Jun. 2—Minutes before the start of Deering High School's graduation Wednesday, Vuyo Michaels waited excitedly at the end of a long line of students in their purple and white caps and gowns.
"It's been hectic," said Michaels, 20, as she reflected on the last year of school. "We didn't even know if we would have an in-person graduation. Classes have been hard but I've tried to be consistent and finish up. Us graduating right now, it just feels great to be done."
Wednesday's graduation ceremony at Memorial Field — the first of three graduations for Portland's high schools — marked the end of a challenging year in which students mostly took classes remotely and had limited opportunities to spend time together due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a sense of excitement could be felt as students gathered ahead of the ceremony, chatting and making last minute adjustments to their hair and attire.
"I'm a little nervous, but I'm just excited to be done," said Catherine Enman, 18. She said school was "crazy" during her senior year. "Graduating after doing a whole year online feels a little surreal," she said. "It's like we skipped all of senior year and now we're just graduating."
Guests at Wednesday's outdoor ceremony were asked to wear masks and to keep distance from other family groups. Purple balloons decorated the bleachers surrounding the field and people spread out on the turf and in the stands. Throughout the ceremony speakers reminded the crowd of the challenges endured by the Class of 2021 and the resilience they gained.
"We're very proud of you Class of 2021, for how you've handled this hardest of years," said Superintendent Xavier Botana. He said this year's senior class missed out on many of the most cherished rituals of junior and senior years and had to learn in less than ideal settings in order to preserve the health and safety of each other, teachers and families.
"I recognize how challenging this has been and am grateful for your patience and perseverance," Botana said. "You persisted and made it to graduation, prepared and empowered for the next phase of your lives and in overcoming all of those challenges and making it to this point you have gained great resilience."
Lea Yere, a student speaker, reflected on the events of the past year including incidents of hate crimes and racism that have taken place around the country. "We've seen concerning issues that have forced our generation to raise a voice for the unheard ones," Yere said. "Even if our actions were not big enough to make an appearance in the New York Times or on CNN it was enough to let people know we're with them and that their fight against injustice and inequality was our fight and still is."
She said she hopes the Class of 2021 will remember the strengths they've gained over the last year. "It's okay for many of us to not know exactly what we want to do after receiving our diplomas, but I know that our determination and our love makes Deering students ready to take on the world," Yere said.
Valedictorian Linh Nguyen thanked administrators, teachers and school staff for helping students get to graduation and said the diversity of the senior class has given her hope for the future. "I know you all have something to contribute because I've seen it all," Nguyen told her fellow graduates. "I've seen how you support your peers not just in the classroom but on the soccer field, how you work to better not only yourselves but others and how during the past four years you carried such perseverance, empathy and deep humanity within the walls of Deering. So, Class of 2021, what will your verse be?"
Graduations at all three of Portland's high schools are being held-in person this year. Last year, because of the pandemic, graduations were delayed until August, when drive-in ceremonies were held at the city's Ocean Gateway waterfront terminal. Both Portland High and Casco Bay High School will hold their graduations at Merrill Auditorium Thursday. About 500 students are expected to graduate across the three schools.
Michaels, one of the members of Deering's Class of 2021, said the last year has been especially hard as she was new to the country as well as to the high school when the pandemic hit shortly after she arrived from Zimbabwe in December 2019. "I didn't get to meet a lot of people or make friends, so it's still like I'm new," Michaels said.
She's now planning to study biochemistry at the University of Southern Maine. "I'm feeling excited today," Michaels said. "You always see this on TV — people graduating — but I'm the one graduating from high school now. It's pretty interesting."
Will Badalament, another graduate, said the last year has been frustrating but he was happy to be able to have a normal graduation. "I'm so glad to be finished and capping off the year in a nice way," said Badalament, who is planning to study behavioral science at the University of Maine. "This year has been frustrating and it feels like we've been kicked down at every turn but it's nice to finally get some sense of normality."