Class of 2021 perseveres through year of COVID to receive diplomas

BHS/EEHS graduation was held in person at the football stadium

After an uncharted school year filled with uncertainty and angst that required patience and flexibility, graduates of Bainbridge and Eagle Harbor high schools enjoyed an in-person commencement ceremony Saturday.

They felt fortunate as last year’s grads didn’t receive their diplomas that way due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The ceremony at BHS Stadium, although with capacity and distancing measures in place, was a welcomed and much-anticipated site to graduates, staff, family, and friends in attendance. Each graduate was only allowed two tickets for family members to watch in person. The ceremony was broadcast on the school district’s website for those who couldn’t make it.

Due to the ticket limit, people lined up outside the stadium fence and a couple of students sat on top of the baseball dugouts across the field to get their best glimpse of the event.

In total, 372 seniors walked across the stage — 345 from BHS and 27 from EHHS. Of the graduates, 123 earned National Honor Society, 73 earned the Washington State Honors Award, 21 received the state Principal Scholars Award, 24 were named National Merit Commended Students, six were National Merit Scholars and 17 earned an Associate of Arts degree through the Running Start program.

The 15 valedictorians for the class of 2021 were: Marcella Burkard, Benjamin Chapman, Cora Cole, Elana Conklin, Veronica Conklin, Anna Galbraith, William Galvin, Meryl Hubbard, Mitchell Milander, Audrey Nelson, Emerson Nicholas, Elli Prickett, Owen Rector, Tyler Stewart and Alexander Treskin.

The event began with the class walking to their seats to a tune by the BHS band. Before the proceedings began a moment of silence was observed for BHS students Hannah Wachsman, Marina Miller and Hazel Kleiner, who tragically died in a car accident in March.

The first student speaker was senior Samantha Holt who provided a message of hope.

“The past year-and-a-half has taught us all many lessons, some of which were more difficult to accept,” she said. “However, we all learned one lesson that was especially important: to have hope. The class of 2021 knows that better than anyone. The path we could see so clearly suddenly became blurred. Everything we did was seemingly halted overnight. The worst part was we didn’t know when it was going to end.

“Our already brief four years of high school felt like it was being cut short,” Holt went on to say. “That is what makes high school so valuable, that it doesn’t last forever. The class of 2021 became closer than ever when everything seemed to be falling apart. We will always carry a piece of that into who we are and to who we will become.”

After a quick class greeting by the valedictorians followed by the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner and a performance by Milander and John Muir, graduate Mataya George gave a speech about the importance of always being kind.

“Like most of us, I am only 18-years-old,” she said. “I will not stand up here in front of you and your families and pretend that I know everything about life. What I do know, however…is that choosing to be kind in every situation you are presented with is one of the most simple yet significant things you can do. You will never lessen your pain while inflicting it upon others.”

After a few more performances, including an incredible performance “Moonlight” by seniors Carmen Shelton-Jenck and Declan McLennan, who wrote the songs themselves, graduate Quinn Courtway left everyone with some words of wisdom.

“We are without a doubt the most connected generation,” he said. “Our awareness of current events and things happening around the globe rivals or succeeds many adults right now. One of the most important things for us to do is to be ourselves. We’re not our parents, we’re not our grandparents, and we’re not going to fall to the pressure of people who came before us. If you have a passion or skill that you’d like to master, no matter how useful or useless it may seem, no matter how impossible it may feel, you can do it. If being human grants us anything, it’s that with persistence we can achieve any goal we put our mind to.

“Every one of you is a unique person,” Courtway continued. “Uniqueness and diversity, not uniformity, creates strength. Make your future because regardless of what you do or don’t do, you’re the one in control and you’re the only one who can make the right decisions.”

BHS principal Kristen Haizlip and BISD superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen offered some final reflections.

“Earlier this week we had a graduation rehearsal, and we gave the students a brief moment to take off their masks and get a quick picture,” Haizlip said. “Honestly, the best moment of the year for me. To see all the smiling faces of this graduating class.

“I want to offer the senior class my sincere appreciation for what they have contributed to the Bainbridge High School community,” she went on to say. “Through artistic endeavors, academics, athletics and activism, thank you for being inspirational, inclusive, engaged, and always energetic, and so uniquely you.”

Bang-Knudsen added: “Seniors, you are the first class who can claim to have made it mostly through a global pandemic in over 100 years. This year more than ever you deserve great admiration and commendation. You demonstrated exemplary caution, you modeled how we could work together to benefit the entire community. You have demonstrated an ability to pivot from one situation to the next with grace and with humor.

“We have faced some of the worst times our country’s ever confronted in an 18-month period. We lost over half a million American lives to COVID, we witnessed terrible acts of racial oppression, we experienced environmental degradation, and we felt the deep isolation and loneliness during the lockdown.

“It’d be easy to lash out at these terrible events with hate or with darkness,” Bang-Knudsen concluded. “Instead, graduates, you modeled love. You followed the science by wearing your masks and protecting your elders, you showed the community how to take a stand for justice, you organized for environmental sustainability. Please continue on the journey you’ve begun and most importantly, continue to lead with love.”

Seniors Mitchell Milander and John Muir performed a song they wrote called "Pushing the Finish Line" at Saturday's graduation. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
A graduate rejoices with loved ones after the ceremony. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
A happy graduate holds up her diploma. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
Seniors Carmen Shelton-Jenck and Declan McLennan performed a song they wrote called "Moonlight" at Saturday's graduation for Bainbridge and Eagle Harbor high schools. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
Senior Lucia Opalka performed a song she wrote called "An Ode to Bainbridge." Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
Senior Mataya George read a speech called "Kind People are My Kind of People." Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen was giving out elbow bumps to all the graduates to comply with COVID protocols. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review
Bainbridge High School principal Kristen Haizlip presented the class of 2021 at Saturday's graduation for Bainbridge and Eagle Harbor high schools. Tyler Shuey/Bainbridge Island Review

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