KINGSTON — In a world filled with overwhelming challenges and rainstorms, members of the Chariho Regional High School Class of 2022 were challenged to remember there is always a rainbow if you look for the light, however scarce it may be.
For a class that entered its freshman year with no restrictions, ceramics teacher and keynote speaker Rebecca J. Peabody said the students faced adversity that included social distancing, masks and, for a long period at the height of the pandemic, no classmates or friends at all. They survived the loss of a beloved classmate during their senior year and have overcome one of the most challenging social and political climates in decades.
Peabody said that through it all, the graduates not only survived but thrived as they supported each other, showed kindness and exemplified what it meant to come together as a community. She said if there is a message they should take from their experiences, it is that there is always good to be found in every experience.
"Rainstorms are part of the journey, and it always brings opportunity for rainbows," she told the 242 members of the graduating class. "It's about finding the light through the darkness. That is something you all have the power to do."
Families, friends, community leaders and school staff joined together in the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island Friday evening to celebrate the 2022 Chariho commencement exercises. The event drew a crowd and marked a full return to traditions of old, with no masks or distancing required.
The unmasked ceremony brought not only feelings of accomplishment and hope for members of the Class of 2022 following a long battle through pandemic restrictions and challenges but symbolized coming full circle over four years at Chariho High School.
As they entered freshman year, the students were excited to forge ahead with a normal high school career. Graduate Lainey Sumner, who will advance to study film and psychology at URI, and friend and fellow graduate Isabelle Sullivan-Rackliff, who will study environmental studies and government, each said that they have faced more adversity since then than any member of the class could have imagined, but they are proud of the way everyone came together to help the class earn a reputation as an inclusive one.
"It doesn't feel like it's been four years already. The challenges we've gone through together have been numerous and we are finally able to celebrate," Sumner said. "We started without masks and now we will end without masks. It's a fitting end to our high school careers."
Jaiden Spears, who will join the Jobs Corps as a welding specialist, said he was happy to go out without a mask on and said it helps symbolize a new beginning for members of the class.
"This is a freedom that a year and a half ago we wondered if we would have," Spears said. "Tonight marks a new age and we will continue on with life beyond the mask."
Graduation night also gave members of the Class of '22 one last opportunity to show off their camaraderie. As they marched to their seats, many entered wearing symbols of support such as numerous graduates wearing rainbow sashes in honor of Pride Month, something the students said was done as a show of solidarity after a flag flown at the school for June’s celebration was taken down.
Nearly all members of the class also wore red sashes and other red decorations, a memorial for classmate Allie Nelson, who died in October, sending shockwaves through the school community. It was a loss that nearly all who spoke, including classmates beforehand, said was felt by the entire community.
Nelson was recognized during the presentation of diplomas, with her family called upon to a stand for an ovation before classmates led the arena in cheers of "Allie, Allie, Allie!"
Class salutatorian Hannah Jackson and valedictorian Bridget Fox each said in their graduation speeches that despite all the negatives, there were still so many reasons to celebrate. The class saw six teams reach athletic championship games this year, including winning both boys and girls soccer championships; students were able to achieve a high level of success in the SkillsUSA competition, with four students set to compete in Atlanta at nationals later this month; and the student body worked to promote inclusivity and to improve mental health, even starting a club to provide support and resources.
Jackson and Fox also encouraged the students to continue to be there and support one another and challenged them to be kind, confident, humble, hard-working and to always show love. And, as Fox said, “let the village be there to support you.”
The students also received similar messages from Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard, who used Disney to remind the students of all the important lessons they have learned in life, and to remember that no matter how hard life gets, “always enjoy the ride and sights along the way.”
When life gets difficult, Chariho Principal Andrea Spas told the graduates, they need to remember the definition of the word "resiliency" and to realize that resilient is what they were, and that is the word that will define their high school careers.
She read them the definition before pausing, then challenged them to be proud of where they came from.
“Take a moment and let the definition truly sink in. That is each and every one of you,” she said. “It’s safe to say you’ve had a senior year and high school career like no other.”