Despite a very wet Monday night, the Needham High School hill was packed as the graduating class of 2023, abuzz with anticipation, filed onto Memorial Field.

After the opening ceremonies, Esha Kelkar, the first student speaker, approached the podium. In lieu of a valedictorian or salutatorian, Needham offers students the opportunity to submit a speech to be considered for the graduation address.

Quoting Taylor Swift, Kelkar told her peers not to be afraid of change: “Take my hand and drag me headfirst. Fearless.” She told her classmates that while they don’t know what may happen down the road, “All we can do is approach each day thoughtfully.” 

Principal Aaron Sicotte then addressed the students. He reflected on the unique experience this class has had, one he says is inextricably paired with the pandemic.   

“Over their four years, they’ve been asked to wait, told to wait, not given much of a chance not to wait,” Sicotte told the Needham Observer.   

“Even this hugely important moment, the culmination of your years as a student in Needham, had to wait an extra day,” he said in his commencement address. “Frankly, given all you’ve been through, it sort of feels fitting.” 

Sicotte’s message to the class was clear.

“Stop waiting,” he said. “Don’t wait to plan your big adventure. Don’t wait to say yes to that unique opportunity. Don’t wait to walk up to that person you can’t take your eyes off and start a conversation. Don’t wait.” 

Sicotte told the Observer that despite their challenges, he believes this class is more ready to improve the world around them than any other group heading out at this stage in their lives because of the perspective they gained. 

“We focus on the negatives — and there are many — but there’s also real growth, fortitude, compassion.” 

Following Sicotte’s remarks, the Needham High School chorus performed “The Road Home” by Steven Paulus. Then student speaker Rachel Talcoff took the stage. 

“As I reflect on our time spent together, some of the greatest joys and proudest moments, for me, have been when members of the Needham High School community noticed a hole and found a way to fill it — when we’ve practiced resilience despite a changing and challenging world,” said Talcoff, likening it to the creative, collaborative approach the school community took to fill the upper lot potholes. She urged her classmates to “transform silence into language and action. Be the one who is willing not just to point out the holes, but to work to fill them. Even if it’s not your job.” 

Class President Kathleen Grady followed Talcoff to present the class gift, an outdoor classroom space and a contribution to the Class of 2027 fund. 

School Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter shared her hope that the students would go forth and find their “place just right.” 

“Be specific about what is important to you,” she said. “Don’t voluntarily spend time with anyone who makes you feel less than. Be intentional in allocating time to the actions that will help you reach your goals.”   

Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst joined Longo Carter to present The Needham High School Award for Academic Excellence to Evangelos Tsingos and The Needham High School Award for Service to Kathleen Grady. 

Gutekanst offered a few words of advice for the class of ‘23 shared with him by High Rock School sixth graders. “They watch everything you do and say. Their advice is innocent, full of wonder, and reminds us to look after one another,” he said, reminding the students that these are the same kids who idolize them. 

Gutekanst told the Observer that he is excited to see what the future holds for these students. He also said he was sorry they didn’t get a snow day this year. 

To conclude the ceremony, school faculty and administrators presented students with their diplomas. Then, as tradition dictates, students shifted their tassels and tossed their water-logged mortar boards in celebration. 

You can watch coverage of the Needham High School Graduation Ceremony on the Needham Channel

Read the full transcripts of the student speeches.

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