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HARLINGEN – “Surreal.”
More than one graduate from Harlingen High School used that word to describe the feeling of the completing of 12 years of school.
One of them was Javier Gonzalez, valedictorian.
“I’ve dreamed about this day since I was a child,” Gonzalez told his classmates Friday night during commencement ceremonies at Boggus Stadium.
“This all still feels like a dream, and if I pinch myself, I might wake up,” he said.
The Cardinal grads walked the stage at Boggus at 8 p.m. as the heat drifted away.
Earlier in the evening at Bobby Morrow Stadium, the Greyhound seniors of San Benito High School in their purple and gold gowns and their caps adorned with flowers and declarations of success gathered for the conclusion of one stage of life and the beginning of another.
“I’m very excited and a little nervous,” said Valedictorian Cassandra Cruz, 18, before commencement began.
She planned in her speech to address the rather awkward experience of entering high school as an upperclassman after spending her entire sophomore year in lockdown and navigating the uncharted waters of online learning.
“I feel like it just makes me more grateful for everything that I have,” she said.
San Benito High School Principal Marcus Ysasi said this class of graduates has shown a resilience of character unlike any he has seen previously.
“They are the best behaved students I have ever had, very respectful,” he said. “I am very happy for them.”
Earlier this week, Javier’s fellow graduates at Harlingen High School gathered around a table to discuss the past four years which were radically altered, rearranged, reshaped by the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Kaitlynn Thakkar, 18, was very much a social person and fiercely independent. Going into lockdown, and the hours and weeks and months of seclusion, was hard on her.
“I got really introverted,” she said. “I forgot how to talk to people.”
The online learning platforms she attended – from home where the dog barks, the phone rings and the restlessness of a home in lockdown provide an endless number of distractions – it served a purpose for its time, but it was a poor substitute for face-to-face learning in real classrooms.
“It was really super optional, and I would go off concentration,” Kaitlyn said, optional meaning there was not the structure compelling students to actually log-in to class.
“I rebounded really well,” she said. “I’m going to University of Texas in San Antonio to major in marketing.”
San Benito High School Graduate Raelyn Rodriguez spoke about the impact of the lockdown on her social life. She couldn’t see her friends; for a long stretch in this formative time of her life she didn’t talk to them. That went on for more than a year. And when they returned to school, they didn’t know each other. They’d all gone through the isolation on their own, their personalities reshaping and transforming without the influence of their social connections.
But that was two years ago, and she seemed excited to finally have arrived at this momentous occasion.
“It feels awesome,” Raelyn said. “It feels like a big change in my life and I’m moving on to bigger and better things.”
The graduating seniors across Cameron County, the rest of the Rio Grande Valley and throughout the United States – and the world – have emerged from the dark uncertainty of the COVID nightmare ready to face with courage and greater resilience the changes of the people, places and occurrences they encounter throughout the times of their lives.
To see more, view Brownsville Herald photojournalist Denise Cathey’s full photo galleries here: