Pomp for Class of 2020 given the circumstances

Posted 6/11/20

By LAURA WEICK During Warwick's high school graduations last week, rapturous crowds were replaced by empty auditorium seats. Temperature checks at the door replaced lavish, grand entrances. And instead of shaking a principal's hand, graduates nodded or

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Pomp for Class of 2020 given the circumstances


During Warwick’s high school graduations last week, rapturous crowds were replaced by empty auditorium seats. Temperature checks at the door replaced lavish, grand entrances. And instead of shaking a principal’s hand, graduates nodded or smiled while accepting their diplomas, avoiding any unnecessary contact.

“It wasn’t normal, it wasn’t like it should have been because of this whole thing, but we still got to walk across the stage,” Connor Eilinwood, a senior graduating from Pilgrim High School, said. “It was way better than just having a video to watch at home.”

In order to meet social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while still maintaining a sense of accomplishment, Warwick’s two public high schools held graduation by appointment. Toll Gate High School and Pilgrim High School had each of their graduating students walk alone across the stage in their school’s empty auditorium. A limited number of graduates would arrive during designated time slots to accept their diploma in front of their principal, vice principal and a limited number of family members. Each graduate’s walks were edited together to create a video of each school’s graduation.

Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon addressed both classes in a video, congratulating them on obtaining their high school diplomas. He emphasized the class’s resilience in graduating during a pandemic, and also advised them to use their experience to develop empathy and make a difference in the world.

“Today, I want you to also be the helpers of today and the future,” Solomon said. “Help make our community a better place. Help make our world a better place. We need people like you, young leaders, graduates of today, that care about our communities. If you see an issue that needs to be fixed, don’t just wait for someone else to fix it. Help find a solution.”

Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus and Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Phillip Thornton also spoke for both school’s ceremonies. They each discussed how the pandemic will be remembered in the future, and how students have proven their perseverance during it. Thornton and Bachus attended both graduations as well as members of the School Committee.

“My advice to you is to be yourself, to continue to persevere, not to be afraid of failure,” Bachus said. “Your failures make you smarter and stronger. They actually lead you to success.”

A total of 286 Toll Gate High School seniors received their diplomas on June 3 in a ceremony similar to that of their peers at Pilgrim. Students who were chosen to speak at graduation recorded videos of their statements. Valedictorian Kaylah Staknis, salutatorian Jaemin Hyun and class essayist Berit Ollson all addressed the pandemic, as well as what they each have learned from it.

“Take with you what has happened to our senior year as a lesson,” Toll Gate valedictorian Kaylah Staknis said. “Take moments to step back and appreciate the people and places you love. Stop rushing each weekday waiting for Friday. Don’t put off your happiness to the future. Tell the people that have made an impact on you how much you appreciate them.”

Ollson also advised her classmates to count their blessings and keep everything they experienced to heart.

“We cannot go back, we can only go forward and that is why it is so vital to take these lessons and sacrifices we have made today and broadcast them over the rest of our lives,” Ollson said. “I will never again overlook day-to-day human contact, or busy work, or avoid opportunities because I’m lazy. I think we are going to be an outrageously productive graduating class because we have lived through the alternative, a life with no purpose, and I have no desire to live through it again.”

Toll Gate High School Principal Candace M. Caluori told the graduating class that they always managed to persevere, from when the school was flooded by a leak earlier this year to the transition to remote learning over the past few months. Voicing school spirit and pride towards the students, Caluori reminded them to cherish their high school memories and prepare for the future. \

“Focus on the great times that you have had at Toll Gate,” Caluori said. “Focus on the hard work that has gotten you your diploma. Focus on your family. Focus on the teachers and staff, that have helped you throughout your high school career. Focus on your future. That future will look different for all of you. Regardless, the future you make will be yours and yours alone.”

A total of 349 students graduated from Pilgrim High School on June 4. Principal Gerald J. Habershaw gave a prerecorded speech to these students.

“To the class of 2020, I ask that you do not allow this experience to ruin your future hopes and dreams,” Habershaw told the graduating class. “I ask that you continue to persevere and attain your goals. Life will never be the same, but we must adapt in a positive manner.”

Valedictorian Jamee Salisbury, salutatorian Sophia Piperata and class essayist Marissa Birmingham were Pilgrim’s student speakers. They each thanked teachers, family and friends, while encouraging their classmates to look forward to their futures despite the pandemic.

“This disruption that we are experiencing is not our misery” Piperata said. “It is only our opportunity for comparison. It allows for every future celebration to be that much more joyful.”

After her graduation appointment, Birmingham reflected on her and her classmates’ ceremony.

“It was definitely different from what I expected,” Birmingham said about the ceremony. “But I know that they did the best they could in the circumstances, so I’m proud to have the experience.”

Birmingham will attend the University of Connecticut in the fall to study biological sciences. She explained that the pandemic has made her more determined than ever to succeed in her career interests.

“I want to be a doctor, so it has motivated me even more seeing the doctors going out of their way to help people, even if it puts them in danger,” Birmingham said. “I want to be like that too; cautious, but not afraid.”

Editor’s note: The Beacon will cover the Bishop Hendricken High School graduation that will take place June 26 that will start at the campus and conclude at the Aldrich Mansion on Warwick Neck.

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