Triumphant return: South Hadley High’s grads reflect on pandemic, remember the positive

  • South Hadley senior Boston Kelly waves to friends being seated for the school’s commencement at Mount Holyoke College’s Gettell Amphitheater on June 3. He’s joined by, from far left, Olivia Jolley, Leila Kappenman and Sophia Kennedy. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Two of South Hadley High School's 141 graduating seniors shake hands during the processional down the steps of Mount Holyoke College's Gettell Amphitheater on Friday, June 3, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley senior Olivia Jolley holds her seven-month-old cousin, Paxton Kelleher, as they pose for a picture before the high school’s commencement held at Mount Holyoke College's Gettell Amphitheater on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2022

SOUTH HADLEY — Graduation ceremonies are often filled with excitement, the buzz in the air palpable. But for graduating South Hadley High School seniors at June 3’s commencement, the day was particularly special.

“This was our first year of normalcy,” said Julia Plotniak, the National Honor Society president. “And even then, our school was plagued with mold.”

South Hadley’s Class of 2022 returned to Mount Holyoke College’s Gettell Amphitheater, more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forever changed the lives of students and teachers, sending them into online classrooms and upending normal graduation ceremonies. When students were finally preparing to completely return to in-person classes this fall, a massive mold outbreak in the school delayed their first day.

But the pomp and circumstance were back on Friday, when 141 students received their diplomas.

Families stood and cheered for their loved ones as they made their way in pairs down to the stage with their tiger-orange stoles and black caps and gowns. Some held signs with their student’s name; others stood proudly and clapped.

“High school was a challenger but we got through it,” said senior Alex Chandler as he waited to make his way down the steep amphitheater steps.

Standing next to Chandler was Aidan Chartier, who said that the pandemic “screwed us up.” But now they were graduating, he said.

“We can look forward to the future and see what it brings,” he said.

Speakers at the commencement all referenced the pandemic, too. Plotniak described it as the year and a half “stripped away” from students, describing their current situation as a “gray area” — not fully feeling like graduates or soon-to-be college students because of the strange situation.

“This class has been through a lot,” Plotniak said.

But Monich Long, the class president, and others also reminded their peers of the other moments during their educational journeys: snacks and naps in elementary school, learning how to use lockers in middle school and how they “laughed, cried and stressed” in high school.

“It can be easy to overlook all of these positive moments and only focus on the time we lost to the pandemic,” Long said.

Long described a recent college orientation session in Boston, when for the first time she found herself lost, phone low on battery and without the comforts of home or her father’s navigational expertise. She and her peers will definitely feel lost at times, Long said.

“There is no class better equipped to overcome these challenges,” Long added.

Class valedictorian Gabrielle Moroney noted that many of the graduates on stage had spent the majority of their lives living, working and learning next to the peers with whom they were about to turn their cap’s tassels.

“These past 12 years have introduced me to some of my absolute favorite people in the world,” Moroney said.

Salutatorian Aileen McAllister said that graduates will all go off to their own unique next adventures. Some would stay close to home to care for family, some would work or join the military and move far away. Others will go to college.

“Find something that excites you and pursue it,” McAllister urged the crowd.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.