‘We’ll always be Devils’: Northampton High says goodbye to the Class of 2023


For the Gazette

Published: 06-05-2023 5:48 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The unusually cool weather Sunday did wonders for the packed house inside John M. Greene Hall celebrating Northampton High School’s 157th graduation. On many occasions held this time of year, families would be fanning themselves up in that ancient balcony like spectators at the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Comfort has come to the John M.

One family in the balcony was rooting for Christian Allen, who’ll be studying automotive technology at Mount Wachusett Community College. “He worked his ass off for this,” said older brother Steve.

Christian found his calling at birth, said his mom, Margaret: “Car was his first word!”

The whole family gave props to Melissa Power-Greene, the school’s director of alternative learning, whose tenacity helped pull the young man through. “Everybody needs someone like that,” said Mom.

Tradition lives. To “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Class of 2023, 236 strong, entered the hall, their names randomly hollered from the waving, fist-thrusting gallery.

The legendary Northamptones, counting five grads among their number, delivered a melodic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. In a place as ear-friendly as John M. Greene, you could nearly make out all 17 voices.

Principal William Wehrli conjured the graduates’ not-so-distant childhood as teachers from the city’s elementary schools were recognized, eliciting fond reactions from the teens. Wehrli even asked grads to reflect in silence on all the people who helped them on the way. “Expressing and feeling gratitude … makes the future brighter and makes the world a better place,” he said.

“Let’s recap,” dryly said class co-President Alexis Katz, who joined fellow President Taylor Lynch in a tag team recitation of pertinent events, recalling their days as “puny freshman” trying to fit in, trying to get the hang of things, and no sooner had that bar been hurdled then came: “March 13, 2020. What started as a two-week vacation soon turned into a long-term world of stress,” Katz said. “Then, finally, back in the building, in one-way hallways, scolded for going the wrong way.”

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The disappointment and isolation that came with COVID served to strengthen their resolve when the schools reopened and everything had to be relearned, particularly the social part. “We bonded in such a way that other classes could never have,” Katz said.

Senior Skip Day, which brought weather much like Sunday’s, turned into “a group Polar Plunge,” said Lynch.

But the mere mention of the school’s spring musical, “Rock of Ages,” ignited a roar from grads and parents alike.

“Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’ll always be Devils,” Lynch said.

‘What hope looks like’

In introducing Kate Todhunter as Teacher of the Year, grad Anna Cuthbert-Laidlaw called her history course “the most challenging I ever took … but her enthusiasm was infectious.” Ella Novick mentioned Todhunter’s “vibrant outfits and kickass boots.”

Choking up at times, Todhunter provided insight into the effect COVID had on learners and what had to be overcome.

“Like many teachers who have grown to love this class, I first met you on Zoom,” she said. “I felt like Dora the Explorer without the maps. Some of you actually turned the cameras on, sitting there so despondent. Then junior year, back in person — with MASKS! By senior year we could go outside in warm weather to see what we all looked like.”

Todhunter’s parents gave her the middle name of Hope, something she scoffed at as a youth. “It was the 1970s, a raging war in Vietnam, the nuclear threat, the existential threat of annihilation — who would want to have kids at such a time?” Todhunter asked.

But studying and teaching history helped her to put things in perspective, she said, including uncomfortable realities like genocide. “History is ultimately … not a romanticization of our past,” she said, “but truth is truth.”

“You have experienced a great deal and you live in a planet that, under present conditions, will not sustain itself,” said Todhunter. “But what I have seen in you, day in and day out, is courage, awareness and resilience. You aren’t afraid to stand up and say what you believe. You find fun in anything! Even when stress and anxiety consumes you, you have resilience and heart. You have shown us what hope looks like.”

After the school’s Wind Ensemble’s big band arrangement of “Close to You,” Interim Superintendent Jannell Pearson-Campbell presented Academic Excellence Awards to Sophie Barber, Kira French, Aquinnah Simon and Lynch, all of whom maintained a 4.0 grade point average.

“We made it, my friends!” cried Class Speaker Levi Armstrong, who relished being chosen for the role, “given that I’m the youngest and most immature member of my class.”

Armstrong spoke of the awkward first impression he made at Ryan Road Elementary, coming from “that city known as Hilltowns. This is when I thought dabbing was cool,” he said, of the once popular dance craze, and he suddenly reached for his best move in front of kids he’d just met. “I knew it was going to be flat out hilarious. Deadly silence. Great. Now I’m that dab kid.”

But on a subsequent field trip someone told him he wasn’t just the new kid, he was the cool new kid. Welcome to Northampton. “Never should you change yourself for others,” said Armstrong, “and please don’t think about outcomes,” using the example of Conan O’Brien being rejected for what he thought was his dream job, and ending up writing for “The Simpsons,” his real dream job.

His advice to his classmates? “Fellas, don’t stop showering. If you think it might be time to take a shower — do it!”

“This town has done its very best to prepare you for the real world and you can change the world,” Armstrong concluded. “I love you more than you’ll ever know.”

Wehrli presented diplomas to the graduates, Pearson-Campbell and Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra sent them off, tassels were switched, mortarboard caps were tossed in the air, and back into the bracing late-April chill strode the grads and their shivering loved ones.

“Teachers are so welcoming, there for you every step of the way,” said Jack Sullivan, who’ll be leaving for the Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall and plans to hang out with as many Blue Devils as he can this summer.

Baruani Ngoy, who came here with his family as refugees from Africa, said, “I will miss the teachers, my fellow students, and the people who helped us, like the Circle of Care.” He’s on to Westfield State in the fall, but he’s got Hamp in the summer, he says, and all the friends who come with it.