GRADUATION 2023: South Stanly Class of 2023 looks back over 18 years of life

Published 11:36 am Saturday, June 10, 2023

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South Stanly High School’s Class of 2023 went on a trip down memory lane Friday during its commencement.

Stanly County Schools 2023 Teacher of the Year Meredith Howell was the guest speaker who stirred images of their 13 years of public education and 17-18 years of life.

Before Howell, graduation speaker Reese Whitley highlighted how kindness was pivotal over the last four years of high school.

“Each of us has been shaped by the actions of one another. I find we share an overwhelming desire to see one other succeed,” Whitley said. “I’ve been shown kindness in so many ways, supported through the turbulent college application process, spent many class periods pouring over notes with others, being offered jackets when it’s cold or snacks when you’re hungry — small tokens of generosity indicative of an underlying kindness.

“I personally made brownies for every tennis match, watched every single basketball game from the score table and (have) done what I can to keep our school clean and safe whenever possible.”

She used this example in a challenge for the future.

“I encourage you to continue to be the helpful and kind individuals I know you to be — whether through picking up trash or offering a kind word to others,” the National Honor Society and Student Council leader said. “Whether through volunteer work, donations or simple kindness to your peers, I urge you to foster the kindness each of us is capable of with the knowledge of your legacy left.”

To begin Howell’s message, she asked graduates to be present in the moment, first by closing their eyes and counting to 18 — one for each year of life. She then highlighted those 18 years in roughly 18 minutes.

Howell noted that 2005, the year many graduates were born, was the year her teaching career began.

During the first five years of life for these graduates, Howell was taking her first steps as a teacher.

“I hope some of you remember story time in Mrs. Davis or Mrs. Starnes’ Oakboro kindergarten classes, riding the train around the parking lot at Aquadale Elementary, performing a Pilgrim play for Thanksgiving, smiling with grandparents for Grandparents Day, dressing up for Dr. Seuss week for the first time, meeting Smokey the Bear, or taking a cool field trip to Pizza Hut,” she said.

The next five years brought two children to Howell and adapting to working with less sleep. For graduates, those years brought memories of the Mighty Milers Club at Aquadale, trips to Lucky Five Ranch, story time with Mrs. Parry or Mrs. Coyote, “the coolest recess item of all time — the parachute,” swim lessons at the YMCA, celebrating the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl and saying goodbye to Oakboro as a feeder school.

Among the middle school years came many firsts — first time in the South district for some, first middle school dance, first school teams like volleyball, tennis, cross country, football or cheerleading.

“By 2020, I had taught for 16 years, but teaching virtually was a whole new learning curve. As sophomores, many of you chose to complete school virtually, only to figure out that it was a little more difficult to keep up with work that way. And time seemed to slow down,” she said. “With changing norms and changing plans A, B, C and going to school one week and not the next or going two days a week in person, it was a time of stress, but also a time to learn flexibility.”

During their junior year of 2021, it was the first year of the fully-functioning barn of animals and a year South had state champs in wrestling, golf and softball.

As she hit talk of senior year, Howell mentioned many of the achievements the Class of 2023 has made.

“Sitting among you today, we have 25 early graduates, 18 students with Latin honors recognition, two students graduating with an associate’s degree, 26 students with diploma endorsements, three students who have committed to serving in the military and 33 students who achieved a silver or higher on their Workkeys assessment,” she said.

“I must say that going through all of your yearbooks to find this information was a lot of research,” she added. “However, in reflecting on the past 18 years of your life growing up in our community, I am constantly reminded that this small community is awesome. The place where these memories have been made is full of great people, you all included. These past four years I have witnessed so many people in this school, this community who were invested in you. They invested their time to ensure you felt welcomed and valued and loved. They invested their time to help you succeed and reach your goals and see your potential. They invested their time to push you, celebrate you and appreciate you.”

Howell went through a list of educators and staff members who played a role in getting graduates to this day.

“Every single one of these people I just named have invested their time into you. And, they did it, not because of the paycheck despite popular belief; instead, they did it because somewhere in the past, they had someone who invested time in them — and they are paying it forward now,” she said. “Likewise, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was a member of a program called Youth Leadership Stanly. The mission of this program was to create leaders in our county’s youth, but most importantly, leaders who would invest their abilities and time in their home county once they went out to pursue their own dreams and aspirations. I would like to say that I took that to heart, to invest in this county that I grew up in. So now, as graduates of the South Stanly Class of 2023, I challenge you to do the same: to invest something — a gift of your time, a gift of your money, or a gift of your support — in our community at some point in your life.

“I know that some of you have plans to leave and to never come back,” she added. “But I hope that you do not forget that these people, this school, this community shaped you — and it will forever be a part of your identity. While not all of these past 18 years have been the best or most positive experiences in your life, I hope that you realize that it has shaped your path to this place today and will continue to resonate with you as you leave. As future parents, one day you may invest time in being a positive role model in our South Stanly community. As future workers, one day you may invest time into jobs or hobbies that allow you to uplift our community in some way. As future college graduates, one day you may find some way to support our community, in ways near or far. As future military graduates, one day you may tell stories of how your sacrifices for our nation are a direct reflection of this community that built you. Whatever your gift may be one day to this community, whether it be in the form of money, raising your own family here, investing in the children of our community, I challenge you to find a way to honor what South Stanly has meant to you. In the future, while we won’t always have the money or power, we can make time to invest in our community — to build it up, to be good role models, to support it. To me, this community has been my life, and I want, I hope, I dream to see it continue growing. As your teacher, I have invested much time into this school, this community — and much time into you. We all have invested time into you; graduates, you are all important to all of us.”