On the sunny afternoon of June 17, 458 seniors became graduates of Eastern Regional High School at the school’s 55th commencement ceremony.
During the event, graduating students and staff spoke about their time at Eastern over the past four years, and the uniqueness of their situation this year.
“Each class that comes through Eastern’s halls has its own stories,” said guidance counselor Jason Susko, addressing the 2021 grads. “Yours is a story of firsts. Yours was a first class that didn’t have a junior prom. You didn’t have some of the same events that graduating classes that preceded you had, but that will not be your story.
“It will be the story that you did accomplish.”
Salutatorian Arianna Reischer spoke about the growth and memories graduates have created together.
“I’m constantly inspired by the roles you’ve taken on,” she acknowledged. “Whether representing Eastern in athletics, arts and academics, setting examples as veteran members of clubs and activities, or doing good for our community, you have been leaders in every sense of the word.”
She continued to read quotes submitted by seniors that reflected on the four years they’ve been together, interweaving them with reflections of her own.
“Life in itself is hard, and sometimes the seemingly little things, like showing up to class or pushing through that one assignment, are victories,” she noted. “Whether you found your niche in theater, Model UN, field hockey, escape club or the classroom of a favorite teacher, I hope you found people that made you feel like you.”
“Hold onto the memories that made you the happiest,” Reischer added. “The passions and the people who lifted you up. And build on this foundation to create the life that you want to.”
Class President Adam Safier also spoke at the ceremony.
“Regardless of where you end up, there will be challenges,” he observed. “What I’m asking for you is to meet those challenges with your head held high. Continue to strive for success.
“Strive for excellence, and maybe we can attempt to move the world forward,” he added. “ … I’ve learned that not everything goes as planned. Trust me, being a Knicks’ fan has taught me that. But from our personal failures and the failures of the world around us, we persevered.
“Together we persevered and can attempt to make a mark on the real world.”
Bryce Dershem, the class valedictorian, used his speech to talk about self-discovery, mental health and the importance of graduates believing in people as well as themselves. When he spoke about the loneliness he felt when he came out as queer during his freshman year, the microphone got cut abruptly. Classmates chanted, “Let him speak!” After the microphone was replaced, Dershem continued.
“… I am a fighter, and today, I am a survivor. And gosh, I am so happy and so proud to be standing here right now, sun on my face, creating a life worth living and this lasting memory with you all.”
Dershem later told The Sun he believed the mic cut was intentional because he strayed from his approved speech. Just before graduation, Dershem said he was told by Principal Robert Tull that he had to rewrite his speech because it wasn’t inclusive enough and didn’t focus on scholarship. Dershem complied, and worked with teachers and administrators on revising the speech.
Before the new draft was approved, Dershem said it underwent even more revisions that eliminated mentions of his queer identity, among other personal issues like having anorexia and formerly being suicidal. More talk of scholarship was also added. Dershem additionally said he was asked not to wear the Pride flag to the ceremony because it would draw too much attention, although he wore it anyway with no ramifications.
According to Dershem, Tull removed the speech when the mic was cut and asked him to read from his approved speech. However, Dershem felt it was important to speak from the heart, and instead continued to share his original speech – which he had committed to memory – once the microphone was restored.
Though Tull was unavailable for comment, school Superintendent Robert Cloutier issued the following statement: “The principal, working with additional staff as needed, supports students in connecting their educational experiences to a meaningful and inclusive message about the future for all students in the class and for the students’ invited guests.
“Every year, all student speakers are assisted in shaping the speech, and all student speeches, which are agreed upon and approved in advance, are kept in the binder on the podium for the principal to conduct the graduation ceremony. This year, the valedictorian related his personal journey during his high school years to the importance of mental health.”
Dersham concluded his speech with a message on belief.
“Let’s believe in who we love,” he insisted. “Let’s believe in our correct pronouns. Believe regardless of stereotypes and stigma. Believe in the reality of mental illness. Believe one another.
“Buddha said, ‘You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your own love and affection,’” Dershem continued. “Believe in yourself.”