The Homewood-Flossmoor High School class of 2022 was showered with congratulations and several episodes of thunderous applause during the graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 29, but they also received some straight talk from student government leaders and from District 233 Board of Education President Gerald Pauling.
First, Pauling applauded the seniors for overcoming an obstacle no other class has had to face: a global pandemic.
“You didn’t let anything stop you — not COVID, not Delta, not Omicron,” he said, referring to variants of the virus that fueled successive waves of infections. “You made it to this point today, and it’s a testament to your strength, your resilience and your will to win.”
Then Pauling issued a call to action, citing the many challenges facing the community and the nation, from increasing gun violence; the easy availability of illicit drugs; economic disparity; and increasing political, racial and religious divisions.
As examples, he referred to two recent tragedies that have captured the attention of the nation, the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
He reminded the students that they are about to become adults and will share in the responsibility of seeking solutions to those problems.
“I’m not going to disrespect you by telling you what you gotta do. I’m just saying do something. Make the decision yourself as to the what, but do something,” he said. “We can’t truly solve these problems without you. You are our strongest weapon. You are intelligent. You are creative. You are enthusiastic. Working together we can secure our future.”
Student leaders preceded Pauling on the stage.
Ayomide Ajayi, president of the Student Government Executive Board, also noted the major challenges the class of 2022 had faced in each year of its H-F journey.
He referred to a racist incident in the class’s freshman year. Several white H-F students were seen on social media wearing blackface and harassing a Black student at a fast food establishment. That led to a large student protest.
“This event shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt but as a lesson. We should use these experiences as a point of development as we continue to deal with prejudice and injustice throughout the world,” he said.
Their sophomore year was cut short by the first surge of COVID-19 cases, which prompted the state to close schools in an effort to slow the spread.
Their junior year was spent in remote learning rather than traditional classrooms, and Ajayi noted that tough as that was, it made history.
“This moment we’ve experienced may someday be written in textbooks and taught to our great grandchildren just as we read in our history books about the black plague or the great migration,” he said.
Their senior year saw more protests as students brought attention to allegations of sexual abuse among the student body and called for more action on the part of district officials.
Ajayi was followed by class president Alexandria Edison. A wind gust absconded with her cap a few seconds into her speech, but it wasn’t able to disrupt her poise.
She employed redwood trees in an analogy to encourage fellow seniors to be selective in whom they associate with as they begin their post-high school lives.
She noted that redwoods in Northern California can grow as tall as 300 feet.
“It’s pretty amazing that one seed can grow to be so tall. For that to happen, the seed must be in the right climate and have the right soil,” she said. “Graduates, for a moment I would like you to picture yourself as a seed. What’s your climate like? Who are your friends? Are these people helping you or hurting you? If they aren’t growing, then you won’t grow.”
Pauling also recognized the service of retiring Superintendent Von Mansfield during his remarks.
“Ms. (Jodi) Bryant helped me do the math. By our count you have graduated nearly 15,000 students,” Pauling said. “All of those students are students you showed up for and stood up for and helped create pathways for success.
“Your consistent, determined, tenacious advocacy for our students and our children has mattered, it has made a difference and it truly is appreciated.”
Photos by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle.