EDITOR’S NOTE: When New Bedford High School’s Class of 2021 gathered for graduation June 10, there were speeches by Mayor Jon Mitchell, Superintendent Thomas Anderson, Headmaster Bernadette Coelho and Valedictorian Hongyu Zhao. But perhaps the most powerful words were delivered by Kennedy Johnson, New Bedford High School’s 2021 class president.

A decorated track and field athlete and a frequent charity and daycare volunteer, Kennedy has attended New Bedford public schools since she was a first-grader. With the pandemic, she said the class president’s job seemed different this year: “It was less about money and more about getting people to pay attention, to look at what I was saying.” 

At graduation, however, she held the crowd’s attention with poignant words to cap a tumultuous school year. “I got a couple laughs out of the crowd … I got a couple cries.”

Next year, Kennedy will leave New Bedford for Kutztown University of Pennsylvania where she plans to study elementary education.

Watch the full ceremony via New Bedford Cable Access (Kennedy’s speech starts about 47 minutes in).

Excerpt from Class of 2021 President Kennedy Johnson’s speech:

I hope I am right when I say we all share this one common, déjà vu moment when we hear the date March 13th. I get weirded out every time I look at my Snapchat memories from that day. After realizing things weren’t going back to normal, it felt like a loss of hope to me as a student who was once school-dependent in more ways than one. 

It felt like a change in atmosphere to those of you who wanted that perfect senior year, that perfect prom and that perfect pep rally. I speak for a lot of people when I say, the effects from COVID-19 caught us by the collar and pulled us into a “quarantine depression” they like to call it. So many of us, lacking motivation, picking up the extra night shifts and then falling asleep through our periods with our laptops open, differentiating between what is a top priority and what is no longer on a necessity.

The isolation that came with losing school specifically, is an experience so many of us learned to envy after expecting to be back to school two weeks later, preparing for our junior banquet. These changes made me recognize the lack of knowledge and recognition we have or give when mental health is brought up in discussion. For many, strong, recognizable changes in mood through the day because we just kept waiting and waiting for the day that didn’t feel exactly like the last. It was more than just missing friends, missing parties, and laziness, it was a real emotional change in so many people’s lives, and it was hard to adapt to.

I didn’t expect our year to be this way or come to an end the way it has, but I’m grateful for every one of you, and the opportunity to be here and spend this day with you guys.

For students, parents, and I’m sure many of our staff members, quarantine was so sudden, and COVID was a tidal wave we never expected and never had time to prepare for, and it’s important to address it.

Adapting to our new financial situations and home lives, grieving the losses of family members and friends, waiting to move accordingly, depending on everything that had been happening. I can say that having the access to be in school these last couple of weeks; being around each other; having the ability to see my classmates in person and speak my mind in a way that’s different than home or work; being able to reflect on all these memories we’ve made; and feeling that comfort and normalcy we craved while we were away, feels amazing.

The fact that we’re here right now without a mask on feels amazing in the best way. I don’t like to sound insincere or robotic when I say I am so proud of all of you. They say we won’t be worried about high school in 20 years. They call us “dramatic” for being upset but missing these senior year moments we waited for so long IS sad. I didn’t expect our year to be this way or come to an end the way it has, but I’m grateful for every one of you, and the opportunity to be here and spend this day with you guys and have an in-person graduation.

In the last month alone, that normalcy I mentioned earlier really shined. We’ve been able to have our decision day, plan events … and get ready for our luau. Somehow, we got caught every time we pulled pranks. And I also saw Longo race somebody on the obstacle course the other day, and I thought that that was really funny! He fell, by the way.

I’m really, really excited to see where everyone goes from this point on. From those who continue their education or trade, those who move into the workforce, those who are taking steps into parenthood, to those going into military service — all paths of life, all across the board, regardless of your plans, when we become people who use Facebook to keep up with each other, I will root for every single one of you because success, happiness and comfort — is all you deserve.

I just want to note one more time that we did make it through a global pandemic. You are all amazing, and I wish nothing but the best for you.

Once a Whaler, always a Whaler. Good luck.

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