Matanzas High School Senior Brianna Whitfield carried a heavy but uplifting heart on stage as she gave her commencement speech during the Matanzas ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach–one of the more current and courageous speeches in years.
Whitfield recalled the hardships the world experienced in 2020, from the wildfires in California to the death of basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter (they died in a helicopter crash, as did six others), to the rapid spread of covid and the re-eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And when 2021 began, “We were all beginning to believe this year will be different,” said Whitfield. “More leaders were taking action, businesses were opening and vaccinations were rolling out. Then six days into the new year, we watched our US capitol [be] stormed by protestors, something that has not happened in over 200 years. Well hello 2021, I can remember saying. Why is this happening to us now? Why are my high school years and events being stolen?
“The only thing I could come up with is this. We are it. We’re the ones that lived through this. We experienced something no other generation has. We are going to strengthen society into some uncomfortable, but needed growth,” she continued, “Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s remember how we felt during these times and use it as motivation to change our future.”
She could look down from the stage and see how much had changed–what student doesn’t metamorphose over four years of high school?–and how much had returned to form.
Rows of seats in close succession waiting to be filled by eager seniors. Stands crowded with picture-taking family members and friends, shoulder-to-shoulder. A stage covered in greenery, the school board members’ and school staffers’ seats arranged as usual in a neat, tight row behind the podium.
Other than perhaps a slightly lower number of people in attendance, not much had really changed at Wednesday’s graduation ceremonies for Matanzas and Flagler Palm Coast High schools compared to the last in-person Ocean Center exercises in what seemed like a different century, though it was just two years ago.
Joy spilled into the convention center as the seniors had briskly entered the building with that I-made-it gait and the waiting crowd’s murmurs turned to triumphal screams as families saw their graduates walk to their seat.
Both body of graduates entered to Elgar’s famous Pomp and Circumstance march–the Pirates entered as a recording their own Steel Band’s interpretation competed with cheers (the band played live in the lobby earlier), while FPC’s graduates trooped in to a more standard orchestral recording. Either way, it never gets old. (Final lesson of the year: the march, one of six by Elgar but unquestionably his most famous, was written for a friend and premiered in Liverpool 120 years ago with nary a thought to any school lads’ triumphs. It got its premiere, live performance at a graduation in 1905 when Yale invited Elgar to receive an honorary doctorate in music. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra played the march as graduates recessed.)
The Matanzas ceremony began at 4 p.m., while the sun was still unforgiving, with 447 graduates–51 graduating with their AA from Daytona State College, 27 graduated cum laude, 48 magna cum laude and 76 summa cum laude (Latin conceits still control the circumstances; the words just mean the graduates did a hell of a job with varying degrees of distinction).
FPC’s followed at 7:30 with 589 graduates–41 with their AA from DSC, 35 who graduated with an International Baccalaureate diploma–the summa of high school academic degrees–43 graduating cum laude, 77 magna cum laude and 72 summa cum laude.
The unique and unforgettable graduation ceremony on the tarmac of the Daytona International Speedway last May, where they were restricted to their cars, only marked the beginning of the pandemic odyssey. One Homeric year later, students and families gathered to celebrate within hugging, kissing and weeping distances again, marking a victory for the new graduates and the beginning of life’s return, they hope, to normal, loaded though that word has become.
Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, usually a master of reserve, was thrilled to see the smiles on everyone’s faces in person. “As we rolled into January both of our activities directors at each high school started talking about what graduation would look like, and our ultimate goal was to go back to the Ocean Center,” the first-year superintendent said. Fortunately, as the school year wore on, more vaccines and less restrictive Centers for Disease Control recommendations allowed the high schools to continue with their in-person plans. (This was Mittelstadt’s first set of graduations for Flagler schools, though she’s long been a Palm Coast resident even when she was an assistant superintendent in St. Johns.)
Matanzas’s Senior Chorus Members sang “Just Believe” by PinkZebra (“Now I have all I need to find the best in me,/Well isn’t it time I open my mind,/And just believe”). FPC’s Savanna Dacosta, weaving palm coast street names into the lyrics of her original song, sang “SuperNova.”
“These past four years haven’t been the easiest,” said Oryiah Clayton and Dontanae Green of Matanzas as they welcomed their class. “Freshmen and sophomore year flew by like a breeze and are honestly the only years we could say we had some type of normalcy.”
Before sending his students off with a warm and encouraging message, Matanzas’s Principal Jeff Reaves cracked the inevitable jokes in the spirit of the school’s yet-uncanceled mascot: “How much did the pirate pay for this hook and peg?…an arm and a leg.” A joke the students seemed to know all too well, but still guaranteed a chuckle.
Then Reaves shared what he had learned from the school year and class of 2021. “ You may think you believe in something, students, but only when you go through a crisis, we discover what we truly believe,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “There were so many moments that we heard today since March 2020 where you were tested, where you encountered adversity, and through the choices that you made on a daily basis, what you believed in was stretched.” While continuing to connect with his student during the pandemic, he believed the positivity and teamwork within his students were essential.
“Allow me to conclude with this thought from rapper Drake,” Reaves said, “‘Live without pretending. Love without depending. Listen without defending. Speak without offending.’” That drew a roar of cheers from the seniors.
Each school’s principal also honored Tom Russell, the previous FPC principal who, after a battle with Covid, died in December, a loss that resonated throughout the community, echoing grief that for most others, because of the virus’s imprisoning fallout, had been unheard, unseen, even unmourned.
“Though I know our graduation will not be the same without Mr. Russell’s contagious smile on this stage,” Senior Caroline Rizzo took the stage during FPC’s ceremony, her choice of word as if flipping off that other contagion, “I know that he would want nothing more than for us to acknowledge our successes and celebrate all that we have overcome to be here today.” She teared up.
“When I reflect upon my last year as a Bulldog, one specific word comes to mind. That word is resilience,” said Rizzo, ”If that does not describe our senior year perfectly, then I’m not sure what else will.” She continued to proudly connect the achievements of her peers, voting in the 2020 election and re-creating habitual senior events to this resilience she believes her class carries.
Senior Derek Hart put it this way during his commencement speech: “In December of 2020, the Bulldog Family was faced with tragic news. Our wonderful Principal Mr. Tom Russell, had passed away. This tragedy, however, showed the true definition of the Bulldog family. Our family came together to honor his memory. And I know, we will continue to make Mr. Russell proud in our future endeavors.” The words echoed those of Bobby Bossardet, the interim FPC Principal.
Happily gazing upon her classmates, Rizzo quoted FPC’s class motto, “I leave you today with this quote from Neil Gaiman, “Now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break the rules. Leave the world more interesting for you being here. Make good art.”
“Society has referred to us as ‘Generation C’, the Covid generation. However, I believe that this letter C stands for something other than Covid,” said Hart. He exclaimed the C stood for courage, commitment, and confidence and encouraged his fellow classmates to carry those principles throughout their lives. “Our society has become so polarized with various beliefs and has been influenced negatively by many. These beliefs have brought this great nation we call home to the most divided it has been,” referring to the 2020 election and the years that preceded it. “I encourage you to share these aforementioned principles because it is something which we can all unite under and when we as a people are united for something good, there is no negative force that can stop us, no matter how hard they try.”
–Terra White for FlaglerLive