‘Embrace the unexpected with an open heart’

PHS awards diplomas to members of Class of 2024, who started high school on Zoom screens

By Jim McGaw
Posted 6/9/24

PORTSMOUTH — Olivia Chaves said she values “cohesion, efficiency, and structure” as a classroom English teacher at Portsmouth High School.

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‘Embrace the unexpected with an open heart’

PHS awards diplomas to members of Class of 2024, who started high school on Zoom screens


PORTSMOUTH — Olivia Chaves said she values “cohesion, efficiency, and structure” as a classroom English teacher at Portsmouth High School.

But that got all derailed in 2020, she told the 186 members of the Class of 2024 during commencement exercises Friday night, as a worldwide pandemic known as COVID-19 had other plans.

“Instead of the traditional and quintessential start to high school … our first introduction came in the form of small virtual boxes on a Zoom screen,” Chaves told seniors, who for the first time celebrated their graduation on the athletic turf field where the football, soccer, and lacrosse teams normally prowl.

Chaves said she vividly recalled many of the oddball interactions she had with students during virtual learning. 

“Cole Hughes, when I asked you a question about the short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game,’ you replied that your mother was reprimanding you for eating M&M’s at 7:30 in the morning but that you would get back to me. We could indeed hear the commotion in your kitchen,” she said.

Other students did their own thing. Lila Kirwin, during a lecture on Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” accidentally left herself unmuted. All Chaves could hear was the loud crunching of potato chips, and when the teacher asked if the chips were classic or ruffled, Kirwin was mortified. Noah Chamberlain fried an egg on camera during a read-aloud of “The Odyssey,” and Nate Deconto entered each Zoom class casually bouncing on an exercise ball.

And then there was Renesha Duncan. “You attended in person every single day. After having everyone on Zoom sign off to complete their work, you and I would blast Whitney Houston and dance around the classroom in our masks,” Chaves recalled.

Although students and teachers made the best of a bad situation, virtual learning could be stressful. 

“Honestly, there were moments when I just wanted to call it a day,” Chaves said. “But all of you inspired me to stay the course and continue adapting, adjusting, and pushing forward. We did it together, side by side, and as a result, you shaped me into a better and more understanding teacher. You rose to the occasion, and I will be forever grateful.”

While she would have loved to give each senior a road map to their lives that “guaranteed personal comfort, security, and happiness,” that’s not how the world works, Chaves said.

“As you step into the future, remember that while you cannot always control external factors, you can control how you respond. Reflecting on our time together, I do not doubt that you will respond with grace, kindness, and determination to impact one another and your communities positively,” she said.“Embrace the unexpected with an open heart.”

Student speakers

Maggie Lauder, the Class of 2024’s president for the past three years, also reflected on the pandemic, which she said only unified the class and made it stronger.

“We have experienced adversity and abnormal circumstances that have shaped into who we are today,” said Lauder, one of only two 2024 U.S. Presidential Scholars from Rhode Island. “Our eighth-grade year was cut short, and we basically ended up having a six-month-long summer vacation. We came to high school disconnected, not knowing each other. We were physically in school only two days a week, and only with half of our classmates. For some of us this was a blessing; for many of us, this was challenging. But guess what? We persevered.

“We endured through Zoom. We endured through having four different principals — finally settling on a good one,” she said, referring to Jeffrey Heath. “Look at us now: We are more unified than ever before.”

Every graduation features two main student speakers — one selected by the seniors, the other by the faculty. 

Ben Norris, chosen by his classmates, said he’s moved nine times in his life, but Portsmouth feels most like home.

“I have never once been a part of a community where I have felt so welcomed and appreciated being just a stranger to all of you my freshman year,” he said.

Norris, who plans on studying architecture in college, used the concrete foundation of a building as a metaphor for navigating one’s journey through life. The aggregate — the rocks and sand that makes up the bulk of the mixture — represents kindness, he said.

“Just as the aggregate prevents the mixture from being more than just a sad, gray mush, kindness prevents your life, from being more than … a sad, gray mush,” Norris said. “I know from my end, that I would not be where I am today if it was not for the kindness of my friends, my teachers, and my family. 

He then pretended to mix concrete in front of his class, and presented the brick to PHS Principal Jeffrey Heath.

“In a time of confusion and discontent within our administration, you stepped into an incredibly difficult situation, and as far as I can tell, you’ve done a pretty good job,” he said. “You can use this as a paperweight or footrest or whatever you want. But this is your, and our, foundational stepping stone.”

Makayla Boxell, who chosen by the faculty to speak, talked about the profound impact the Model United Nations club has had on her. He and her twin sister, Keira, attended their first meeting of the club — a simulation of the United Nations that allows students to act as delegates debating various global concerns — during a Zoom call as freshmen, with Jack Cassady as advisor.

Four years later, Makayla said she’s spent more than 600 hours in debate at conferences around the East Coast, and one thing it taught her was how to really listen to other people’s opinions and concerns. 

“Listen to the people around you — your coworkers, friends, family, and even the people you dislike. In this day and age where opinions are like fire that threatens to burn down everything from relationships to the very fabric of our society, it has become more important than ever to do the simple thing and just listen. By doing so, you will be a more aware person and someone that is capable of fostering a productive society,” she said.

Disagreements will occur, but it’s nothing to fear as “compromise is an unavoidable fact of life,” said Makayla, who added it’s important to step out of one’s comfort zone, try new things, and be adventurous.

“You will never regret the choices you make that enrich your life. You will, however, regret not taking that step, that risk,” she said.

“Go out and change the world.”

Class gift

Ben Lopes, the Class of 2024’s treasurer for the past four years, announced the seniors' gift to the school community, which is an annual tradition. 

“Despite the challenges of entering high school during the peak of the COVID-19 virus, we were able to overcome those adversities and still fund-raise as much as any class before … if not more,” he said.

To ensure the graduating seniors’ achievements are not missing from the PHS archives, the Class of 2024 is donating a digital trophy case. “This large touchscreen TV will give everyone the ability to view any achievement, award, or sporting event, at any moment in the history of Portsmouth High School. We hope this trophy case captures the school spirit of all students who have come before and will come after us,” Lopes said.

The class has also donated a butterfly pin to every senior in honor of Kristina Caragianis, a popular English teacher who died of cancer in November 2022 at the age of 27. Caragianis graduated from PHS in 2014 and returned to teach English there in 2018. Any remaining funds will be donated back to the incoming Class of 2028, Lopes said.

The PHS Band, directed by Ted Rausch, performed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” with graduating seniors playing their final tune with the group. The PHS Chorus, directed by Shawna Gleason, performed “I Am Still Your Dreamer,” also featuring members of the Class of 2024.

Olivia Durant, class secretary for the past four years, led the Pledge of Allegiance. Sophia Karousos, the class vice president, introduced the guest speaker. 

2024 by East Bay Media Group

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Meet our staff
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.