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Lakeland’s graduates navigated ‘uncharted territory’

Praised for their resiliency during the coronavirus pandemic and lauded for their academic achievements, Lakeland High School’s class of 2021 graduated during a June 12 ceremony at Old Dominion University’s Chartway Arena.

“You’ve emerged from a year-and-a-half of pandemic distance learning with success,” said Lakeland Principal Doug Wagoner. “You’ve engaged with, and overcome, trials and tribulations that have never before been experienced by high school students. You are here because you persevered and continued to learn under unfamiliar circumstances.

“And while as an educator I value those lessons that we have deemed worthy for you to learn in school, I definitely believe that just having lived this last year and a half has taught you lessons that school never would be able to.”

The day, Wagoner said, was meant to celebrate the lives of the graduating seniors, along with their futures and their successes.

And celebrate they did.

School Board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck noted that roughly 40% of seniors graduating from the city’s three public high schools did so with honors. Among the 254 Lakeland graduates noted in the commencement program, they earned acceptances from more than 50 colleges and universities and nearly $2 million so far in scholarships and awards from colleges and community organizations.

Lakeland Counseling Director Sheila Williams recognized the eight students who completed the dual enrollment program through the College and Career Academy at Pruden and Paul D. Camp Community College. She lauded the four graduates who earned a general education certificate from Camp, including valedictorian Joshua Aldridge, who also earned an associate degree from Tidewater Community College. She also noted the achievement of Ashton Eller, who earned a full scholarship to Virginia Tech.

Three other graduates were also honored for receiving an Associate of Arts and Sciences in General Studies from Camp — Rhiannon Colley, Michela Brown-Mayfield and Christiana Green, the latter two earning Magna Cum Laude status for having a 3.5 to 3.799 grade-point-averages.

Williams said those were just a sampling of what Lakeland students have accomplished throughout high school.

Wagoner praised parents and staff for their work with the graduating seniors, particularly pushing them in the midst of the pandemic.

“We recognize the contributions of the faculty and staff of Lakeland High School,” Wagoner said, “without whose diligence and resolve, more than one of these youth would not be seated here today. In particular, we pause to recognize the efforts of our staff to provide learning opportunities through a pandemic that has been so hard on everyone.”

He said that as some in society debated what was real or make-believe, at Lakeland, students learned science and to think critically in order to make intelligent decisions no matter the confusion going on in the world.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III shared a similar message with graduates at all three high schools, saying they showed grit and determination in reaching the finish line of a high school diploma. He praised the exemplary students in the school’s Project Lead the Way biomedical program, love and care of staff members, students and school community, noting that they all are “hashtag LHS awesome.”

“I don’t have to tell you that the Lakeland High School graduating class of 2021 has been through a lot,” Gordon said. “As soon as they finally became upperclassmen, a pandemic hit. They lost the ability to see their friends and their favorite teachers every day. They lost their spring sports season. And life as we know it changed. But our Cavaliers did not let that stop them.”

Gordon also awarded Michela Brown-Mayfield the Superintendent’s Scholarship of $333.33, denoting his status as “the third.” Brown-Mayfield, ironically, had a 3.33 GPA among her numerous achievements.

Salutatorian Asia Day addressed her peers by saying she wouldn’t offer profound wisdom or advice. “I can’t possibly do that knowing how people have dealt with their own pandemic situations, whether good or bad.”

Rather, she noted everyone’s resiliency in making it through the pandemic storm.

“Yes, we missed out on our prom, our pep rallies and just overall socializing with friends and teachers,” Day said. “But I can’t say I’m too bummed about it. My parents have preached that everything happens for a reason.”

In the past year, Day said she has learned to connect with loved ones, and said good friends and the community have also been important to her.

“I’ve accepted, yes, my brothers are disgusting, but they are the sweetest guys on the planet,” Day said. “I’ve learned my little sister is a little annoying, but she looks up to me and would give me the shirt off her back. I’ve embraced that my parents are crazy, but all their energy makes our house a home.”

Though no one can change what’s happened over the past year, Day said, “what we can do is have gratitude that we made it through with the help of people we love and those that have left positive impact on our lives. With this in mind, we can take our next steps into the world with passion, the courage of conviction and a strong sense of self.”

Aldridge, in his valedictory address, said his fellow students pushed on even when they might have wanted to give up. He credited his teachers, friends and family with helping him get through the biomedical program.

“Our generation has been to uncharted territory,” Aldridge said. “COVID-19 came and made a complete global movement that changed every aspect of our lives. Having to deal with physical isolation from our friends and loved ones, and virtual learning, was definitely an adjustment that was forced upon us.

“But by the same token, coronavirus has reminded us of an important lesson. There will be days when we face dark times. There will be days when we feel as though there’s no end in sight. There are some situations that some people experience and it completely shatters our precious dreams and aspirations.”

He said just as viral videos come and go, and one can be liked one minute and hated the next, everyone should make a constant effort to take care of themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, saying true joy only comes from within. It will take persistence, confidence and patience in order to overcome hardships.

“I want to encourage you all,” Aldridge said. “There is a time and season for everything to take place. Just like there will be a time of lack, there will be a time of abundance. Just like there’s a time of mourn, there’s also a time of happiness and laughter. As there is also a time for work, there’s also a time for rest and rejuvenation.”