Class of 2023 graduates toss their caps in the air after receiving their diplomas at South Portland High School’s graduation on Sunday. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Finnian O’Donnell, 18, stood in a hallway at South Portland High School with his fellow seniors Sunday afternoon, dressed in a red cap and gown, waiting for the start of their graduation.

The wait for him and the other 219 graduates was about to end, and a new chapter was about to begin.

“I’m very excited,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve been waiting for this a while. It doesn’t feel real.”

When he was a freshman, people told him to enjoy high school because the years would fly by.

“It’s over now,” he said. “It went by really fast.” His next adventure is the Maine Maritime Academy, where he’ll study marine engineering.

Nevaeh Bello, 17, was also all smiles.


“I’m lost for words,” Bello said. “I’ve come a long way. I didn’t think I would graduate, but I’m here. It’s a lot to take in.”

South Portland High School teacher Margaret Esten assists student Richard Hoeung with his cap at commencement on Sunday. Hoeung plans to attend SMCC for nursing. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

When the pandemic hit during their freshmen year in the spring of 2020, “a lot of us were in a dark spot,” Bello said. “It took a lot to get out of that spot.”

Bello will attend Southern Maine Community College to study auto mechanics. “We made it!”

Like other high school graduations held Sunday, the rain forced South Portland’s to be moved indoors, limiting the number of people who could watch the ceremony.

After students marched into the gym, they were applauded and lavished with speeches of praise. Some memories of the last four years are happy, others painful, some graduates said.

Every graduating class is special, but the Class of 2023 is especially so given the rough start they endured as freshmen, said Principal Scott Tombleson. No one could imagine that what started as a typical high school experience in 2019 would turn into something so abnormal. The number of days in the school building shrank amid shutdowns, isolation periods, remote classes, and wearing masks in small, hybrid classes.


This June, as the world slides back into normalcy after the pandemic but in other ways has become more chaotic, Tombleson said “we should ask what this group of 220,” a microcosm of the millions of U.S. high school students graduating year, has demonstrated.

They have taught us to never take anything for granted, that people are better when together, and that a community is critical, he said. And he predicted that this year’s graduates will lead through whatever new calamity comes along.

“They have taught us that nothing can stop them,” Tombleson said. “Class of 2023: Go! We need you.”

One of the graduation speakers was Eliza House, who shared that high school was not what she thought it would be.

She didn’t expect a global pandemic that left her unable to see her classmates’ faces until her junior year, nor did she expect to experience so much anxiety about going to school.

:Class of 2023 graduate Nevaeh Bello celebrates before walking across the red carpet at South Portland High School’s graduation on Sunday. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

She felt uneasy about lockdowns, not being able to see friends. When students were allowed back in the classroom, she felt overwhelmed about going to school and being in a crowd. She said it was hard for her to talk about her anxiety initially, that it didn’t seem normal. She bottled up her feelings until she started missing assignments and her grades suffered.


With understanding from supportive teachers, family, and friends, she advocated for herself and created a path to normal, and success. This fall, she will attend the University of Connecticut to major in biomedical engineering.

Then as the pandemic eased and schools reopened, there was a rash of school shootings around the country. Schools began to practice safety drills to prepare.

“Schools are supposed to be a place where students feel safe and can learn,” House said. Worrying about whether to hide or run from a shooter is wrong, she said. House and other students participated in the “March For Our Lives” movement demanding an end to gun violence.

So far, students’ voices have not been heard by many politicians, but House predicted that her generation, “especially those graduating before you today will make the necessary changes.”

Today’s graduates are resilient, strong, talented people, House said. She encouraged them to use the power of their voices and appreciate their successes.

“As you receive your diplomas today, I want you to take a minute to reflect on your personal experience in high school. I hope each recognizes your victory.”

Other high schools held graduations Sunday as the season commenced, including Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth. First-year Yarmouth Principal Patrick Harnett said 130 seniors graduated, and he credited the graduating class for being positive and welcoming. “I wish I had more time with them,” he said in an email.

In Falmouth, 160 students graduated, said Falmouth High School Principal Richard Gowers. Gowers said he is “justifiably proud of all that they have accomplished, and look forward to learning of all that they will contribute to our community in the years ahead.”

In Portland, three graduations are scheduled this week. Portland High School will hold its graduation Wednesday, and Deering and Casco Bay high schools will hold graduations Thursday.

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