In Portsmouth: ‘We’re more than the senior class of the pandemic’

PHS awards 202 diplomas during maskless commencement ceremony

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PORTSMOUTH — Maeve Sullivan urged her fellow graduates to not let others handcuff the Class of 2021 to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21.

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RELATED: ‘Just be cool,’ guest speaker tells Portsmouth High grads

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“I know that in a few years, we are going to be labeled as the ‘senior class of the pandemic,’” the class president for the past four years said in her welcoming address at Friday night’s graduation ceremony at Portsmouth High School. “Although this may be an important characteristic of our time in high school and has influenced us in ways we don't yet know, we are so much more than that.”

She’ll remember her class as a group of students who inspired her every day. “Whether it was to work harder, be kinder, persevere through adversity, or simply to enjoy the moment, every day you all amazed me, made me laugh, and brought immense joy to my life, and, everyday, whether I realized it or not, I’ve found a reason to be grateful for being a Patriot and belonging to the Class of 2021,” Ms. Sullivan said.

Although many may remember this senior class as the first to finish an entire school year under the cloud of COVID — with remote learning mixed in with in-school classes requiring masks, sports seasons canceled or greatly reduced, trips and other extracurricular activities curtailed — at least commencement was mostly spared.

Last year, early on during the pandemic, graduation was held at the Newport Polo grounds, with students having to stay inside or nearby vehicles that were parked around the field. There were prerecorded speeches and videos, no hugging, and diplomas were handed out the following day during a drive-by ceremony.

Due to an increase in vaccinations and relaxed COVID restrictions during the last few months of the school year, however, graduation was allowed to happen Friday, with no masks required. 

Ms. Sullivan said she started her freshmen year at PHS with many expectations and goals, just like most students. “I had dreams of games, dances, and in a fashion true to myself, crowded and lively classes. Although this is part of what we got to experience, it is not close to all of it, because, as I am sure most of you will understand without me being too explicit, not everything goes according to plan,” she said.

That’s probably the greatest lesson her class has learned, she said. “And it's not just a world-shattering global pandemic that has taught us this, although let’s be honest, it sure made it abundantly clear. Ask anyone freshmen year who the best singer in our grade is, they would not have answered with the beloved Ellen Stack. However, Ellen’s sophomore-year, unexpected rendition of ‘Shallows’ proved them wrong,” Ms. Sullivan said. 

Another unexpected surprise came over the past year, which was “hallmarked by isolation,” she said. “Who would have thought that one of the final unifying factors for our class would be the ducklings in the courtyard? Our own slice of nature and normalcy.”

Ms. Sullivan ended her speech by asking everyone to take a moment to appreciate the “fleeting” time of collectiveness. “For nearly the first time this year and for the last time ever, we are all here together as class,” she said.

Graduation speakers

Two seniors presented the traditional graduation speeches — one chosen by seniors (Michael Nardolillo), the other selected by faculty (Meghan Lehan).

In between breaking up his classmates with his humorous anecdotes, “Big Mike” shared a more serious message — how the pandemic impacted him personally. On March 13, 2020, students learned that “spring break” would come early that year. At first, he and classmates were excited to be getting some time off, but excitement soon turned into anxiety.

“Like many others, my family and I were unable to see loved ones, which had negatively impacted my mental state,” Mr. Nardolillo said. “For as long as I could remember, my grandparents had a tradition of coming down from Boston every weekend for a farmers’ market. Losing that sense of normalcy made me realize that this was more than a few weeks off from school.”

His family owns Provencal Bakery, and many employees chose to take unemployment, which left him and his brother to run the bread operation for the next few months. 

“Juggling my school work and loaves of sourdough was draining,” he said. “My grades fell and I was feeling exhausted all the time. After a few months, I reached back into the empty depths of my large head to find the lessons of hard work that mommy instilled in me when I was a baby. We were able to persevere and get the business back on track.”

But then came “senioritis,” and by third quarter he had mentally checked out of school. Due to his poor grades, he was unable to compete on the golf team with his brother, he said. “In the past year, I managed to get myself in trouble with administration, my parents, the golf coach, and my teachers,” he said.

But now he’s grateful to all of them for pushing him to find a balance he desperately desired. “It showed me that they actually cared about me, and that is why they wanted me to do the right thing. They knew who I was at heart, but I needed guidance to get back on track,” he said.

‘Power moves’

Ms. Lehane urged her fellow graduates to perfect their “power moves” which, in her dictionary, is defined as “an action that instills power in oneself and/or improves the quality of life of the doer or their peers.”

Various members of the senior class have displayed power moves throughout high school, she said. 

“To name a few, for instance, Ellen Stack’s singing of ‘Shallow’ at the Best of Portsmouth competition sophomore year … was a power move,” Ms. Lehane said. “Similarly, that same day, Thomas Harrington’s hilarious comedy skit that had me trying and failing not to laugh as I was on video duty, was a power move. Mike Sheehan’s incredible performance as John Proctor as we read the ‘Crucible’ in 11th-grade English class — power move. Serena Mirisola sporting a suit and looking like an absolute boss to Homecoming court — power move. Tito Villacourta’s dominance on the Homecoming and prom dance floors — power move. And Sabrina Leary arriving to school in style with her leather jacket, Nationals’ track backpack and motorcycle — total power move.”

She gave a shout-out to her Granda Bob, who was in attendance. His big saying is “Worry ‘bout nothin’” — something Ms. Lehan wished she had followed during her senior year. 

“I wish that instead of staying home to have a mental breakdown over a project due later on that week, I had gone to see my friends participate in their senior night for their sport,” she said.

Not worrying about every trivial aspect of your life is a power move, she said. “Release your anxieties, and instead, make a power move. Dedicate this time and all times moving forward to being positive about not only the many situations in your life, but also yourself. Acknowledge that you have friends, family, and/or others to support you and who will be there for you, always, and lessen the burden of your worries.” 

Class gifts

Class Treasurer Megan Buddemeyer presented the traditional class gifts, made to pass along graduates’ legacy to underclassmen. In perhaps the most touching moment of the ceremony, she pointed to a pink chair that was placed next to family members of the late Hannah Wertens, a classmate who could not be there. Inscribed with Hannah’s name, it will be installed inside the school auditorium.

“Hannah Wertens lost her courageous battle with cancer, but her memory and spirit lives on with each of the 2021 graduates,” Ms. Buddemeyer said. “For those who knew her, Hannah had an infectious smile that would bring a spark to all around her. She was filled with enthusiasm and talent and loved the color pink. Hannah was very proud to be a part of the Portsmouth High School chorus and always dreamed of one day becoming a superstar after her time at PHS.”

As a final tribute, a recording of Hannah singing “God Bless America” at Fenway Park was played over the PA system.

For its second legacy gift, the Class of 2021 replaced the PHS Patriot Crest, which sits above the entrance to the school. “Many students have forgotten that it is even there, mainly because it’s so faded. We will restore the crest with the luster and vibrance that it once had so it can watch over all of the future students who enter the halls of PHS,” she said. 

The class also donated $1,000 to the Student Council, and another $1,000 to the Hero Squad campaign to further the Class of 2021’s support in raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Finally, seniors will donate portions of its remaining class balance to the classes of 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 “to ensure that these students have a fulfilling high school experience.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.