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PHS Holds 200th Commencement Ceremony

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PHS Holds 200th Commencement Ceremony
Posted on 06/03/2021
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Portland High School, one of the oldest operating public high schools in the United States, held its 200th graduation exercises on Thursday, June 3, at Merrill Auditorium. Although everyone wore masks to protect against COVID-19, the Class of 2021 celebrated being able to hold the historic ceremony in person at the beautiful venue. Last year, graduation was a drive-in event, due to restrictions on large gatherings during the pandemic.

This year’s ceremony, which began in the late morning, included remarks by Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana and Portland High Principal Sheila Jepson, addresses by students, and the presentation of awards and diplomas.

“This is Portland High School’s 200th commencement,” Botana said. “Ever since I began my tenure as superintendent, I have looked forward to being a part of this event. What a tribute to the long and distinguished history of this institution and its significance to this community.”

He told the 180 graduates that they were joining “a tradition stretching back two centuries.  Over the course of those years, as many students have marched across the stage as there are residents in this great city today. Cherish and honor that tradition and strive to always represent the best values of this institution in all of your actions from this day forward.”

He added, “Part of that tradition for many years has been holding commencement ceremonies here at Merrill Auditorium. I am so glad that is one important ritual that the pandemic did not upend this year. The rest of your senior experience has been anything but traditional. We are very proud of you, Class of 2021, for the way you have conducted yourselves during this hardest of years.”

He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England poet, essayist, and philosopher, who said, “We acquire the strength we have overcome.” Botana said, “In other words, the greater the adversity we face, the stronger we are for having overcome it. We know you are strong, Class of 2021, because you have successfully persevered through so much.”

The challenges the class faced included missing out on cherished rituals, learning in non-ideal settings and being asked “to sacrifice in order to preserve the health and safety of your classmates, your teachers and your families,” Botana said. “In overcoming those challenges and making it to this point you have gained great resilience. I believe you’ll find that being resilient is a kind of “superpower” that will benefit you not only in college and career, but also throughout your lives.”

He noted that more than 80 percent of the class applied to college, and that many are headed to institutions of higher learning, including great colleges and universities all across the country and in Maine. They won many hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. “An outstanding accomplishment!” Botana said.

Valedictorian Charlotte Lachance started her speech by telling classmates: “It feels amazing to be here indoors.” She thanked the school’s staff and teachers, saying it’s challenging to get through high school, even without a pandemic. “Without their support it would be impossible,” she said.

She recalled attending a seminar when she started high school that included a presentation on “resilience, grit and perseverance.” She said that, “as a naïve freshman,” she wondered about the relevance of those traits to high school. “Then a pandemic happened,” she said.

But with all the challenges and “each milestone taken away from us, we responded more determinedly,” Charlotte said. She noted that other Portland High School graduates have experienced many difficult things over the past 200 years, including wars and fighting for social justice. She urged the Class of 2021 to take the lessons they learned this year into the future and make the world a better place.

Salutatorian Meg Baltes said the experiences of the past year had taught her to be “OK with unknowns.” She shared five ideas with her classmates that she said have helped to ground her – take control of your life by making each moment meaningful; it’s OK to feel lost as you work to figure things out; focus on making one meaningful choice at a time; make your life stand for something; and “stay courageous, stay empowered and stay true to yourself.”

Class of 2021 member Benedita Zalabantu, who won a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national Gold Medal in Poetry in 2019, recited poetry she wrote for the class. Among the lines were: “This is for those who looked forward to tomorrow…This is for the next chapter of your life.”

PHS Principal Jepson fought back emotion during her remarks, as she told graduates they had “made it through a most challenging year…but you are here.” She gave a brief history of the school, whose roots date back to a boys’ Latin School established on Exchange Street in 1821. The current building’s history goes back to 1863, when boys and girls learned separately and entered through different doors each day, Jepson said. The building has been expanded and renovated since then.

Jepson said that throughout the pandemic, the graduates demonstrated traits such as kindness and compassion, energy and enthusiasm and used their voices to advocate for themselves and others. She told the Class of 2021 that they give her “hope for a bright future.”

Eleven students were awarded the prestigious Brown Memorial Medal, unique to Portland High School. The silver medal was established in the 1864 will of Portland businessman J.B. Brown to honor his son. Each year, 10, or sometimes 11, medals are awarded to top Portland High students at graduation – half to outstanding female students and half to outstanding male students. This year’s winners were: Charlotte Lachance, Meg Baltes, Jack Mahoney, Brendan Mailloux, Zoe Cheever, Kathleen Spear, Emily Pozzy, Lydia Stein, William Ferros, Cooper Bay, and Andrew Leonard.

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with 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 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced school meals.
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