Russell Tevie stood at the podium, removed his mask, and smiled.
“I want to thank all the trustees,” he said, as he turned to look behind him. There sat Cheshire Academy Head of Schools Julie Anderson, alone, stretching her arms to the right and left to show that she was the only one there.
The small crowd in attendance erupted in laughter—an acknowledgement by all that the ceremony about to begin was certainly not ordinary.
On Friday, July 31, the Class of 2020 at Cheshire Academy finally gathered for one last time during the school’s 226th Commencement Ceremony. The event, held at the Academy campus, had been scheduled for May 30, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic school administrators decided to move it to the summer.
Unlike their peers at Cheshire High School, the Academy graduates didn’t have to contend with inclement weather, aside from the heat and humidity that has come to mark this year’s summer. But the graduates who did attend, and the limited number of family and friends who were able to join them, did have to adhere to all the new safety precautions in place.
The unusual ceremony came on the heels of a very different kind of senior year for graduates, something all speakers made sure to mention.
“I missed everything about Cheshire Academy,” said Tevie, Class President, who kicked things off for Commencement. “I miss walking to the dining hall, miss singing songs on the bus and getting hyped up (before a sporting event). Simply put, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
Cheshire Academy officially closed its campus in late March, going to an all-remote learning format in the wake of the pandemic. But students had already been off campus for weeks before, as the school’s annual spring break had been scheduled for mid-March.
For many, Commencement was the first time returning to the Academy in over four months.
“The world is getting scarier every day,” continued Tevie, “so let’s bring lightness to where it is dark. It is up to us to be role models for the communities we join in the fall.”
Anderson, who served as the ceremonies Commencement Speaker, acknowledged all that the students had been denied over the final few months of the semester. There had been no prom, no art shows, no Senior Day in 2020, all of which are annual traditions at the school. But Anderson urged the grads in attendance to “reflect not on what you have lost but on what you have learned.”
“I heard from so many of you about the silver linings of forced isolation,” said Anderson. “You were able to see through the clouds.”
“You have already been courageous, whether you know it or not,” she continued.
For salutatorian Dante Strollo, it was the entire month of May he missed the most while away from the Academy campus. That time of year, he reflected, was always his favorite because it created an odd atmosphere of “elation and angst” on campus.
“(Everyone) is counting down to the final minute either for vacation or commencement,” he continued.
Instead of looking entirely towards the future, Strollo spent much of his speech focused on the past and, specifically, Convocation, which brings all Academy students together right at the beginning of the school year. That ceremony, Strollo insisted, was the “strongest testament” to what the Academy has to offer.
“Fortunately for all of us, the Academy is an incredibly diverse community—a microcosm of the world,” he said. “At Convocation, this (diverse) body sits as one, whether it is a student’s fifth or first Convocation.”
Julia Gillotti, the Class of 2020 valedictorian, admitted that she had spent much of her time in lead up to Commencement thinking about the funnier times at the school, including the occasions when a student would attempt to send an email to one teacher but would accidentally hit the “Reply All” button and deliver it to the inbox of everyone at the Academy.
But escaping the realities of the moment has not been easy, the teenager acknowledged.
“I love literature... but as much as I love to read fiction, I never thought I would feel like a character in my own dystopian novel,” she said. “What could be harder than having life as we know it turned upside down in a matter of days (at the beginning of the pandemic)?”
Yet, Gillotti insisted that her and her classmates didn’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves but, rather, needed to focus on confronting the numerous issues facing the nation and world at the moment.
“We are resilient. We are graduates of Cheshire Academy,” said Gillotti. “Our happy ending will not be written unless we do something, now.”