Bedford High School’s 66th commencement on Thursday was a symbolic declaration of turning the page.
As freshmen, members of the BHS Class of 2023 were swept up in the sudden lockdown of March 2020. And as sophomores and juniors, the high school experience swayed and staggered through the exigencies and allowances dictated by public health officials – face masks, social-distancing, lunch outside, remote and hybrid classes, a compromised quality of high-school life.
And then, as the disease waned, the sun started to emerge at the transition into senior year, so that Principal Heather Galante could declare to the 200 seniors, “You persevered through all of the uncertainties. You have been truly resilient and emerged more unified in your love for BHS and more connected as a class.”
Indeed, the 11-minute video at the end of the ceremony, created by teacher Jillian Butler, was a collage of student faces and Covid-19 relics – empty classrooms, stark memoranda, social distancing, face coverings, and a parody of a primitive administrators’ meeting on Zoom, complete with creepy music.
Thursday’s commencement took place in the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s Tsongas Center. Two decades ago, the ceremony would have been held on the scorching football field – or in the gymnasium with limited seating and no air-conditioning.
The two primary speakers at commencement both focused on the future.
Que’Mya Brewster, who presented the senior graduation essay chosen by administrators and teachers, used her name as a metaphor for self-awareness, growth, identity, and personal pride.
She recounted that as a new student at John Glenn Middle School, she streamlined her first name to Mya after people struggled with the pronunciation of her full name. “It was easier to make friends as Mya because she could introduce herself and move on.”
But she realized, Brewster said, that “I had stripped myself of my uniqueness, my true identity, my self-love, my strength. I had taken a beautiful and original name, broke it in half, and presented that half to the world, not realizing that with only half my name, I wasn’t my full self.”
“Our names are not just letters with sounds,” said Brewster, who will study nursing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “They’re symbols of our identities and representations of our personalities
“Make the world say your name and make the world say it right,” she implored her classmates. “Let the world honor and respect you and all you are. Own your name and own it with pride.”
As a new BHS alumnus, Brewster said, “It’s a chance for a fresh start in a new chapter. It’s a chance for you to connect with yourself and share you and all you are with the world. It’s an opportunity for a clean slate to make a name for yourself.”
Brewster and Ryan Ferrari received the Principal’s Awards later in the evening.
Alexis Duffy-Protentis, who teaches in the science and wellness departments and is a former athletic trainer, was chosen by the senior class as faculty speaker. Anna Chong, class treasurer, introduced Duffy as “one of the most caring, loving, and passionate teachers at BHS. Ms. Duffy is the embodiment of a successful woman.”
Duffy presented a three-year retrospective of Covid-19 navigation in the BHS community, but her primary point was the value of being open to new experiences – or as she put it, “Say ‘yes’ more.”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have boundaries and not overwhelm yourself with yesses,” she told the class. “There is a delicate balancing act, one that you will only learn by saying ‘yes.’’’
The teacher acknowledged that “sometimes a ‘yes’ leads to a mistake, awkward or embarrassing moment, failure or heartache. There will be roadblocks and hurdles and maybe even disaster. But it is in these moments that you will experience profound growth.
“You don’t know where your ‘yes’ could lead, the people you could meet or places you could go,” Duffy said. She also emphasized, “Take every chance to say yes to time spent with the people that mean the most to you.”
In her opening remarks, Galante noted that 30 years ago, she graduated from Matignon High School in Cambridge, which will close this month “due to financial hardship.” She told the seniors that she hopes “it does not take hearing that your high school is closing for you to feel a small amount of gratitude for the time you spent here.”
She shared a personal high-school graduation photo on the arena’s overhead video scoreboard, and then featured a selection of suggestions for the future from other BHS educators – also accompanied by vintage pictures.
Included were art teacher Heather Beattie, world language teacher Carlos Caprioli, counselor Brian DeChellis, Sean Hagan, visual arts program director, and retiring first-grade teacher Susan Nocera.
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad, who is retiring from public education at the end of the school year, advised the class to “keep in mind all of the opportunities you have had so far to overcome adversity. Adversity happens. If we can see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, we are better off for it.”
Emily Kang, senior class president, began her welcome by saying, “Let’s take a moment to acknowledge all the people who helped bring us to this moment today.
“We are a group that thrives during chaos,” she asserted. “That chaos has made us resilient.” She urged her classmates to “keep searching and discovering more about yourselves. And once you find that thing that makes you happy, makes you feel special, incorporate it into your life and don’t let go.”
Culminating the ceremony was the conferring of diplomas, followed by seniors turning their mortarboard tassels to symbolize the transition to the world of BHS alumni. Then many of the seniors tossed their academic headgear into the air.
Many of the mortarboards were personalized, some elaborately. Some of the seniors featured their collegiate destinations – Boston College, UMass Amherst, WPI, Babson, St. Anselm’s, NYU, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Emory, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Indiana, Colorado, California, and many more.
Other seniors chose more personal statements, and they were wide-ranging, from “Still Totally Clueless” and “Who Let Me Graduate?” to “Bye, Y’all” and “Forever Starts Now.”