THE 65TH GRADUATING class of North Reading High School experienced a traditional Commencement as the first class since 2019 allowed to have spectators other than immediate family attend. They were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers who packed the bleachers on a perfectly golden night. (Maureen Doherty Photo)
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — As the sea of graduates in green caps and gowns accented with golden tassels entered Arthur J. Kenney Field, two by two, to the familiar strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” last Friday, the smiles on their faces sparkled as a brightly as the golden sun setting behind them.
In front of the graduates, filling the bleachers to capacity, elbow to elbow, sat their families and friends, with dozens more lining the football field, all cheering them on with unprecedented enthusiasm; cameras rolling and “big heads” bobbing.
That’s when it became real. As the 161 members of North Reading High School’s Class of 2022 commenced their new lives as young adults as participants in this communal commencement exercise, they were not only leaving behind their old lives as high school students but also the COVID pandemic years that had so defined their high school experience. This is how it is supposed to be. This is what “back to normal” feels like.
Each of the two prior graduating classes had experienced their graduation milestone with unique “alone together” ceremonies.
Family pods for graduates seated with their immediate family members spaced out across the entire 100 yards of turf – without spectators and minus handshakes – defined a late July ceremony held for the Class of 2020. During what would have been their traditional Senior Week in mid-June “Diploma Day” family photo shoots were held outdoors when they also received their scholarships and yearbooks. And they had a town-wide car parade but no prom.
Loosened restrictions a year later enabled the Class of 2021 to enter the field two by two and to be seated together on the field – albeit on chairs spaced three feet apart while their families sat behind them in family pods. But again, the bleachers remained empty. They also were allowed to have a prom.
Last Friday night, all of that was a distant memory with the return of the traditional field set up that enabled the Class of 2022 to be seated together while faculty, administrators and School Committee members returned to their traditional seating arrangement behind the podium at the 50-yard line, and the full complement of the high school’s band, chorus and a cappella group could perform again side by side, opposite the graduates.
For anyone who had not witnessed or participated in the 2020 and 2021 commencement ceremonies, it was as though NRHS had never missed a beat following those two pandemic years. And that in itself is worth celebrating. Everyone could see the smiling faces of the graduates. Families and old friends could greet one another on the field after the ceremony, pose for photos and create new memories. And everyone could breathe a collective sigh of relief while getting on with the joy of living; of marking milestones; of appreciating the accomplishments made by each individual member of a truly remarkable class who learned young the value of appreciating what they have because it can be gone in an instant.
We’ve lost much in these past two-plus years; tragically, too many loved ones have passed because of it. The best we can hope for is that these life lessons will have as much of an impact on the Class of 2022 as their academic lessons did, and the perseverance they developed over these past two years will serve them well into a productive, joy-filled adulthood.
The 65th Commencement Exercises
After Class Marshals Rose Morelli and Tyler Craig led their classmates from Jon Bernard Way to their rows of seats on Arthur J. Kenney Field, the NRHS Chorus and NOTEorious a cappella group, conducted by Allison Kane, sang The Star-Spangled Banner.
In his welcoming address and opening remarks, Principal Anthony J. Loprete used the popularity of the word game Wordle as a reflection of the current state of the world with a constant influx of new words and meanings. Wordle, he said, has been “credited with boosting brain stimulation, fostering a sense of belonging, and getting its players reconnected with vocabulary” since its humble beginnings in Brooklyn, N.Y., in October 2021 to a world-wide sensation with millions of users in 64 languages.
“I posit that there is more to this Wordle-thing than at first meets the eye. The Class of 2022 is no stranger to words and meaning. As sophomores, you were thrust into remote learning, truly a first time for everything and everyone. By junior year, you were learning in a hybrid model. You were in a cohort and at every step along the way you coped and adapted and endured. Now as seniors you have returned, full in-person learning…. full in-person graduation. And I am proud to acknowledge… you do it really well. It looks good on you,” Loprete told the graduates.
“But hybrid, and remote, and cohort and in-person, these are not words that are typically identified as foundational elements of the ‘public school’ experience. Nevertheless, these words had meaning and you embraced that meaning. We all embraced it. And we acted on it,” Loprete said.
Loprete explained that the Wordle phenomenon stands in stark contrast to George Orwell’s 1949 anti-utopian masterpiece, “1984,” in which, he reminded the audience that “Newspeak” was “designed to diminish the range of thought.” It was an attempt by Big Brother to whittle down everyday language to a “small number of words, rigidly defined, and with all ambiguities and shades of meaning purged out of them,” he said.
“Your high school educational experience is a small but powerful example of the antithesis. Remote, hybrid, blended learning; newer concepts leading to new ideas and approaches. You have witnessed the power of words. But more than this, you have embraced the power of words. Your success and accomplishments not only prove that, they affirm it. State championships, national recognition, professional venues; you have excelled,” Loprete said.
Loprete also praised the students for their character, stating: “…as you, the Class of 2022, progressed through your education at North Reading High School you didn’t take from us, so much as you left for us. And you have certainly left us better for it.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick C. Daly’s address to the graduates followed. Taking lessons learned from the success of the Beatles, Daly outlined a series of advice to the graduates:
• Put in your 10,000 hours since there really are no shortcuts in life as those who appear to achieve “overnight success” have been preparing for that moment for years
• Remember the power of collaboration because “you can’t do it all alone.”
• All You Need is Love because “there is more that unites us than divides us.”
• Embrace creativity to “Fill our world with your creative energy and spirit.”
• Don’t be afraid to do something no one else has ever done because in order to live out one’s potential “you’re going to have to take some chances, to put yourself out there and not be afraid of failure. You also may find that you will change with the times, and so you should adjust but stay true to who you are.”
• Spend time with your loved ones: “Starting this evening, take that time to thank your family, and spend time with them. In a few years you will get to know the adults who raised you in a different way, and you should cherish all the time you have with them,” Daly said.
He recalled recently taking his family, including his 79-year-old dad, to see the latest Paul McCartney show because his father once remarked that it was the one concert he’d really enjoy. While it wasn’t easy to get his dad in and out of the park, it was worth the effort. “I had to remind him that the guy on stage was a few months older than he is. But we had a great time and made a memory that evening that will last a lifetime,” Daly said. The complete remarks by both Loprete and Daly are reprinted in today’s Transcript.
NOTEorious, the high school’s internationally renowned a cappella group and members of the NRHS chorus, then sang “Light On” by Maggie Rogers, under the direction of Allison Kane. They were joined by six seniors in their final high school performance, including solos by three seniors, Kathleen Leach, Edward McNeil IV, and John Pruisken.
Honor essayists Stephanie Stringer, Adam Bakr and Shivani Srikanth then addressed their classmates.
Stringer recalled how all her life she had enjoyed school and that being defined as “smart” had become so central to her identity that maintaining perfect grades had become an unhealthy obsession.
“As we all begin to encounter our next endeavors, whether that be furthering your education in college, joining the workforce, or whatever else you may have planned, I hope you have aspirations to strive towards and the intention of fulfillment in your life, but I hope you seek out your definition of triumph in a way that does not devour your mind, soul, and sanity. I hope you leave room in your life to live in the moment and appreciate what you have to live for. I’ve learned that it’s all about balance and I hope we all find it,” she said.
Bakr recalled a recent encounter with Athletic Director Dave Johnson who had made a point of telling him: “Thank you for being a Hornet.” This sparked his idea for his essay which he entitled “What does it mean to be a Hornet?” For starters, he said, “being a Hornet means much more than not wasting $50,000 per year for private school” because everyone’s personal work ethic has been the driving force behind their successes, be it singing and acting for five hours per day after school, pursuing their favorite sport five or six days a week, or putting in the extra effort on even a simple homework assignment.
“So, what does it mean to be a Hornet? In short, it means going the extra mile, learning from your mistakes, and overcoming adversity both on your own and with the help of others. Wherever life may take us, the things we learned at North Reading High School will make being a Hornet a permanent part of our identities,” he said.
“Being a Hornet means finding a way to overcome adversity,” Bakr said, recalling his own struggle to overcome a severe concussion last fall, which was made possible due to the extra efforts of his friends and teachers. “While I didn’t think I would overcome my struggles, so many Hornets around me swarmed to help me get back on my feet – and I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
“…The world may overlook our small graduating class, but I am confident we will set ourselves apart by embracing what it means to be a Hornet. I don’t know when, where, or how just yet, but I do know one thing: Hornet Nation will shock the nation,” concluded Bakr.
Srikanth reflected on her desire to “slow down time, and bask in the last vestiges of high school” and the community that she as come to know as home over the last decade, as well as her reluctance to “let go of my parents, too afraid to see the dying embers of my childhood fizzle out completely. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, although everyone I speak to seems almost too excited to leave high school behind. But, in the years I’ve spent in this town, I have found myself increasingly reluctant to move on.”
“As I wrote this speech, I wondered why I felt such a deep connection to this community– why I care so much about leaving it behind. It became clear very quickly– the people we are today, graduates headed off to college, or the workforce, or the military– have been shaped inexplicably by the people in this community. Like a weather-worn footpath, our personalities and our passions have been slowly formed by the people who have walked alongside us,” she said.
Srikanth added, “…to truly be a part of a community, you must impact it as much as it has impacted you. And I discovered that, in the many ways that North Reading has shaped me and my childhood, it has also allowed me to influence it back, though sometimes reluctantly. The work my friends and I have done in this community to push racial liberation and social justice, has given us a purpose in this town. We have been afforded the opportunity to form deep connections with the people here, those who support us in our endeavors to change our community for the better.”
Similarly, every member of the class has established deep ties to the community in ways that are of importance to them, she believes. “Whether you volunteer in youth sports, chair school events, hug your friends and family often, or even if you just worked tirelessly to keep your head above the choppy waters of high school. Without a doubt, I can say that as a class, we have left North Reading better than we found it,” she said.
A musical interlude followed the three honor essayists as Band Director Ben Owens welcomed the senior members of the band to perform one last piece, “Viva!” by Jack Wilds, with their younger band mates.
Class essayist Caroline Pecora then stepped to the podium to deliver her winning essay, selected anonymously by a panel of faculty members. Entitled “Explore. Discover. Conquer,” Pecora thanked her elementary music teacher, Christopher Tatro, for casting her as Mrs. Potts in the Little School’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” because this meant she had to both act and sing a solo on stage, in front of a crowd – something she had never done before or since.
“He encouraged me when I had little faith in myself. Because of him, I got up on stage and sang what I still imagine was a beautiful solo. But more importantly, I shocked a crowd of people, myself included, who were oblivious to this other side of me,” Pecora recalled. This boost in confidence proved to be beneficial throughout the middle school and high school years that followed.
“I learned that I’m invincible. I could do anything I set my mind to. I developed a sense of confidence to a degree unknown to me. As I transitioned to middle school, I began raising my hand more frequently and participating in extracurriculars like Peer Leaders. I continued to push myself as I moved into high school, experimenting with the wide variety of clubs, and discovering where my interests lie,” she said.
“As you move on from North Reading High School, continue to explore the world around you,” Pecora advised. “Grasp even the most outlandish opportunities. Join the beekeepers club at your new college. Sign up for a glassblowing class. Protest something. Meet new people and make new friends. Emerge from your shell! It’s not too late to learn what interests you. Who knows, maybe you’re an expert at free solo rock climbing. But you’ll never know if you don’t push your boundaries.”
All of the student essays are reprinted elsewhere in today’s Transcript.
The announcement of numerous scholarship awards was then made by Principal Loprete, followed by the conferring of diplomas to 161 members of the Class of 2022 by School Committee Chairperson Scott Buckley, assisted by Assistant Principal Hehn.
The senior class officers, President Luke Benecke, Vice President Adam Bakr, Secretary Megan Slattery and Treasurer Gianna Naulivou then addressed their classmates. The announcement of the class gift of picnic tables to enable students to enjoy their lunches outdoors was made. The officers then led their classmates in turning their tassels prior to their final unifying gesture of simultaneously tossing their mortarboards into the air, signifying their transition from high school students to high school graduates.