Portland High School celebrated the resilience and success of the class of 2021 – and the institution itself – during the school’s 200th commencement ceremony Thursday at Merrill Auditorium.

Many remarked on the joy of being able to gather and observe a major milestone together after being separated for much of the past year and missing many other traditional high school events because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Valedictorian Charlotte Lachance recalled how students attended classes online, suffered through sickness and loss, and forged ahead with college applications amid widespread uncertainty. And some put off making future plans until choices become more clear.

“We have done our fair share of waiting,” Lachance said. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of waiting.”

Valedictorian Charlotte Lachance delivers her speech during Portland High School commencement at Merrill Auditorium on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Lachance noted that Portland High students have persevered during hard times throughout history, including the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, economic recessions and other pandemics. Many in the class of 2021 participated in Black Lives Matter marches and are active in fighting climate change, she said, contributing to the hope and excitement she has for the future.

“We have the ability to make the world a more equitable place,” Lachance said.

It was sunny, warm and breezy when 180 graduates streamed into the auditorium late Thursday morning wearing masks with their caps and gowns. The boys also wore boutonnieres and the girls carried single long-stemmed red roses. Family members and friends in the audience, also wearing masks, applauded and cheered when students seated on the stage received diplomas and special awards.

Portland Public Schools graduated 482 traditional students this year. Deering High School held its commencement ceremony for 213 graduates Wednesday at Memorial Field. Casco Bay High School in Portland was scheduled to honor 89 graduates Thursday evening at Merrill. Portland Adult Education will hold its graduation ceremony on June 24 at Merrill for students who have attained a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Last year, the school department delayed graduation ceremonies until August, when each high school hosted a drive-in ceremony at the Ocean Gateway terminal that was broadcast live on a local radio station.

Benedita Zalabantu recites a poem during the Portland High School graduation Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Superintendent Xavier Botana pointed out that holding Portland High’s commencement in Merrill Auditorium, next door to City Hall and the high school, is a long-standing tradition that didn’t happen last year.

“I am so glad that is one important ritual that the pandemic did not upend this year,” Botana said. “You have missed out on many of the cherished rituals of senior and junior years. You have learned in settings that were less than ideal – cramped at times, unstable at times, lonely most of the time. And we have asked you to sacrifice in order to preserve the health and safety of your classmates, your teachers and your families.”

Botana noted that 32 graduates this year received STEM endorsements on their diplomas, recognizing their accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and 19 received a Seal of BiLiteracy for mastering English and at least one other world language.

Botana concluded his remarks by saying “Congratulations!” in several languages, recognizing the many languages spoken by students in Portland schools.

Principal Sheila Jepson delivered a short history of Portland High, which is one of the oldest high schools in the United States. Founded in 1821 as a school for boys, it later welcomed girls who attended classes in a separate area of the building. Famous graduates include explorer and Navy Adm. Robert Peary and Oscar-winning director John Ford.

Jepson bestowed Brown Medals to 11 outstanding scholars: Charlotte Lachance, Meg Baltes, Jack Mahoney, Brendan Mailloux, Zoe Cheever, Kathleen Spear, Emily Pozzy, Lydia Stein, William Ferros, Cooper Bay and Andrew Leonard.

New Portland High School graduate Juliette Aliyah hugs a friend after the school’s 200th commencement ceremony. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Baltes spoke twice, as class president and salutatorian. She described the past year as “rough,” not only because of the pandemic, but also because of divisive politics and heated protests. She said she’s learning to be OK with “the unknown.”

“It’s OK to feel lost,” Baltes advised her fellow graduates. “You don’t need to stick with one path. … Take it one day, one moment, one choice at a time. … Stay curious, stay empowered and stay true to yourself.”

Benedita Zalabantu, whose poem, “Drop of Melanin and Blood,” won a national Gold Medal for poetry in the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, delivered an untitled poem for her fellow graduates.

Untitled Poem
By Benedita Zalabantu

Allow yourself to be curious,
Allow yourself to explore,
Allow yourself to be furious but also allow yourself to endure.
We are gathered here today to celebrate the accomplishments as well as the time we have all failed.
We are here today to celebrate you.

Class of 2021, I can confidently say that this was a hectic high school experience.
And, it is certainly nowhere close to what High School Musical depicts it to be.
Because high school is not a musical.
It is not about teenagers who sing and fall in love while they move through life in high school, summer jobs and college.
Because the last time I checked, I cried countless times on this journey.
I’ve been longing for the moment, we could jump onto chairs and sing “We’re all in this together” when sometimes it did not feel like we were all in this together.

We’ve all walked the hallways of PHS on our first day, unaware that this was how we’ll be celebrating our graduation, celebrating us.
We too are like leaves.
We take on random journeys and often we have no choice but to flow with the wind.
And, this year seems like a perfect example for that.

So this is for you,
This is for the pandemic that has turned your short nights to long ones.
This is for the nights with no lights, when frustration became your best friend and happiness almost seemed like your worst enemy.
This is for the never ending cycle of what was or is going on.
This is for the innocent and the not so innocent.
This for the ones who have seen, lived and tried
And, the ones who have done nothing.
This is for you.

This is for that one tear… the tear that mysteriously made its way to your lap without you realizing.
But countless times you’ve allowed that one tear to kiss your face.
That one tear was bitter but yet warm, it had flown with life but never had it taken any form.
This is for those who looked forward to tomorrow
And the ones who never did
For the ones who have gotten something stolen from them; Childhood, toy, happiness or even self-esteem.
For the things you’ve broken out of anger, walls, mirrors, people and yourself.

For the ones dealing with pain,
I hope you heal from the things you’re not comfortable speaking about.
And continue to ask the universe to make undeniably enough
enough for words, ,
enough for all the good things this earth has to offer
But I am here for you.
This is for you.

For those who don’t know what they want in life and those that do know.
Life will not give you what you want or
What you wish for, but instead it will give you everything you are fighting against.

This is for the empty seat at the dinner table,
You learn how to forget about those who have promised you forever, but never given you a forever.
For the courage that you’ve tried to build over the years but couldn’t.
For anxiety,
That has often stopped you from raising your hands up in the class when you confidently knew the answer.
Don’t let it stop you from becoming the person who you wish to be.
And remember, there’s a great joy in doing things people say you cannot do.

This is for those who have managed to build walls between themselves, acceptance and happiness.
This is for the apologies,
Ones that you’ve said but didn’t need to.
This is for the next chapter of your life,
remember when you hit, hit HARD because success is almost inevitable.
and, with enough hard work you will be able to accomplish it and be it.

In a world where we are fed and exposed to endless triggers, notifications, unlimited access and no boundaries,
Those who can develop their focus and manage their emotions will always have a self-generated advantage.

Allow that to fully sink in…

This is for the night with no lights,
when frustration became your best friend and happiness almost seemed like your worst enemy.
This is for the conversation you’ve had between yourself and your mirror.
On the silent mornings when the mirror does not want your name…
Please, remember to speak to it anyways.

 

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