Thursday, June 7, 2018

Portland's Deering High School Holds 144th Commencement on June 7

PORTLAND, Maine – Deering High School, known as the most diverse high school north of Boston, held its 144th graduation exercises on Thursday, June 7, at the Cross Insurance Arena. There are 230 members of the graduating Class of 2018.

The morning ceremony included remarks by Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana and Deering Principal Gregg Palmer, live music performed by students, the presentation of awards and diplomas and addresses by students. During a rendition of the class song, “Wavin’ Flag,” the graduates celebrated by tossing beach balls back and forth, dancing in their seats and a few waved colorful flags from various countries.

The arena was filled with students’ families and friends and school district staff. Also in attendance were representatives from the Portland Board of Public Education and City Council and Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Superintendent Botana said, “I feel confident that the future, our future, is in good hands with this Deering Class of 2018.” He said that confidence is based on what the class has already accomplished.

As an example, Botana pointed to Class of 2018 member Mulki Hagi, who received a prestigious Bezos Scholar award that took her to the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer.  She parlayed that into the development of a “Local Ideas Summit” which she organized and oversaw this spring.  The summit covered such topics as gender expansiveness, domestic violence, Islamophobia and affordable housing. 

He also noted that Deering students Alex Fitzgerald and Izzy Smith helped develop the school board’s Gender Expansive policy.  “As part of their work with the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Deering, not only did they shape the policy, but they also helped us to train staff at every Portland public school,” Botana said. “Deering’s GSA also submitted the proposal that was ultimately approved by the Deering student government that made it possible for students to wear whatever color graduation gown they chose to wear today, independent of gender.”

Member of the Class of 2018 also joined the National School Walkout in March to honor the 17 people killed in the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. “You took this opportunity to express your views about school safety,” Botana said. “Deering High School students organized a rally in the gymnasium, where some students read poetry they had written, while others simply spoke from their hearts. After the rally, you filed out of the building and stood in the snow for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the Parkland victims.”

Botana continued, “You stood with your peers in Florida, but you also stood with your own.  When Allan Monga, a junior at Deering, was prohibited from representing Maine at the National Poetry Out Loud competition because of his immigration status, you, along with your principal and staff, spoke out and supported his efforts to achieve his dream.  Before a vindicated Allan left to go to D.C., you lined the halls and sent him off with your love and support.”

The superintendent urged the Class of 2018 to “continue to make the world better with the same passion and flair with which you’ve improved Deering High School and Portland Public Schools.”

He cited the graduates’ academic and athletic successes – including the fact that 13 members of the class are recipients of the Portland Public Schools’ newest award, the Seal of Biliteracy, for having attained mastery of English and at least one other world language.
The Portland Public Schools is the first school district in Maine to award the Seal of Biliteracy to its graduating seniors. Nationally, nearly 30 states bestow the award.

“We are proud to be a leader in this area because, as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, we recognize that biliteracy forges connections between students and their heritage while making them attractive to future employers and college admissions offices,” Botana said.

As the new graduates prepared to set off for college or career, Principal Gregg Palmer said the best advice he could offer them was to “live in the moment.” He also pledged to honor the Class of 2018 by continuing “to make our school a better place.” He told graduates, “We’re going to work to make you proud of us.”

Palmer, who is completing his first year as principal of Deering, also recognized former Principal Ira Waltz, who attended the commencement “to reconnect to the class he loves so much.” The graduates applauded Waltz, who retired last June.

Palmer concluded his speech by noting how difficult it is to learn a second language, something many Deering students originally from other countries have to do, and asked Husna Munezero Quinn, student body president, what the Swahili word is for “hello. He then had the graduates and audience join him in calling out “jambo!”

Husna spoke next, reflecting on the Class of 2018’s experiences during the past four years. She said her class was used to measuring time in periods and semesters and years, but now would measure it “in the friendships we made and the times we shared together.”

Next to address the graduates were three “Principal’s Choice Speakers”: seniors Shamma Alzefiri, Mulki Hagi and Alex Fitzgerald.

Shamma told her classmates, “We all have big dreams but instead of dreaming, we have to put the effort into making our dreams come true.” She also said, “I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

Mulki said she comes from a family that, because of adversity, didn’t have the opportunity to extend their education beyond middle school. Attending high school, she said, was “foreign territory” to her.  But she said overcoming adversity has helped shape her. She gave a shout out to fellow classmates who come from immigrant, refugee and asylum seeking families and applauded them for “working 10 times harder” to succeed.

Alex spoke about coming out as transgender the summer before freshman year but then struggling for three years. “Almost everyone close to me accepted me, but I had to accept myself,” Alex said. Alex was able to do that after “throwing myself into improving the school and helping others” through joining the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. Alex said that among the group’s accomplishments was starting an annual school drag show – Principal Palmer was a guest performer this year. Alex concluded by recalling a photo of Deering students protesting in 1995 against the harassment of some gay students there, noting how far Deering had come in 23 years. “Change can and does happen,” Alex said. “I got to be the change and see the change.”

Salutatorian Lucy Tumavicus told graduates they had been on a “Fred journey.” She said a Fred journey, invented by her grandfather, is “an adventure by way of getting yourself lost.” In the days before GPS, her grandfather liked to take the family on rambling car trips with an unknown destination, Lucy said. She said high school is like a Fred journey because of many unknowns and challenges, but through “will and winging it, we’ve made it here to graduation.” She urged her class members not be fazed by uncertainty. “Be great, do good and ride out the Fred journeys,” Lucy said.

Valedictorian Nicole Whipkey recounted many of the accomplishments of her classmates and told them they were all champions for having graduated. She concluded, “It doesn’t matter where you go but what you do when you get there. Make the world a better place!”

The graduates won many accolades, and thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. They have been accepted at more than 110 colleges and universities all across the country and even abroad.

They include Bard, Brandeis, Bowdoin, St. Olaf, Smith and Wheaton colleges. Universities include American, Fordham, Hofstra, LaSalle, Loyola, Northeastern, Temple and the University of Vermont. Other institutions include the Toronto Film School, Rhode Island School of Design, the Pratt Institute, McGill University in Canada and the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. Locally, Deering grads will attend the University of New England and the University of Southern Maine, as well as Southern Maine Community College, Maine College of Art, Maine Maritime Academy and most of the schools within the University of Maine system.

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