MRHS Celebrates 'Unprecedented Class Built For Unprecedented Times'

By: Kat Szmit

Members of the Monomoy Regional High School Class of 2020 toss their caps into the air at the end of Tuesday night's long-awaiting graduation. The event was held under the lights at the school's sports turf, where socially distanced students heard pre-recorded speeches and received awards and scholarships. KAT SZMIT PHOTO

Graduation at Monomoy Regional High School might have looked a little different than in the past, but when the Class of 2020 was celebrated Tuesday evening, it was clear that in spite of a surreal senior year, the graduates still had much to celebrate.

“We are an unprecedented class built for unprecedented times,” said Valedictorian Lillian Ryan as a blanket of fog swirled throughout Monomoy’s athletic turf behind the Harwich school. Because of the pandemic families were unable to attend; technical problems, not helped by the damp weather, delayed the livestreaming of the event, but the ceremonies eventually got underway

Ryan reminded her classmates, and those watching the ceremony via a livestream of the event, that they had already weathered much in their young lives, having been born not long after 9/11. Since then, as Ryan recalled, came other key moments in history.

“In elementary school we watched as flip phones turned to iPhones and whiteboards turned to Smartboards,” she said. “We saw the inauguration of the first African American president.”

They were stunned by Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, learning how a nation carried on, even as their high school years became a time of what Ryan called “consistent social protest,” through which she and her classmates stood strong on important issues in politics and race relations.

Then came the pandemic that changed the entire course of their last year in high school, offering school closures and a seemingly endless stream of unknowns.

“With everything else unknown, there is one thing we can be certain of,” Ryan said. “We will get through these trying times and the world will be better than it was before. I know this because during my three years at Monomoy this class has faced the chaos of a changing world, a world that often seemed daunting. Nevertheless, we faced the world remaining kind, productive and above all, passionate.”

Drawing upon the famous “Ask not” quote from President John F. Kennedy, Ryan said the time has come for today’s graduates to ask, “What can I do?”

“We must use our compassion, intelligence, strength, and passion and fulfill that duty with every conviction,” Ryan said. “We are important because we can make a change. There is so much that needs to be done, so let’s get to it.”

Student Speaker Emma Santoni echoed Ryan’s words. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined 10 months ago that we would end our senior year, our high school experience, in this way,” Santoni said. “We have spent the past three months dealing with changes that we could not foresee or control.”

Expressing gratitude for teachers, administrators, coaches, peers and school programs, Santoni recollected the accomplishments of the graduating class, from meaningful internships to the winning seasons of the school’s athletic teams, as well as the first unified track team, school trips to China, Cuba, Spain, and Iceland, and the impressive performances of Monomoy musicians in All Cape, Southeast, and All State Music Festivals.

“Seniors this year stepped out of their comfort zones to try out for the play for the first time, and the musical, and they joined sports teams hoping to try something new,” Santoni said. “Even when our class was facing the disappointment of ending the school year virtually, we chose to help our community by using the funds we were going to spend on our class trip with our senior class gift to the COVID-19 fund and the Family Pantry.”

Class President Rory Carpenter offered an optimistic take on the event, celebrating the fact that unlike some schools, Monomoy was having a graduation, and not virtually. Carpenter reminded his classmates that, while challenging, there were some good things about remote learning.

“A nice thing about virtual learning is that you could wear the same pajamas to class for a week straight and no one would be able to tell,” he joked. “[But] let’s hope we leave our virtual learning ways behind us as we head off to college.”

Reminiscing about the early years of the Class of 2020, Carpenter shined a spotlight on family members and friends that helped the graduates succeed and reminded the class that they made it to graduation, however unique it was.

“While this may not be the graduation many of us envisioned, the important thing is that we are gathered here together, just like how it all started out for us,” he said. “Our class merged together in 2014 in seventh grade. We have come so far since then. We have just completed the first chapter in our lives. The real fun is about to begin.”

Salutatorian Olivia Hart reminded her fellow graduates that simply being at graduation was important.

“Just you sitting out there in that chair is proof enough that you are strong, smart, and have the drive to do great things in life,” she said. “It is proof that every difficulty you face up until now, you overcame, and continued on with your goals.”

Hart urged her classmates to reflect back upon all their days at Monomoy, even those that seemed insignificant.

“I speak from experience when I say, it is all the little aspects of this place that will shine in your memory,” Hart said. “There will always be someone here for you, and it will always be your home.”

Principal Bill Burkhead offered appreciation for the efforts it took to put the graduation ceremony together, thanking the students for the patience, teachers for their unwavering support, administrators for the many hours put in, and many more in a long list of dedicated people.

The speech marked Burkhead’s last at Monomoy as he’ll soon depart for Scituate and a new job as superintendent. But he looked back on his time at MRHS with fondness and the Class of 2020 with admiration.

“Five years ago, as I settled into my second year as principal, a vibrant, energetic, bright, articulate, and talented group of incoming eighth graders filled our eighth-grade wing with high hopes and expectations,” he said. “You hit the ground running and never stopped. Your impact on Monomoy Regional High School has been monumental.”

Praising the graduates for their selflessness and integrity, Burkhead didn’t gloss over the impact the school’s closure had on the students.

“That day rocked our world,” he said. “The hammer fell hardest on our senior class. But you are Sharks, Monomoy Sharks, and you’ve been brought up at home and at our ‘home away from home’ to stick together and persevere.”

Acknowledging that was easier said than done, Burkhead shared a story with the class of how, five years ago, he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, requiring corrective surgery. Drawing on the sometimes blunt but caring advice of his father, Burkhead spent a few days moping before picking himself back up, remembering his father’s words that “you’re either the bulldozer or the pavement.”

“My life had taken a very dramatic change for the worse, but I was able to weather the storm and persevere through support and love from others, as well as purposefully deciding to be the bulldozer and not the pavement,” he said.

Understanding the challenges faced by the Class of 2020, Burkhead encouraged them to have faith.

“The moral of my story is faith, for this too shall pass,” he said. “Have faith in your values. Have faith that you are loved and cared for and have faith that you will change the world for the better. I have faith in you. Class of 2020, good luck and be great!”