In a reflective and overwhelmingly hopeful ceremony, united as one after a long year of pandemic stress and uncertainty, the high school’s Class of 2021 graduated on June 25 in front of their proud families.
Both of the school’s Academic Leaders, valedictorian John “JR” DiBenedetto and salutatorian Giavanna Genna, considered how the many challenges faced by the Class of 2021 were an important source of growth and maturity.
“Our class faced a lot of hardship and uncertainty this year,” Genna said. “We were dealt cards unlike any graduating class before, but in everyone’s hand, there was a hidden ace. We were thrown into an untraditional year, yet we still came out on top. I’m proud of the resilience and perseverance our class has demonstrated this year. We didn’t just settle with what we were given. We fought back and made our voices heard. I know many of you want to look back on the outcome of this year with resentment, but I urge you to consider all the lessons that we now carry with us from graduating in such a trying time. These lessons are what I believe led me through the toughest year of my life, and are the tools you must take with you in order to succeed in life’s most unforgiving challenges.”
“Every one of us here today has grown enormously, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally,” DiBenedetto said. “This growth is a function of the choices we make. Each and every choice we make, and we make an innumerable amount every single day, puts on a different path through life, where we experience growth and hardship, joy and despair, and the combination of all of our choices has led us to who we all are today. Every one of us has gone through so much in the past four years, and although you may not realize it right now, you have learned so much about life that you can now take away into your future. Through all of the challenges that I have faced in the past decade, many being avoidable, I would not change a single thing that I have done. I have no regrets, because if I did, I would not have the privilege of learning all that I have, and I would not be the person that I am today.”
“Today, we have the opportunity to be part of the biggest cultural change the world has seen since the 1960,” said the high school’s principal, Dr. Anthony Bridgeman, before citing former University of Toronto Dean of Education Michael Fullan’s quote about every person being a change agent. “Change is a journey and there is no single solution. To effect change, we must craft our theories and actions by being critical citizens. Change is a journey, not a blueprint. So, continue to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, risk takers, lifelong learners, and inquirers. Continue to show empathy and care. Please challenge the status quo.”
“For 13 months, our high school campus, normally full of life, was relatively quiet,” Superintendent Bernadette Burns told the seniors. “It was not the way anyone envisioned your junior and senior years. But over the last three months, you have come roaring back – in true Lions fashion. Your class will be remembered for its flexibility, grit, perseverance, commitment and determination, all traits that will serve you well as you transition to adult life and all of its responsibilities. In my travels throughout the district this year, I have found that the happiest and most content people are those who share how appreciative they are for what they have, despite the unimaginable challenges some of them have faced throughout the pandemic. They have been a true inspiration to me. I hope that you surround yourselves with people who understand the value in being grateful, that you appreciate your past blessings, never take your successes and good fortune for granted, and always be optimistic and hopeful. That optimism and hope is what brought the Class of 2021 together, to celebrate as one, today.”
Finally, outgoing Board of Education President Steve Gellar addressed the assembled students, saying, “Class of 2021, facing adversity is an inevitable part of life. We all face challenges and hardships at some point, and how we deal with them will often predict our ultimate level of success. Those hardships usually come later in life, but as a group, you have spent the past year and a half overcoming misfortune that you had no part in creating. The reality is that you guys suffered through a lousy stretch. You lost almost half of your junior year, and most of your senior year was spent stuck at home on Zoom. But you persevered and overcame those hardships. I’m sure it seemed like the confinement would never end, but you were finally able to enjoy sports seasons, a prom and here we are, together, triumphantly celebrating your graduation from West Islip High School.”
The moment was sweet and well-deserved, as each soon-to-be-graduate received their diploma before turning their tassels, tossing their caps and walking out of Wayne Shierant Field at Alumni Stadium as new Lions alumni.