WALLINGFORD — Just as soon as he was pronounced a graduate of Lyman Hall High School’s Class of 2021, Henrry Hernandez tossed his graduation cap into the air and did something you can count on at least one graduate at every high school graduation to do:
He fired up a cigar.
“It’s my first one, ever. It smells good, it tastes good, and it’s cheap,” Hernandez said, still puffing away at his Tatiana vanilla mini-cigar as the crowd dispersed at Lyman Hall. “I got a whole new journey ahead of me. I am diving headfirst into the real world, outside of these walls forever.”
Hernandez is among 294 Lyman Hall seniors who left high school behind with a graduation ceremony at Lyman Hall on Friday. He relished the cigar as a symbol, he said, of having survived not just senior year but the thing that he thought would give his Class of 2021 a kind of immortality to his teachers — the pandemic.
It’s a theme repeated at most every high school graduation this year. Not only did these kids survive that last giant step from adolescence to adulthood, high school, but they did it amid the harrowing health crisis.
The Class of 2021 suffered the loss of many one-in-a-lifetime experiences, Principal Joseph Corso said during his speech, but it also was given “opportunities to persevere, to be creative, and to rediscover some of the little things that actually matter the most.”
Class Salutatorian Yagmur Ozturkoglu found Corso’s sentiments apt. She wept briefly as she hugged classmates after the graduation. The shutdown of senior-class activities for almost all of the year made the seniors appreciate each other all the more, she said.
“We all pulled through,” Ozturkoglu said. “As long as we had each other, we could deal with the rest of it.”
One of the class’ National Honor Society members, Ozturkoglu will attend Yale University next fall, where she will study neuroscience. The class also had 49 scholar-athletes, officials said.
As a pandemic precaution, the ceremony was held on the school football field, Corso said. It was an impressive show, with two vast screens relaying television-quality live video of the 1,800 in attendance on the football field and in the stands or watching the live stream on the internet.
The day didn’t end with the ceremony for the graduates. They are spending all night at Lake Compounce as part of their Project Graduation party. The party will be a great place for the seniors to blow off the stress of graduation and the year they have had together, said class President Jaime Blois, who will be attending Bard College and Conservatory where she will be studying violin performance and sociology.
The sisters Shannon and Erin Murray and their grandmother Joyce Murray came because they were proud of Shannon and Erin’s sister, Autumn Murray, for the way she handled her senior year.
“She definitely struggled with being away from her classes,” Erin Murray said, “specifically agriculture, because it is more of an outdoors activity. She really missed her friends and was very happy to be able to come back to school.”
Shannon and Erin said they doubted they could have handled the stress of coronavirus as well as their little sister.
“For her to miss out on so much of her senior year and with the craziness of it all, I don’t know how I would have done,” Shannon Murray said.
“I think the teachers here really helped out. They were very understanding,” Erin Murray said. “They would hang out with them after class [via the internet] and talk to them about needs to be done and being very flexible with them.
“It has been insanity and the fact that everybody just stepped it up to help these students was phenomenal,” she added.