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SDHS seniors cut own path through covid

Unexpected year met with resolve by Class of 2021

By Mallory Panuska

(June 10, 2021) Members of Stephen Decatur High School’s class of 2021 missed out on a lot of rites of passage because of the covid-19 pandemic.

But last week, thanks to the lifting of strict pandemic-era capacity and mask restrictions, they got to experience an almost completely normal graduation ceremony on the lawn of their school’s stadium in Berlin.

“Each one of you have had dreams of what your senior year would be,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said to the 302 graduates decked out in their blue and white caps and gowns last Tuesday evening.

“No matter how fantastical those dreams may have been, I know none of them included a global pandemic …” he continued. “This is the hand you’ve been dealt [and the fact] that you made it here tonight — in person no less — is worth celebrating.”

Taylor and others who spoke during the ceremony —  including principal Tom Sites, class president Emily Stitely and the official commencement speaker, Al “Hondo” Handy — liberally used words like perseverance and resilience to describe the young men and women who received diplomas last week.

The ability to overcome the challenges of a global pandemic was something the students had not prepared for, but it was something they took in stride. And they even managed to go above and beyond with an array of awards and accomplishments in academics, sports, arts, service and more that will set them up for bright futures.

“There is uncertainty in where we are headed now coming out of a worldwide pandemic but I have confidence because of what I see in front of me this evening,” Sites said to the graduates.

Handy, who was one of the first Black students to attend Stephen Decatur, is no stranger to overcoming challenges. He recalled the early difficulties of maneuvering hallways filled primarily with students who were not like him, and the struggle of excelling at basketball as a short guy. But he shared a sound piece of advice that his longtime mentor gave him when he expressed a desire to play the sport, and encouraged the graduates to take it with them as they move on to their next chapters: “If you think you can, you can.”

And Handy did. He was a member of the 1970 Stephen Decatur championship basketball team and went on to become a pillar of the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department, retiring in 2019 after more than 40 years in the position. He also earned a number of awards and recognitions over the years for his work and dedication, and passed some of the life lessons onto the 2021 graduates.

“Whatever you choose to do, you must be committed. Commitment is vital to you if you want to be successful,” he said. “I encourage you to think about some of the things that I promoted at the recreation center, things like respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility and perseverance.”

For Stitely, seeing her fellow classmates finally gathered, ready to accept their diplomas and start their lives after four years of hard work was a positive experience. And despite the challenges of the pandemic, the graduates accomplished quite a bit.

“This class has accounted for numerous sports wins and titles, breaking school records and state records, and all while maintaining extraordinary grades,” she said. “Numerous service projects have blossomed from the minds of our class and gone into action within our community. From beach cleanups and little free libraries, to donation drives and fundraisers, there’s no doubt that we will be leaving this community with a positive impact from our time here at Decatur.”

Stitely also pointed out that she and her classmates missed out on important social experiences, like their homecoming walk at the beginning of the year when the pandemic was still surging, and the chance to be “at the top of the food chain” as seniors after four long years of waiting for it.

For that, she led her peers in their first and only seniors chant, a tradition passed on annually from class to class and typically belted out at sporting and other public events, many of which the class of 2021 missed out on.

Sites also provided the following stats regarding the class of 2021:

  • 302 total graduates
  • 130 attending four-year schools, 61 attending two-year schools, and nine attending trade and technical schools.
  • 9 students entering the military
  • 18 entering into work in a related field of study
  • 75 entering the workforce.
  • A total $8.769 million in scholarships were offered to the graduates and school officials have yet to finalize how much will be accepted