Deering High School, one of the most diverse high schools north of Boston, held the school's 149th graduation exercises for the Class of 2023 on Thursday, June 8, at Merrill Auditorium. The morning ceremony included remarks by Interim Co-Superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend and Deering Co-Principal Alyson Dame, as well as speeches by students and the presentation of awards and diplomas.
Co-Superintendent Townsend told the Class of 2023: “We applaud Deering High School’s 121 graduates for reaching this milestone in their educational journey.”
Townsend continued, “We get to visit lots of different schools in our jobs and one thing we both notice every time we step into the Deering hallways is the vibrancy of the culture and the welcoming vibe. As a collective, you are empowered to use your voice, you value each other and your differences, and you understand that there’s room for everyone to be their authentic selves…We can assure you that this type of a learning environment is exactly what has prepared and empowered you to go forth into this complex world to make your mark and to stay grounded in who you are.”
He and Co-Superintendent Nalli said there are many examples of how this class “has made its mark in our community and on the Deering legacy.”
For example, they said, the class was the first to do Science Olympiad, the Trivia Team and participate in a NASA-sponsored satellite mission – and Deering High School Trivia Team took third place this year at the Maine State Quiz Bowl Championship. In addition, 12 class members graduated with STEM diploma endorsements recognizing their extensive work in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Also, eight students earned the Seal of Biliteracy for having attained mastery of English and at least one other world language. “The ability to speak multiple languages is an undeniable asset in the increasingly global world we live in today,” Nalli said.
The class also demonstrated concern for their community and social justice. For example, one student established a Best Buddies club at Deering this year, which fosters one-to-one friendships between high school students with and without disabilities. A group of students from the class made the Black Student Union the largest and most attended club at Deering. BSU students strive to create an inclusive environment where any Deering students are welcome to partake in events, activities and dialogues centering the experiences of black youth. Another classmate was very active in Deering’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club in working to effect change and greater understanding in the community.
Many members of the Class of 2023 mentored Deering underclassmen, and also Lincoln Middle School students after school. “Your positive impact on these students is a lasting legacy your class leaves behind,” the co-superintendents said.
Co-Principal Dame described the Class of 2023 as a “remarkable group.” She said that it was an “act of faith” when class members decided as eighth-graders to attend Deering, one of the most diverse high schools north of Boston, whose enrollment had declined at that time. “Deering is an amazing place to learn,” and the Class of 2023 made it even better through their school spirit and by creating community through the care they showed for one another, Dame said.
Dame kept her remarks brief because it is a tradition at Deering, a student-centered school, for principals to yield their speaking time at graduation to let student voices be heard. She was followed by two class speakers.
Anja Franck spoke first. “We did it,” Franck told her classmates. “I am so proud of you.” She thanked her family and Deering teachers, who she said “made us feel valued and capable of conquering what’s next.”
She asked everyone to pause a moment to celebrate the memory of Pedro Matala, a much-loved student and athlete member of the class, who drowned last July swimming in the Presumpscot river. Franck said he “brought joy” to the Deering community.
She said that COVID and online learning challenged the class but it made them resilient “because we learned to overcome adversity.” She also said that Deering “unites us together as one school…It encourages all of its students of various backgrounds to seek understanding and find community.” She concluded by encouraging class members to “spread peace and love.”
Patricio Miguel was the other class speaker. He said he at first questioned why school leaders gave him the opportunity to speak at graduation because he just came to this country from Angola three years ago and other students had been at the school longer and had better grades. “Maybe it was because I’m the most handsome graduate,” Miguel said to laughter from his classmates and audience.
Miguel said his family arrived just before the COVID pandemic began so he began high school life at Deering by taking classes online while living in a shelter for families experiencing homelessness. It took a year before he could attend Deering in person, he said.
But he found the school very welcoming and thanked teachers for pushing English language learners like him to join sports and clubs and be part of the Deering community. At Deering, he said, it doesn’t matter where a student comes from, what their background is, what gender they identify with or which religion they practice – “we are all one family, the Rams.”
Miguel also said he has learned that when given an opportunity, he shouldn’t ask “Why me?” but instead say, “Why not me?” He encouraged his fellow graduates to say, “Why not us?...Say yes to an opportunity you are given.”
Salutatorian Eliza Denecker spoke movingly of her younger sister, Alice, who died at age 10 after battling cancer for seven years, but who still was able to find much to delight in during her life. Denecker said that throughout her sister’s illness, she struggled to live in the moment as Alice did because she was so fearful of a future without her. Now, however, Denecker said she has learned to be happy again. “I barely remember my fears for the future. I only remember and cherish the times I had with her,” she said. She said she hopes to continue to appreciate the “beautiful moments to come.”
Valedictorian Asfia Jawed spoke last. She said she was grateful to be able to go through high school “with such an amazing group of students” that all supported one another. “I have learned so much from everyone here and I am excited to see where everyone’s aspirations will take them,” she said.
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.