WOONSOCKET – A tough year ended on a jubilant note as Woonsocket High School’s class of 2012 strode off into the great unknown with words of encouragement and sage advice Friday.
After a ceremony spiced with student performances of pop music, 309 seniors picked up diplomas in the gymnasium, where hundreds of spectators gathered, clutching balloons and sounding the occasional noisemaker.
“Be the best version of yourself possible” was Valedictorian Justyna Pietrus’s parting advice to her classmates. “No matter what your version of success is work until you get there.”
Pietrus was one of the students who recently participated in a class trip to Rwanda, a country scarred by ethnic hatred and genocide. She said she would always remember the “tiny African nation” as a place that brought out the best and worst of mankind. By contrast, at WHS, “there always seemed to be something fun going on.”
That students could still find the atmosphere fun during this year of financial strife and uncertainty may be the most potent evidence of the class of 2012’s resiliency. Principal Lynne Bedard said cuts in last year’s budget meant fewer teachers and class choices for students. And nearly from the get-go, the question of whether there would be enough money on hand to keep schools from closing early has hung over the class of 2012 like a dark cloud.
At the same time, many students struggled to overcome personal challenges to stay on track and make it through four years of high school, said School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier. For them, the “power of perseverance” has been the key to success, and McGuire Forcier said those who’ve made it this far need only apply the same stick-to-it-iveness to find a bright future beyond high school.
“When faced with challenges, don’t back down,” she said. “When you fall, be positive. Pick yourself up and face the future. There is nothing you can’t handle.”
As the ceremony began, the Woonsocket Police Department’s Honor Guard, followed by that of the WHS’s ROTC contingent, led the members of the processional, bedecked in maroon and white, to their seats at the head of the gymnasium. In addition to members of the School Committee and City Council, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan and Principal Bedard were among the dignitaries.
Like Bedard, Fontaine’s remarks alluded to the city’s fiscal crisis. He didn’t mention it, but the question of how teachers will be paid for the last payroll period of the year remains in limbo as a state-appointed Budget Commission wrestles with a $10 million budget deficit in the Woonsocket Education Department.
“It hasn’t been easy being mayor lately,” Fontaine said. “It’s been hard.”
Then again, Fontaine said, this isn’t the first time life in Woonsocket has been hard. During the Depression, he said, his father scavenged mill sites for scrap linoleum to replace the soles on his shoes. Everyone sacrificed through the tough times.
“This city will make it through the challenges we face now,” the mayor said. “The city has a way of pulling through.”
When times get tough, Fontaine said, “Novans stick together.”
“There is greatness all around you, in each and every one of you,” he said.
The ceremony kicked off with a rousing rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” by graduating senior Joseph Moore. Midway through the ceremony, a song-and-dance number featuring several members of the graduating class had the contingent in caps and gowns making human waves and clapping time to the beat.
While family members and others with tickets, two per grad, watched live in the gymnasium, the overflow crowd watched on closed circuit TV projected onto a big screen in the auditorium. Normally, there’s room for everybody at outdoor Barry Field, but this year the ceremony was forced indoors by the threat of rain.