Graduation for Gowanda High’s Class of 2021 was held at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, June 25, 2021, at Hillis Field.
When a smattering of raindrops began to fall shortly before the 136th annual commencement exercises for Gowanda High School began at Hillis Field, murmurs rippled through the jam-packed bleachers.
Inviting the entire community to attend the annual outdoor graduation ceremony is a long-standing tradition in this community, but it wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Small, individual, in-person ceremonies were held last year instead.
But as the warm winds picked up and the weather wavered under the Friday night (June 25, 2021) lights, loved ones and neighbors opened their umbrellas and stayed put. The graduates lined up behind the scoreboard and marched single-file across Hillis Field, determined to go on with a strong senior show. After the tumult of the past 15 months, a little rain would not dampen the Panther family’s spirits.
Following the processional accompanied by the high school band playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” the ceremony began with Pledge of Allegiance led by Hailey Fisher, senior class secretary. Congratulatory marks were also offered by Matthew Pagels, president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Principal Rebekah Moraites acknowledged the numerous staff instrumental in organizing the ceremony before introducing the Board of Education.
“Thank you to the parents, grandparents, guardians, friends, neighbors and Gowanda community members who are here tonight, those who are here in spirit, and those who are watching at home,” said Moraites. “Thank you for your love, your patience, your encouragement, and your support. You are the foundation of these successful graduates.”
Moraites also shared remarks by Superintendent Dr. Robert B. Anderson, who could not attend because he was attending his daughter’s graduation in another district at the same time.
“You are truly a remarkable group of young adults. You have excelled in the classroom, on the stage, and on the athletic field,” noted Anderson. “Yet, most importantly you have shown character through your compassion and caring for others, and adaptability and resilience through the most challenging school year in memory. You have made us all proud and, no doubt, you will each excel in your own way in the future.”
Salutatorian Zoey Kota, who is heading to St. Bonaventure University to study health science, began her speech by reminiscing about somewhat prescient start to high school for the Class of 2021.
“Graduation seemed so far away as we entered the halls at Gowanda High School as freshmen,” said Kota. “However, this was a day late as our first scheduled day for high school was cancelled due to a power outage.”
This unusual kickoff to ninth grade somewhat set the mood for the rest of their year, she noted, recalling they missed roughly 62 days of in-person schooling their junior year due to the pandemic.
“This may have given most of us a head-start on senioritis,” said Kota. “But we don’t have to mention that too much because we persisted through every guideline and regulation set down by the CDC and Governor (Andrew) Cuomo to attend school.”
Valedictorian Kayla Forthman, who is heading to Geneseo State University to major in English, addressed her fellow graduates directly.
“As I stand here and see all of you in caps and gowns, I can only see you all at elementary field days and middle school field trips,” said Forthman. “The fact that we are here, about to enter the real world, is incomprehensible to me.”
She conceded that their senior year was not at all what they imagined, with abbreviated sports seasons and truncated traditions and a lot of unknowns.
“I’m not here to cry about the things we could have had. These years are probably some of the biggest reality checks you’re going to get,” said Forthman. “These last two years were in no way easy, and there was a lot of adjusting. We dealt with a global pandemic that prevented in-person learning, but we made it. We had to adjust to Zoom calls, sketchy Wi-Fi, and virtual school, but we made it. We had to accept the loss of the dinners and events that we had been anticipating for years, but we made it.”
The valedictorian then introduced keynote speaker and village mayor David Smith.
Smith, who also serves assistant principal for grades five through 12 at Gowanda Central School District, kicked off his remarks with some light, good-natured roasting.
Reminiscing about some of the students’ middle school drama — their behavior issues, their hairstyles, and their eventual personal growth — got the graduates giggling and the crowd cackling.
“We’ve had a great relationship and it’s been a real, genuine honor to get to know each and every one of you that’s here tonight,” said Smith. “It has been a pleasure to watch you grow and to watch you mature.”
Smith acknowledged the top graduates and the great athletes of the Class of 2021 before singling out all the seniors who have worked so hard to beat their private and public battles.
“I’m so proud of those of you that have overcome really significant obstacles,” said Smith. “I won’t bore you with all mine, but I will tell you I was orphaned as a teenager and things got very ugly.”
People along the way reached out to help him overcome his tragedies, including an educator who helped Smith not give up.
“You can do anything you want regardless of your circumstances – you can do it all. If you just are willing to work hard for it,” he said. “After all — a poor, orphaned, angry, depressed, lost kid became Mr. Smith, Mayor Smith, (a husband, a father) a pastor, and someone who loves you guys genuinely and prays for your future. All because I didn’t quit.”
He wrapped up his remarks with some tips for success and a reminder.
“Wherever you are, wherever you roam,” said Smith. “Gowanda Central School will always be your home.”
The ceremony concluded with the presentation of diplomas and traditional turning of the tassels, led by class president Ashton Francis and treasurer Emma Luther.
Notes on the Class of 2021: There are 80 graduates in the Class of 2021 at GHS. Seven of them – Mayson Browning, Dominic DiRenzo, Erik Furlet, Kaytlin Jimerson, Irissa Loving, Zaymin Munoz, and Cameron Wight – are heading to the military. Thirty-seven are pursuing higher education. Thirty-six are joining the work force. And two members of the senior class – Mayson and Madeline (Valone) Browning – got married in April.