Old Orchard Beach class of 2020 valedictorian Vernon Wells speaks during the video graduation ceremony. Courtesy photo

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — This school year ended differently than any other school year in modern history. The coronavirus global pandemic kept  most Maine students out of the classrooms and distance learning from mid-March with the projected return date not until September of the upcoming school year. For those graduating seniors of the class of 2020, their last year was very different than those before them, missing the last few months of spending time with long-term friends, favorite teachers, participating in sports and extracurricular activities and milestones they looked forward to for years like proms, parties and more. Because of continuing social distancing restrictions ordered by Gov. Janet Mills, limiting social gatherings to a maximum of 50 people, graduation ceremonies have had to be rethought and adapted for the current unusual times in which we’re living.

The graduating class of Old Orchard Beach High School, like graduates at all local high schools, did things differently this year. But despite that, many of the messages by speakers to the graduates were similar to those of years past.

A virtual graduation ceremony took place at 2 p.m. Sunday June 7, with the presentation of the 42-minute Old Orchard Beach High School graduation video to graduates and the public for viewing and celebration. The link was posted on the RSU 23 and OOBHS website and sent by email to all students and parents. The video was professionally filmed and edited and provided to all OOBHS graduates as a lifelong keepsake.

On the morning of June 7, students and their families (up to 10 people) had the option of going for a 10-minute photo-op and diploma pick-up at the Seaside Pavilion. Photos were free to families. Social distancing guidelines were followed, and visitors were required to wear cloth face coverings although graduates were allowed to remove masks for the walk across the stage, when they received the diploma and the picture, Principal and RSU 23 Superintendent John Suttie said.

In the opening of the video, Suttie dressed casually and seated outside the school on a sunny day, addressed the students and their families noting the difference and difficulty of the 2020 graduation from those prior.

“We wish we could all be together today,” he said, “but because of the worldwide pandemic … we have to be in our own spaces.”

However, he said, “That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate,” adding that the keepsake video all graduates received is something “that no one else has ever had.”

After Suttie’s introduction, Gabriel LaSalle, 2021 class president, welcomed people to the video ceremony and led the Pledge of Allegiance,

Next, class salutatorian Caitlin Perrigo shared the very personal story about her disappointment that after years of putting her social life on hold and working hard as a student, she didn’t get into any of her top choice colleges. When school closed in March, she said, at first she thought why bother to continue to do school work. But she did and said she found comfort in the routine. In addition, Perrigo said, “this time in quarantine was used to learn how to cope.”

“I hope to look back on these days as a time of growth and perseverance,” she said.

Despite her personal chagrin, Perrigo said she knew she and her classmates could move forward and succeed. “After all,” she said, “we’re the the senior class that persevered through a global pandemic.”

Valedictorian Vernon Wells talked about home and identity. He shared about his love of his home in Ocean Park as well as his home where his mother is from in the Philippines. But he also spoke about his angst surrounding his identity, the insults hurled at him because of his mixed race and his own desire at the age of 8 to grow up to be white.

Wells asked, “Why am I and others like me considered foreigners in our own homes?”

To his classmates, he gave a message that was positive. “It’s OK to be who you are,” he said.

A musician, Wells used a musical analogy, “our song is strengthened by our unity, our shared roots and our collective determination leading us into the future.”

Old Orchard Beach High School biology teacher Jason Henry, and his infant daughter, address the class of 2020 during a video ceremony. Courtesy photo

Speaker Jason Henry, an OOB biology teacher, who appeared on stage holding his infant daughter, Mave, both dressed in cap and gown, gave a traditional speech with words of advice and encouragement for the graduates.

“Being challenged encourages personal reflection and growth,” he said.

Henry called the seniors weird, adding, “I respect that.”

“Many of history’s greatest innovators and creative thinkers were not afraid to take risks, deviate from the norm and be considered weird,” he said.

Henry spoke of the importance of gratitude, saying “it’s embedded in our genes” and that scientific research shows that gratitude is a predictor of happiness.

To the graduating class, he said, “appreciate the value of hard work,” to “persevere” and “be kind.”

“Set lofty goals,” Henry said. “Be realistic about where you’re at be unrealistic about what you can do.”

The video included photos of each of the 42 graduates and Suttie noted their plans for the future.

The video concluded with short snippets of messages from many of the class of 2020. Some graduates lamented the changes made necessary by the threat of COVID-19, but even while expressing regret most chose to focus on the positive.

One senior who said, “I’d like a normal senior year but we’re all strong and we’ll get through it.”

“I hope everybody has a good life,” said another, adding “we did it guys.”

To view the Old Orchard Beach High School Class of 2020 graduation ceremony, visit https://vimeo.com/426226745/47dfb80d6b.

Staff Writer Tammy Wells contributed to this story.

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