Four years of resilience: Class of 2023 celebrates graduation

Reflecting on their four years of high school, the Class of 2023 took to the WA turf on June 3 for graduation. Originally scheduled for June 2, the ceremony was postponed a day in order to avoid inclement weather and rain showers.

Yet, on graduation day, chilly winds and cloudy skies did not detract from the class’s unwavering spirit and ability to overcome the unprecedented. With the support from hundreds of friends and family members, many of whom were bundled in blankets amidst the cold weather, all 423 eager graduates gathered together one last time.

Principal James Antonelli began the ceremony thanking the WA faculty for their dedication and countless contributions, during what he called the “three most disruptive years in the history of education.” Antonelli also emphasized the resilience that the Class of 2023 carried with them throughout high school.

“You have been faced with adversity as a class and yet, you sit here today and you have made it,” Antonelli said. “I feel privileged to have worked with a group of young people who didn’t pack it in, who didn’t blame others. Instead, the Class of 2023 bonded together supporting each other and made something good out of something difficult.”

A little more than halfway through their freshman year, the Class of 2023 had their high school careers upended by the pandemic. From there, normalcy became a distant memory as mask mandates and virtual classrooms took over, and the majority of their high school years were ridden with remote learning and social distancing.

In reference to these challenging times, Antonelli reflected on an uplifting message and poem he received in 2010, a time that was marked with several tragedies within the student body at WA. After sharing the included poem, “Oak Tree,” Antonelli likened the Class of 2023 to an oak tree that, despite challenge after challenge, was still standing strong and proud on graduation day.

Seniors prepare to walk out onto the turf to start the ceremony. (Pravar Mukkala)

“Stay strong, Class of 2023,” Antonelli said. “The winds may bend your branches, strip your leaves, tear your bark and shake your roots. But your roots are deep and you are strong.”

Among the losses faced by the Class of 2023 include the recent tragic passing of senior Zachary Lavoignet on May 23, 2023. Throughout the evening, the class honored Lavoignet’s legacy, holding a moment of silence during the ceremony and each wearing a memorial ribbon on their gown in his remembrance.

“Almost two weeks ago, we lost a valued member of this class, Zachary Lavoignet,” Dean Dan Twomey said. “At this time, may we take a few moments for a moment of silence remember Zach, and send our thoughts and prayers to his family, friends and classmates.”

Antonelli also recognized Kerry Clery, the assistant-superintendent of WPS, who has worked with Westford for the past decade. Clerry will be stepping down and moving on as the superintendent of Billerica Public Schools, marking this ceremony as her last graduation.

Among these community members, the class’s highest achieving students, valedictorian Alison Chen and salutatorian Charles Lin were also brought to stage. Introduced by Twomey, who spoke on behalf of guidance counselor Brian Doherty, Lin was commended not only for his academic excellence, but his kindness and enthusiasm outside the classroom.Similarly, Chen’s guidance counselor Leah Birnkrant described her academic strength, paired with an enthusiastic personality, as one with infinite possibilities.

“One of the most remarkable things about Allison is that she conquered every challenge with a contagious smile and positive attitude,” Head of Counseling Lauren Clark, on behalf of Birnkrant, said. “A number of teachers have commented on Allison’s humble, joyful, and welcoming personality as one that brings the class together as a community.”

Along with the distinguished students, class officers, including president Mia Clark, vice president Mia Burns, secretary Sophia Keang, and treasurer Krishna Vasiraju expressed their appreciation for Antonelli and class advisors Scott Cruikshank and Amanda Everett.

Class speaker Madelyn Haley gives her speech. A feature on her can be found on our website. (Pravar Mukkala)

Class speaker Maddie Haley soon took to the stage, articulating the culmination of the seniors’ journeys. When looking ahead, Haley challenged the graduates to question “who” they want to become in the future, rather than the age-old question of “what” they would like to become.

“Throughout the years, our class has learned to be resilient. We’ve learned to stand up for what we believe. We’ve learned to adapt to many challenges thrown our way, and we are all strong,” Haley said “Our class has made a lasting impression and I believe that we are on the right track to identify who we are as individuals.”

Throughout her speech, Haley stressed the importance of cherishing the shared bonds and memories that have built the class’s character, rather than their surface level achievements.

“The important things we take away from our time here won’t be the grades or the trophies we receive. It’ll be the seemingly ordinary experiences we got to have with one another,” Haley said. “When I look back at our time together, I remember the excitement of dressing up in the days leading up to the rally, dancing and Kimballs, […] and most of all the people I got to meet and grow up with.”

The ceremony ends with a performance of “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield, a commonly played song at graduations across the country. Its lyrics allude to paving one’s own path and encourage writing one’s own future. (Pravar Mukkala)

Once all graduates were called to the stage to receive their diplomas, the WA senior Band played their rendition of “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. An uplifting final song, the performance was led by senior singers Julia Donescu, Charlotte Ryan, Jillian St. George, and Ali Stanglewicz.

In the final five minutes of the ceremony, senior class president Mia Clark began her speech. Split into five one-minute segments, each portion reflected on a period of their 13-year academy journey. As she counted down the minutes before seniors could throw their caps into the air and embark on a new chapter, Clark encouraged the class to slow down and remember their first classroom, locker, or school bus, and to ultimately reflect upon the smaller experiences that led them here.

Seniors toss their caps to the sky in celebration of their four year journey. (Deepa Gautam)

“13 years ago, we walked into kindergarten,” Clark said. “In fact, you are probably sitting with the same kids you sat with while you learned to read, write, multiply and divide. You’re sitting with the same teammates, band mates, and friends that taught you failure is okay and success is exciting. Every single person here has impacted your life, and in turn, each and every one of you has impacted so many other people.”

With the next three minutes, Clark described the class’s evolving journey through the years, spotlighting the class’s persistence through difficulty. From their first day of kindergarten to their last day of high school, Clark detailed a journey of firsts; joining clubs and sports teams, embarking on school field trips, creating unbreakable bonds and most of all, timeless memories to cherish.

“This whole time, it was the little things that mattered most,” Clark said. “[..] 13 years of hard work, fun new experiences, and opportunities. 13 years of friends that have become family, 13 years of Westford, and 13 years of the best memories, even the small ones. As we get to our new chapters of life, always remember to cherish every moment and try to see life and new perspectives. The best is yet to come.”