Holyoke High School’s ‘Class of champions’ ready for next chapter

  • Some of the 272 graduates from Holyoke High School’s class of 2021 at Sunday’s commencement ceremony. STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2021 9:17:13 PM

HOLYOKE — Natalia Feliciano, a few moments away from receiving her high school diploma, described the past year as “rara, pero feliz” — “strange, but happy” — in Spanish.

She was one of 272 seniors graduating from Holyoke High School on Sunday, an occasion she felt lucky to reach, saying “después de tantas situaciónes, podemos lograr.” In other words, after so many challenges, the class of 2021 has achieved graduation.

A few hundred parents and family members arrived to the commencement ceremony at John F. Gilligan Field on the high school campus wearing T-shirts with the names of graduates, holding balloons, and the occasional umbrella for shade on a scorching hot day that reached nearly 100 degrees. Graduates were dressed in purple and white gowns, and were handed water bottles as they took to the field for their ceremony.

The occasion marked the first time the entire class of 2021 has gotten together in over a year, noted salutatorian Naressa Kempadoo during her speech.

“I had visions of an exciting senior year with all of us cheering at pep rallies, and dressed up and dancing at our prom,” Kempadoo said. “None of us ever imagined we would only experience these things vicariously through TV shows as kids, and instead, would face head-on a global pandemic in remote classrooms.”

She said that her class has probably heard the word “resiliency” enough times to “last a lifetime,” but she wanted to emphasize that it’s OK not to feel resilient. “It’s OK to mourn these things you’ve looked forward to since childhood and didn’t get to experience,” she said.

After a year of so much uncertainty, Kara McGuinness, this year’s valedictorian, concluded that it has been a year of “personal growth” for the graduating class.

“When we all entered high school, we were nothing more than tiny freshman going through an awkward stage of our lives,” McGuinness said. But with each passing year, each of us started a road of self-discovery, and began to find a place in our lives where we started to feel like the best version of ourselves.”

The road of self-discovery is one often fraught with failures, as acting Superintendent Anthony Soto highlighted during his speech. He gave examples of legendary figures who first had to experience setbacks before reaching the heights of success that make them the household names they are now.

Walt Disney got fired in 1919 from one of his first animations jobs at a newspaper because he was considered unimaginative, Soto said. Michael Jordan failed to make his high school’s varsity basketball team during his sophomore year in Wilmington, North Carolina. Thomas Edison failed countless experiments before succeeding at his numerous inventions.

Soto encouraged graduates to not let mistakes or failures hold them back from achieving greatness.

“In life, you are going to have to take risks,” Soto said. “With those risks are going to come failure and mistakes … Your attitude and how you deal with those mistakes is going to define who you are.”

Principal Lori McKenna called the graduates the “class of champions” for persevering during a tumultuous year.

“This year was a challenging year no matter how you look at it,” McKenna said. “We all had to figure out how to do school in a new way. Let’s face it, we all had to figure out life in a new way. That being said, the stakes were higher for you. This was your last year of high school, this was the final chapter in your high school career … You have endured a year like no other.”

As a parting piece of advice to the class of 2021, McKenna said, “Be proud of who you are. Do what feels right to you and trust your instincts.”

A special section with more graduation news about the Holyoke High School class of 2021 will be published in the Gazette July 2.

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