Commencement ‘a big step’ for Holyoke High grads, families

  • Holyoke Superintendent Anthony Soto addresses the Holyoke High School graduating class of 2022 Sunday. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABADO VISCONTI

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia offers words of encouragement to the Holyoke High School graduating Class of 2022 during graduation exercises Sunday at John F. Gilligan Field. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABADO VISCONTI

  • Graduate Aritza Sanchez receives her high school diploma Sunday during commencement Sunday at Holyoke High School. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABADO VISCONTI

  • Holyoke High Class of 2022 Valedictorian Natalie Morris addresses the senior class Sunday. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABADO VISCONTI

  • Graduating senior Alexa Moran picks up her diploma Sunday during Holyoke High School’s commencement at John F. Gilligan Field. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABADO VISCONTI

For the Gazette
Published: 6/5/2022 7:42:44 PM
Modified: 6/5/2022 7:40:35 PM

HOLYOKE — “This is a big step,” said graduating senior Aritza Sanchez as she pulled into the school’s parking lot, “but what a beautiful day to graduate.”

Half her family is in Puerto Rico, she said, cheering her from afar.

“I loved this school,” she said. “It’s really diverse, lots of opportunities for kids to go to college.” Sanchez sees her future in real estate, “flipping houses,” as she put it.

There were some big families making the climb up to the Roberts Sports Complex, maybe none bigger than the Moran/Fernandez clan, numbering about 30, there to celebrate Alexa Moran’s graduation, led by her cousin Jacob Fernandez, 7, the only one dressed in dark suit and tie.

“I’m very excited for my cousin graduating,” he said, “and I like wearing my suit.”

Alexa, it happens, lives directly across the street from the school. Her mom, Wanda Moran, graduated from Holyoke High in 1992, but didn’t live across the street. “I grew up in South Holyoke — we had to walk!” As for her daughter, she said, “Sometimes she gets a ride, believe it or not.”

A seemingly endless parade of families families trekked their way to the bleachers and soon filled the stands like a Friday night Homecoming. “I hope they give us binoculars,” said one dad, looking out at the field where his offspring and 234 classmates would soon appear. The sun was shining hard, sparkling off the helmet of the Purple Knight who guarded the stage.

City Councilor Israel Rivera, a 2003 grad, stood with his family by the fence below. He was beaming about his daughter Mikayla Esquilin’s graduation, and he was fist-bumping with friends and constituents, feeling good about the city’s future. “We’ve got a new mayor, a new council, and a new generation of graduates,” he said.

With his charisma, you figure Rivera must have been a class officer. “No,” he said with a laugh, “I was lucky to graduate!”

Before a gantlet of smart phones, the smiling Class of 2022 strode out of the school in a purple and white procession to their seats on the field.

Principal Lori McKenna, who said she had to overcome the hunched shoulders and drooping posture of her youth, told the grads to “Walk like you own it! Don’t disappear into yourself.” Then, turning to face the families up in the stands, she remarked, “You have been by their side all through this tough time. Thanks for partnering.”

To keep getting up after being knocked down was a theme throughout the ceremonies.

“Eleven years ago I applied for a job here but didn’t get it,” said Superintendent and Holyoke grad Anthony Soto. “They said I was not qualified. So I went back to work and worked hard, and now I address you as a superintendent of schools.”

He also warned against hanging with those who might bring you down. “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future,” he said.

Valedictorian Natalie Morris paused her speech with a 21-second moment of silence for the shooting victims in Uvalde, Texas. She then told of how she was inspired by the work of Keith Haring, “a queer American artist just like me.” To her classmates she cried, “We will always be Knights!” Then she quickly left the stage to join the Combine Chorus in “You Will Think of Me.”

Perseverance Speaker Jacob Sylvain was fed up with school not too far into freshman year. “I walked out swearing and yelling at Principal McKenna,” he said. “But McKenna wasn’t mad — she just wanted me to sit and talk. I knew then that the school had my back.”

McKenna’s tenacity was also mentioned by Mayor Joshua Garcia. “Not only did you graduate high school, you made it past McKenna!” he remarked.

Garcia, a 2004 grad, told about getting into a fistfight in the cafeteria and being suspended for two weeks. “I came home and told my mother, who told me (in Spanish now) ‘to go get the chancleta,’” he said as his audience roared in knowing laughter at his punishment.

“You had quite an education beyond the classroom, with what goes on in this city,” Garcia said. “As Holyokers, you’re more prepared, you’re tougher, hungrier … and most of you are bilingual, which is extremely valued. And you’re already well traveled, with the different cultures, the different food.”

Garcia mentioned great Purple Knights he had played with, including Max Perez, whose 1,000-point banner hangs in the gym, not far from his newly graduated daughter Yamaya’s. Added Garcia: “And Joey Scott Sr., a great athlete, whose life was ended by gun violence, but is smiling down at his son Joseph today.”

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