As family and friends made their way to their seats at the San Benito High School multi-purpose field on June 4 for the 2021 graduation ceremony, the sound system played pre-recorded messages from the seniors.
“Hey, Mom, Dad, Faith, and Darryl, I just wanted to thank you guys for being so supportive these last four years. And I am especially happy to have you here in person for my graduation. Love, Chase.”
The words “in person” are key here. This school year saw the campus open to students for only the last six weeks. With regular school activities truncated or canceled, being able to take the field for this important rite of passage, an almost-normal graduation ceremony, felt like a victory.
COVID restrictions still ruled the day, with masks and social distancing required. Before the ceremony, seniors were assembled on the football field, each standing at orange cones that made them look like hundreds of chess pieces ready to move. Seating was assigned, with a maximum of four people per group and groups six feet apart.
But if any of those gathered at the campus multi-purpose field minded the limitations, they did not show it. The energy and emotion present in a customary graduation ceremony were clearly on display. There was celebration in the air from the moment the school band struck up “Pomp and Circumstance” to the final recessional as the new graduates marched back to the football field.
There were two separate but identical ceremonies staged two hours apart, with the class of over 700 graduating students split evenly between them.
The ceremony began with Eagle Scouts from the San Benito District presenting the colors and Senior Class Vice President Daniela Contreras leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Emma Zamora sang the National Anthem, accompanied by Isaiah Ramirez on guitar, and videoed American Sign Language interpretation played on the screen above the stage.
Colby Robinson began her welcome address with an acknowledgment of distance learning taking up so much of this class’s time at San Benito High.
“Our four years on campus, well, or two-and-a-half years on campus—thanks, COVID—went by with the blink of an eye.”
There were three co-valedictory addresses by Faith Fernandez, Robin Johnson and Jaya Waller, along with speeches by Associated Student Body President Alec Garcia and Senior Class President Kaiya Dickens. Katelyn Soteio read her poem “Epitome of Acceptance” and Yvette Fragozo sang “My Way” in English and Spanish.
Fernandez seemed to be speaking to the circumstances of the last school year, saying, “There are unseen barriers that have many names. Some call them challenges; some call them obstacles or even obstruction. But we must consider that perhaps they are there to make us stronger. It is within our own hearts that we will find the strength to break through any barrier life presents.” (Fernandez speech provided by Fernandez family can be seen on YouTube.)
San Benito High School Superintendent Shawn Tennnenbaum congratulated the class for its ability to make it through such a difficult year.
“Your strength to overcome obstacles, determination to persevere, your resolve to stay the course despite the most challenging of circumstances this past year,” he said, “reminds all of us to take the path less traveled and most of all to never, never give up. Graduates, it is because of you that it will always be a great day to be a Baler.”
Individual graduates were called on stage to receive their diploma cases from the Board of Trustees and returned to their seats to the applause of the spectators and their peers. Then the Scholar-Athletes of the Year, Sofia Lemos and Mack Richards, led the students in flipping their tassels to the other side of their mortarboards.
The recessional began and the graduates joined their families and friends in their first steps away from the school that had been their on-and-off home for four years.
Perhaps they were thinking about what Garcia said in his speech: “Today is the end of our journey together but it is also the start of our own journeys. It’s time to use what we have learned and apply it in our futures. It’s time to use our skills and push the barriers. It’s time to prove to the world who we are and what we can do. And it’s time to never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
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