘I’m more interested in the future than the past because the future is where I intend to live.’… Our generation of open-minded thinkers will open doors to countless advancements in society. There is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Valedictorian Mary Aker said that even though their time in high school was “a little unorthodox,” she was proud of her classmates’ perseverance.
She compared the students’ anxious anticipation of their next steps with how they felt as eighth grade students preparing to enter high school. Aker quoted Oscar Wilde: “I am not young enough to know everything.”
Aker also quoted Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, saying, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Aker suggested students reframe their thoughts to help calm axiety.
“First, acknowledge the moment we are in right now before it passes, before it becomes a new part of the road we walk down, a memory in the far distance,” Aker said. “It is here, unfolding on this stage, in real time. Tonight, we are graduating. It’s real, it’s exciting, it’s scary and it’s amazing.”
Aker also said students should welcome the freedom Kierkegaard observed.
“Secondly, we should take time to appreciate this anxiety,” Aker said. “That means we have a newfound freedom to experience and with this freedom, we can go wherever we want. We have everything ahead of us: college, careers, friendships and these new choices and paths are scary because we don’t know a clear way to choose. Which could be right and which could be wrong? But a clear path would be one that is boring and unrewarding.”
Aker told the students to appreciate the different versions of themselves.
“Tonight is a night to celebrate our past selves, present achievements and future endeavors, to thank this school, all who helped make it thrive, and ourselves,” Aker said.
Salutatorian Tiffany G. Ellsworth also had a quote for students: “It’s just a bad day. Not a bad life.”
Ellsworth said that quote helped her hang on during the “rollercoaster” of high school.
“Our class didn’t have the normal high school experience,” Ellsworth said. “We were at the end of our sophomore year when COVID hit. It separated our grade for about a year before we were allowed to come back and see each other again in school. Even with all of the hardships that COVID put us through, I truly believe it made our grade stronger and we learned to appreciate more things in life because of it. Our grade is like no other, I must say. At times when I thought our grade was so separated, we were all so, so close.”
Ellsworth said that during a time of heightened stress, she has noticed compassion from her classmates.
“I truly believe that any of us would do anything for each other,” Ellsworth said. “We noticed when each other was upset by a simple look in the hallway, and we always did our best to pick each other up. Living in a small town is like a double-edged sword. Yes, everyone may know everything about each other, but the bonds and friendships you’re able to form make it all worth it. We helped each other on those bad days so they didn’t become bad lives.”
Ellsworth said she wanted to make the most of her final year of school and made changes to “make it memorable.”
She encouraged her classmates to also be bold even when they are scared.
“Mistakes are how you learn lessons, and if you don’t learn lessons, how are you supposed to grow as a person?” Ellsworth mused. “The most important thing I took out of my senior year is that your mistakes don’t define you.”
Ellsworth left the audience with a final quote.
“To the class of 2022: I have grown up with most of you since kindergarten,” she said. “You have truly become my best friends. I found a quote that I think accurately describes how hard this moment is for all of us and it is one by one of our childhood favorites. It reads, ‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?’ (from) Winnie the Pooh.”
Brian McDowell, principal of Fairfield Area High School, told the community that they were responsible for helping every student succeed.
“Like I just said to the faculty: it takes all of us for these fine young folks to be successful,” McDowell said. “We had 91 eligible to graduate. Ninety-one graduated. That’s a testament to them and, really, I think, to all of us rowing the boat in the same direction, so to speak.”
During the event, the concert choir sang the alma mater, “America,” and “For Good” from the musical, Wicked.
Jennifer I. Holz, president of the school board, and Thomas J. Haupt, superintendent of the district, also joined the students on stage as the graduates received their diplomas.
Featured Image: Kaden L. Hunter addresses his classmates.
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.