‘No normal’ for the incomparable East Lyme Class of 2021
East Lyme — This year's 261 East Lyme High School graduates, described in turn by those on the graduation dais as resilient, imperfect, incomparable and strong, were sent off Wednesday well prepared for the challenges of the rest of their lives.
Senior Laureate Nicole Burgon said the class full of perfect-looking people, in a town that is notably "not diverse," has grown in empathy for each other.
"I have seen over the years how we've bonded over our brokenness and have tried to improve our community and the world," she said.
Burgon, who recalled she didn't always have the perspective she has now, said she grew up feeling bad she could not put herself "in one clear box" like the predominantly white students of high socioeconomic standing in East Lyme.
"As a little girl, feeling any different than that caused me to retreat into a shell. I didn't have a big house or go on big vacations and I didn't even have the same skin color as my mom, all of which raised questions from wide-eyed classmates as to why I didn't invite people over or if I was adopted," she said. "As people in this crowd today who knew me back then can testify, I cried when I had to go to school and I never spoke in class until I was asked a question I couldn't nod or shake my head to."
Then she discovered "there is no normal and there is no perfection," she said.
With that realization, she said she found her voice and began to open herself up to conversations with the "perfect" people she had once compared herself to.
"I listened as my female friends faced negative comments from guys in their STEM classes and I listened as guys in my grade felt like they had a mold to fit, too, of unbreakable, tough people," she said.
She said the class's understanding of diversity was enhanced through clubs and groups like Best Buddies, which forges friendships between students with developmental disabilities and their peers without disabilities, and Encountering Differences, which brings in mentors to talk about the Black experience in southeastern Connecticut.
"Broadening our view of the world through our own small community was empowering as we saw diversity in a place where many had previously felt constrained by uniformity," she said.
Academic Scholar orator Alaina Crowell, too, talked about the pitfalls of comparison, and about making decisions based on what others expect. "We are all so different from one another that one cookie-cutter future could not possibly hold all of our potentials," she said.
Identifying among her classmates future nurses, engineers, electricians, doctors, artists, scientists and performers, she told them "you are comparable only to you."
"We persevered through muted mics and blank Zoom screens, half-empty classrooms and masked sports games to be here today, graduating now, together as one class," she said.
Deb Roselli Kelly, in her first graduation ceremony as principal of the school, said the class found ways to appreciate what it had and to "gracefully mourn what couldn't be" after the COVID-19 pandemic hit during their junior year.
"Along with our teachers, you went home for what we thought might be two weeks and, well, it wasn't," she said. What followed was an evolving schedule of distance learning, in-person learning and the "wacky Wednesdays" that exemplified the ever-changing reality amid the pandemic.
"You developed your creativity and your determination. You found new ways to advocate for yourself and work collaboratively with everyone around you to problem-solve the never-ending challenges of the year. You learned to be compassionate and thoughtful, and I heard you say thank you more this year than any other year," she told the class.
In the high school cafeteria before the ceremony, where the students gathered by last name to form two processional lines in their smooth maroon gowns and graffiti-less graduation caps, the middle of the line revealed three sets of twins in an alphabetical row.
Allison and Caitlin O'Dea said they were both going to school in Florida in the fall: Allison to Florida Gulf Coast University and Caitlin to University of Tampa.
Allison expressed excitement that graduation was actually happening amid "all the COVID stuff," while her twin said she mostly felt proud of all her classmates who had worked so hard through the pandemic.
Also in line was Annie O'Connor, who said she'd be attending the University of New Hampshire.
"The sadness hasn't really hit me," she said, but added it probably would when her mother, a teacher at Niantic Center School, handed out her diploma during the ceremony.
Her twin, James O'Connor, when asked if getting his diploma from his mom would make him cry, too, acknowledged that "it might."
Twins Ben and Matt Orefice said they will be splitting up for the first extended period of their lives when Ben heads to Eastern Connecticut State University and Matt goes to Florida Atlantic University.
Ben said he and Matt have done pretty much everything together over the past 18 years.
"I'm going to miss being around my brother every day," he said.
Matt was optimistic that they'll get used to being apart and will make new friends.
"Everytime we come back, we'll pick up right where we left off," he said.
For a gallery of more photos from the graduation, click here.
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