MERIDEN — For Reynaldo Torres, walking across the graduation stage on the Rob Szymaszek Field behind Maloney High School Thursday night marked the culmination of what he felt has been one of the best days of his life.
Just a few hours before graduation, the 19-year-old Torres ran what he said was the best 800-meter race of his high school athletic career. In fact, he set a new school record.
“This is something that I’ve been waiting for for a while,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best days of my life.”
The day also capped off what had been a tumultuous year for Torres, who overcame obstacles in his personal life. He left a foster home, then he moved in with his aunt, and soon left that home too.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Torres said. But he had help along the way, including from his teachers and coaches. Next fall he will start a new chapter at Central Connecticut State University.
With nary a cloud in the sky overhead and a gentle cool summer breeze, Torres was one of 312 members of Maloney High School’s class of 2021 to receive their high school diplomas with scores of family members, faculty and friends cheering them on. About 65% will head off to two and four year schools next fall.
The significance of the day was not lost on graduates, who gathered for one last time as a class, and on the teachers and administrators who’ve taught and led them over the previous four years. Speakers lauded graduates for their perseverance during a year that came with extraordinary challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This class has imprinted our hearts with pride, as we have seen them persevere through the toughest of times,” said Maloney principal Jennifer Straub. “We have seen them reach for the stars and achieve at high levels. They have shown strength, resiliency and compassion. They have risen above sadness and disappointment. They make us believe in a brighter future.”
Class President Kelsey Drost noted the pandemic has shifted everything she and her classmates thought they had known about school. She said change can be scary.
“But out of all the classes that have walked the stage before us, I believe ours is the most adaptable to change,” she said. “... The class of 2021 is more than capable of adapting to the future.”
Class Salutatorian Afrida Hoque continued that thought, saying she sees hope and promise in her fellow graduates.
“ I see a group of strong young adults, who persevered through one of the most difficult times we have ever faced,” she said.
Hoque urged her fellow graduates to always strive for improvement in everything they do.
“Do your best,” Hoque said. “Remember this year. Remember this day. Remember the pandemic that has changed us in many ways. Remember we are stronger, wiser and ready to take on anything we choose.”
In his speech, Valedictorian Garrison Kunst noted that he and his classmates had set expectations throughout their high school experiences. They also encountered experiences and losses they did not expect, including the passing of a classmate in 2019. But he and his classmates recovered from that and other difficult experiences.
“Be resilient,” Kunst said.
Prior to the event, Jeylina Taveras, 17, was seen adjusting her cap, which she had decorated with the words “UConn class of 25.” She heads to Storrs next fall, planning to major in animal sciences.
“I’m honestly excited,” Taveras said. “It’s crazy that it’s coming to an end.”
It wasn’t just graduates and their families who basked in the moment. Their teachers and coaches did too. Maloney track coach Don Askew took it all in as he took photo after photo with student-athletes he had coached over the past four years, as they gathered for one last time.
“It’s just a heartwarming experience,” Askew said. The graduates, he said, “they deserve it. After all they’ve been through this past year, being able to get together with their friends one last time, in person, is huge.”
School Superintendent Mark Benigni described the graduates who were seated before him as “leaders.”
"You have led like no other class before you," Benigni said. "Continue to lead with persistence, passion and purpose.”