Class of 2024 celebrates at Needham High School graduation/ Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

The Needham High School Class of 2024 graduated Sunday afternoon under a bright sun on Memorial Field, as families and friends filled the hill with lawn chairs, beach umbrellas, sunglasses and gleaming smiles in support. 

Capping off their 13 years in the Needham Public Schools, the 421 graduates crossed the stage on the 30-yard line to receive their diplomas and commence the next phase of their young lives. 

Describing the accomplishments of the Class of 2024, Pierre Jean, assistant principal and master of ceremonies, emphasized the impact the class has had in the larger community. 

“As I’ve gotten to know you as a class and individuals, I am most impressed with your ability to use your voices to address issues in our community,” said Jean. “You’ve partnered with staff and collaborated with each other — all with the goal of making Needham High School a more welcoming community for all.”

He highlighted new traditions instated by the Class of 2024, including Senior Bike Day and clap-out. 

Student speakers Mikayla Tow and Emerson Ward emphasized the pride and gratitude they felt in reaching this milestone, as well as the unique accomplishments this particular class made in uniting across differences. 

Highlighting this moment as one of culmination but also transition, Tow recalled receiving her Needham email address in third grade — what she called her “digital identity” in the public school system. She said at the time, the “24” in her school email address seemed like a distant reality. Now, “these codes have become synonymous with so much more” than just a class year. Instead, she said, they call to mind many moments and memories of the past decade. 

These emails are now set to be deleted, and the Class of 2024 will have to embrace new identities and opportunities. Though some may find this transition scary, Tow urged her classmates to embrace the change. “By being OK with uncertainty,” said Tow, “we find the freedom to shape our own paths, learn from our mistakes and seize new opportunities with courage.”

Needham High School principal Aaron Sicotte, who joked he was reluctant to have to follow Tow’s speech, emphasized the moments behind the scenes that brought the students to this momentous occasion. From the custodial staff setting up of Memorial Field to the sacrifices of loved ones to the “very real challenges, stumbles, and frustrations” students have experienced, Sicotte said these moments “make it all the more necessary and important to say congratulations.”

 Sicotte’s advice for the class was to lead with curiosity. 

Assistant Principal Pierre Jean served as MC at NHS graduation/ Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

Referencing a divisive political atmosphere in the country and world at large, as well as the physical divisions that marked the beginning of the Class of 2024’s high school experience (the class was the first to enter high school during the coronavirus pandemic), Sicotte applauded the students’ ability to counter those divisions with “strong interpersonal connections. Over your four years, you found opportunities in and outside of the classroom to find connections with each other instead of divisions,” he said. 

He affirmed his belief that the students of the Class of 2024 are badly needed in — and are well-prepared for — the larger world. “You are the ones who are going to change this divisive atmosphere,” said Sicotte. “I believe in you, because where I have seen a lot of curiosity, both in general and toward others, is right here at Needham High School and from this amazing group.”

In her speech, Elizabeth Lee, chair of the School Committee, echoed that the graduates have the skills and the capabilities the world needs. Although students may not “always feel capable [and] won’t often feel ready,” Lee was firm in saying they can “trust that the challenges of the past have in fact prepared you for your future.”

In the second student speech of the ceremony, Emerson Ward also emphasized the resilience of the Class of 2024 in the face of COVID and other challenges. 

“We did not let the adversity we experienced stifle our achievements or growth,” said Ward. “In fact, it did quite the opposite: motivating us to find our voices in tense classrooms, branch out to new people and redefine what our education is going to look like.

“All the noise around us did not silence us as a group of students. In this crowd, I can hear booming voices emanating intelligence, charisma and compassion.”

Ward expressed gratitude for the untold work and sacrifices of loved ones, the community, teachers and school staff to get the students to this moment. 

The energy on Sunday on the hill was palpable and infectious. When class president Brad Hammermesh announced the class gift, he said, “Something our class has embraced is making noise.”

Hammermesh described the impact the class has had on Needham High School, the town and the broader community. The class gift is an improved portable audio system that can be used at a number of school events. Following the announcement of the class gift, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst took the stage. Recalling a recent job candidate and Needham High School alum who said she didn’t even remember him being at her 2018 graduation, he chose instead to address the caregivers, joking, “Maybe you’ll remember.” 

Gutekanst admitted that the past 13 years have been imperfect. Drawing a parallel between caregivers and educators, he said, “Raising children, teaching young minds, is a complicated, messy affair” and “it’s inevitable you’ll get it wrong sometime.”

Still, Gutekanst said, “The act of nurturing human beings, these young people, has been challenging, for sure, but joyful nonetheless,” and caregivers, teachers and students have a lot to be proud of.

“They sit before us, eager and prepared, but they, like us, are unfinished,” he said.

When Sicotte was asked what makes this graduation special — the eighth during his time as principal — his answer was simple, and it pointed back to the students themselves: “They are amazing people. 

“This group, over the last few years, has been outstanding at setting such a positive tone throughout the building,” Sicotte said. “We’ve really enjoyed having them.”

Congratulations and best of luck to the graduating seniors in their next endeavors.

Rose Evans is a recent graduate of Middlebury College.

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