Matthew Dowell-Smith adjusts his tassel while walking to receive his diploma during the Portland High School Class of 2020 graduation at Ocean Gateway. Derek Davis/ Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

Portland’s three high schools held graduations during the first week of August, with outdoor ceremonies held at Ocean Gateway due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Portland High School celebrated its 199th commencement ceremony with 181 graduates in the class of 2020.

Class President Erin Chadbourne said students never guessed that when they left school on March 13 at the start of the pandemic, it would be their last day together. She said the phrase “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,” took on new meaning. But she spoke proudly of how the class coped and also reached out to help others. For example, the class donated the $800 it raised from an online silent auction – originally intended as a fundraiser for such class events as senior prom – to support Black Lives Matter-Portland and racial justice.

Valedictorian Jean Wriggins said another phrase – “May you live in interesting times” – also took on a new meaning. She noted that the pandemic has caused great suffering and death and exposed inequities worldwide. But she said she was full of hope that her generation had the ability to face and address that and other challenges.

“We owe it to ourselves and each other to make ourselves and our community interesting in a new way,” she said.

Superintendent Xavier Botana told graduates he recognized the disappointments of the last months of their senior year.

“You missed out on many cherished rituals that you’ve been looking forward to for four years,” he said. “And you had to wait two months longer than usual to celebrate your graduation in this unconventional way.”

But Botana also praised the students for their resilience in the face all the adversity caused by the pandemic. He quoted Desmond Tutu, former South African archbishop, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who said: “A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry. It gives a chance, an opportunity, to choose well or to choose badly.”

Ten students were awarded the prestigious Brown Memorial Medal, unique to Portland High School. The silver medal was established in the 1864 will of Portland businessman J.B. Brown to honor his son. This year’s winners were: Jean Wriggins, Maxwell Brown, Amelie MacDonald, Jondall Norris, Emma Conrad, Alexander Chanis, Julia Ayer, Finn Katz-Cronin, Alexiis Fiore and Alex Millones.

Casco Bay High School held its 12th graduation exercises on Aug. 6 with 88 members in the class of 2020.

Class writer Siri Pierce recited a prose poem called “The Spaces We Create.” Joshua Mutshaila, class speaker, spoke of how welcoming he found the staff and students at Casco Bay when he came to the school as a sophomore from South Africa. He said the school taught him that “love and compassion have no limits.”

It is a CBHS tradition for each member of the class to deliver some “Final Words,” each graduate sharing a thought on topics such as life, their school experience and the future. Because of COVID-19, students’ Final Words this year were pre-recorded on video. The Final Words this year included: “I learned that to succeed you must accept failure”; “Instead of waiting for a Prince Charming to save me from a dragon, I decided to slay it myself”; and “Thank you for letting me be myself the past four years, in all the forms I’ve taken.”

The class of 2020 presented its gift to the school: seven awnings to enable the school to expand its outdoor classroom space.

In his address to students, Botana, whose son is a member of the CBHS Class of 2020, departed from his usual custom of quoting a famous writer, poet or statesman.

“Today, I’m going off script and I’m going to quote a wise and sage member of this class – my son David,” said Botana, who quoted his son as saying, “Casco has been a good school for me.”

“… I asked him why he thought that. And he said that the most important thing he’s learned at Casco is how to be a kinder and more patient person. He talked about how incredibly challenging it has been to learn side-by-side with people with vastly different life experiences and find common ground and joy in learning from each other.

“And to me, that was it. He named the essence of Casco: Get smart to do good.”

CBHS Principal Derek Pierce spoke about the importance of “truth seeking and truth sharing.” He said that at a time when society is grappling with the pandemic and political and social unrest, it is increasingly important for everyone to distinguish between what is false and what is the truth.

Pierce said it is a lesson that the graduates learned well.

“If the class of 2020 persists in its truth-seeking and truth-sharing, and if we follow their lead, then the truths of tomorrow can become better than the truths of today,” he said.

Deering High School held its 146th exercises Aug. 6, graduating 230 members of the class of 2020.

Student speakers focused their remarks on inequality and injustice. Selam Desta, a student leader and social justice advocate, observed that the ceremony was being held on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law Aug. 6, 1965. But she said that today voting rights are still a problematic issue for people of color and that there are more Black men in prison today than were enslaved at the time of the Civil War. She urged her fellow classmates to vote. She quoted the late civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who said that voting is the “the most powerful non-violent tool we have.”

Class Salutatorian Glynis O’Meara began her talk by saying that Tamir Rice – a 12-year-old Black boy killed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014 by a white police officer – would have been part of the nation’s class of 2020 had he not died. Racism is entrenched in every facet of society, including education, health and housing, O’Meara said. She said statistics show that a white person born in 2001, as many in the class were, can expect to live five years longer than a Black classmate. She said that she and other white people must realize that “the system is rigged for our benefit.” She urged classmates to “show up on Election Day and every other day … We cannot be silent or neutral about racism.”

Valedictorian Sarah Wriggins said that the only way to solve the multitude of problems facing society and the world today was by working together. She urged the class of 2020 to continue to learn about the issues and to listen to each other.

“Make our planet happier and healthier,” she said.

Botana recognized graduates’ disappointment on missing “out on many cherished rituals that you’ve been looking forward to for four years” and for having to celebrate in a parking lot in an “anything but traditional” ceremony.

But he praised the class for persevering through the daunting challenges imposed by the pandemic.

“We are very proud of you, Class of 2020, for not only succeeding in graduating from high school, but for the way you have conducted yourselves during this unprecedented time,” Botana said.