Parents and children piled out of their cars in a Hofstra University parking lot on the evening of June 16, and hurried toward James M. Shuart Stadium to share in their loved ones’ graduation from Freeport High School.
Stopping for quick selfies outside the stadium doors, then eagerly passing the security gate at the entrance, they picked up elegant graduation programs and found seats in the bleachers that they hoped would afford them the best view of their graduates.
At precisely 6 p.m., the high school’s Symphony Orchestra struck up Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” With measured dignity, school administrators, school board members and other Freeport personages, as well as the high school valedictorian, salutatorian and senior class president, made their way from the rear of the stadium to the stage.
Immediately following, hundreds of students in red or white graduation gowns paced calmly to their seats on the floor in front of the stage. Most of them had decorated the tops of their mortarboard caps, some with the names of the colleges they planned to attend, others with flowers, butterflies, feathers, and similar symbols of happiness. One proclaimed, “Finally done!”
As one, the students and their families applauded the JROTC color guard, then stood to intone the Pledge of Allegiance. All remained standing while the Select Chorale, directed by Monique Retzlaff, sang first the National Anthem and then “God Bless America” with the delicacy, power and unity that has won them music awards and taken them to Carnegie Hall.
Wendy Haise, assistant principal for 12th grade, stepped forward to emcee the program. She introduced the dignitaries seated on the stage, including Freeport clergymen Stephen Michael Lewis of Bethel AME Church and Fr. Christopher Nowak of Our Holy Redeemer R.C. Church. Then she yielded the podium to the evening’s speakers, starting with senior class president Jillian Theresa Igneri.
“We are a generation saddled with great responsibility,” Igneri said. “We are also united in the commitment to impress upon the world the potential, passion and creativity that are in all of us.”
Superintendent Kuncham called the Freeport Class of 2022 “the change makers,” and admonished them, “Today, don’t measure yourself with anyone other than yourself. Be fearless! When you are fearless, you are creating your own opportunities.”
The Freeport senior class endured the difficulties of Covid and came out of them strongly, Kuncham added.
“You have persevered in the face of adversity,” said Freeport High principal Gisselle Campbell-ham, “and sacrificed in ways we could never have imagined prior to the pandemic. Be proud of your achievements, and more importantly, celebrate your resiliency and your success.”
The families of salutatorian Karina Michelle Rios and valedictorian Elise Renee Smith sat together while their daughters each rose to address their classmates. The two young women have been best friends from childhood. They each thanked the other for support, and said they looked forward to their colleg years, because both will attend Stony Brook University.
Rios spoke of her father’s steadfast commitment when he came from the violence of El Salvador to build a life in the United States.
“The most important lesson that I learned from my dad’s stories,” said Rios, “es que en la vida se necesita ser parte de la solución, no parte del problema — which in English is, you need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Even though we are just teenagers, our challenges should be recognized. We are about to receive one of the most powerful tools in life: a high school diploma.” “The covid experience has taken more than half our high school career,” said Smith. “This is the time to move forward. We are all presented with this wonderful opportunity to inspire change in our lives.”
Campbell-Ham, Hais, and Jordan-Awalom all took part in reading out the names of the graduates and handing them their diplomas. Heads high as they heard their names, the students filed across the stage, shaking the hand of Superintendent Kuncham and receiving the hard-earned scroll.
Shouts, cheers, applause, and the thump of their families’ feet on the wooden platforms of the bleacher seats accompanied the procession.
“The audience figured out that if they stomped, they would make a lot more noise,” laughed Joan Pinard, a Uniondale resident who had come with her daughter to see her grandson, Damani Aristilde, receive his diploma and flip the tassel of his cap to the other side. “My grandson said it was too loud! The graduates looked around to see who was making all that noise and it was the adults doing the crazy stuff.”
Nonetheless, said Pinard, “It’s a positive experience for young people, to feel that they’ve reached that step and to say, ‘I made it!’ And not only my grandson, but we saw all the kids he used to walk to school with, or did activities with, all get to this point. It was very uplifting.”