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Concord High Class of 2017 reflects, looks ahead to future

  • The Concord High School Class of 2017 throws their caps into the air following Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Memorial Field. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staffThe Concord High School Class of 2017 throws their caps into the air following Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Memorial Field.

  • Sincere Thomas (center) dances across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Seniors perform "Rivers and Roads," arranged by Madison Simpson (left), during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Meghan Sweatt pumps a fist into the air as she walks across the stage to receive her diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Niyonkuru Patrick gives a peace sign as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation on Saturday.

  • Niyonkuru Patrick gives a peace sign as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation on Saturday.

  • Jacob Dusseault waves as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Valedictorian Brinkley Brown waves as Principal Tom Sica finishes her introduction during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Jacqueline Bengtson gives the Memory Chair address during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staffJacqueline Bengtson gives the Memory Chair address during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday.

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Senior reflections speaker Ryan Warner takes a selfie during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Seniors perform "Rivers and Roads" during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Katelyn Comire walks across the stage during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Hunter Cini walks across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Gillian Bennett walks to the stage to give the closing remarks during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • U.S. District Judge Hon. Steven McAuliffe speaks during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Esther Elonga walks across the stage to receive her diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Lindsay Irwin receives her diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Christopher Fields walks across the stage to receive his diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Juliet Greenwood receives her diploma during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Senior reflections speaker Ryan Warner during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday.

  • Senior reflections speaker Ryan Warner during the Concord High School graduation at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday.

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • This year's Concord High School graduation took place at Memorial Field in Concord on Saturday, June 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Saturday, June 17, 2017

As the roughly 400 members of the Concord High School Class of 2017 took their seats Saturday, they all passed a conspicuously empty seat on the stage, marked with a single white rose.

The Memory Chair is a Concord High tradition, principal Tom Sica said, one that dates back to the early 2000s, and serves as a stand-in for loved ones who are absent from the ceremony. But the simple folding chair also symbolizes the bittersweet nature integral to all graduations, one class president Gillian Bennett summed up at the beginning of her remarks.

“Graduation puts us on the cusp of becoming something better, something new, something more than we have already become,” she said. “But in order to move into something new, we must leave something else behind.”

For at least two students, the day could not go without a mention of their beloved former principal Gene Connolly, who retired last year – two years after being diagnosed with ALS. Jacqueline Bengtson, who spoke about the Memory Chair, dedicated it to those who committed suicide, and invoked Connolly when urging her peers to take care of one another.

“As Mr. Connolly said, open your minds to everyone you meet,” she said. “If you see someone lost in darkness, reach out.”

Ryan Warner said the senior class gift – 40 flags representing countries where Concord High students had immigrated from, which will be hung around the school’s campus – was also a result of the lessons Connolly had taught them. Connolly was principal during a period of time when Concord saw an influx of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“We thought the class gift should embody acceptance,” Warner said.

But the day was as much about new beginnings as it was about looking back, particularly when it comes to being an active and successful citizen.

Steven McAuliffe, U.S. District Judge and widow of Christa McAuliffe, noted he had the privilege of recently overseeing a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens just a few weeks ago, including some CHS students. He encouraged graduates to take a page from these new citizens when heading into the world and accepting their own role as participating members of society.

“They don’t just appreciate the right to think, speak and worship freely, they revere it,” he said.

One of those New Americans, Esther Elonga, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, got a shout-out from valedictorian Brinkley Brown. The two girls will be attending Harvard together, and Brown said her friend’s hard work, along with the work her father did with the civil rights movement, reminded her of the importance of voting and fighting for your beliefs.

“I knew that no amount of hatred, no wall, no one person who dared to tell me that America – my America, Esther’s America, and my dad’s America – is not great, could not stop the inevitable bend,” she said, referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Salutatorian Natalie Irwin said her class is remarkable in that it refuses to stand “on the sidelines of change,” such as when a small group organized the school’s first Week of Action to raise awareness about social activism.

“This class does not just sit back and wait for others to make our communities better,” she said.

The graduation was held before a full house. There was hardly an empty seat to be found at Memorial Field as friends, family, students and faculty gathered for the commencement ceremony.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)