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Lyme-Old Lyme graduates bond with laughter and tears

At Lyme-Old Lyme High School, where preservation of natural resources permeates the very ground of its two sending towns, valedictorian Connie Pan invoked the trees.

In a speech with wide ranging references to "The Lorax," "Spider-Man" and "Kung Fu Panda," interspersed with sensitive observations about family, race and the future, she kept her 114 classmates on the verge of both laughter and tears.

Pan called trees the most fascinating organisms on the planet, detailing their growth both upward toward the sky and down into the ground as she spoke Friday night at the Class of 2021's graduation ceremony.

"I've spent my whole life in Old Lyme," she said. "I've grown up with some of you, our trunks nearly intertwined with how close we've been throughout the years; I don't have many memories of childhood without you in them."

She thanked her friends and her teachers, reserving her final words of gratitude for the unconditional support of her parents and brothers.

"To my family, you are the soil I'm rooted in," she said.

Then she went "off script" — with a joking "Sorry, Wygo," directed at Principal James Wygonik to the laughter of the class — when she began talking about what the school has to improve upon in terms of diversity and inclusion.

"As a minority, I have seen more actions and heard more comments than I would like, and I know that we still need to grow in order to make this a better habitat for new trees," she said.

Describing the teachers, staff members and student body as "caring and willing to grow," she said she knows they have the drive they need to make things better.

"Sometimes I'm terrified to leave. This has been my home forever," she said at the start of another smooth transition from serious to hilarious during which she brought up "the wise words" of Superman in that scene where he collapsed in front of mentor Tony Stark and said "I don't feel so good. I don't want to go."

"But when I feel like that, I remember the even wiser words of the even greater Mr. Oogway from 'Kung Fu Panda,'" she said, "'My time has come.'"

The Class of 2021 gave Pan a standing ovation.

Honor essayist Riley Nelson spoke of the outdoors when she likened growing up to taking a walk — an act that took on heightened significance amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The boredom was overwhelming," she said. "But then I received a text from a friend: 'Wanna go for a walk?' It was something simple, and I was allowed to do it because we were outside. My friend and I could walk for hours, sometimes talking about nothing or everything, it didn't matter. Sometimes we picked a direction, sometimes we just wandered, doing multiple laps around that neighborhood and still not wanting to go home."

She told her classmates it's OK to get lost.

"We are leaving our familiar path and venturing on to find new ones. It is a terrifying feeling but I know that it is not a forever feeling," she said. "So, I will allow myself this moment to breathe. And then I will walk across this stage and begin walking again."

Karen Duhamel, an English teacher selected by the students as commencement speaker, voiced a similar sentiment when talking about the walks she'd take with the students during pandemic "mask breaks."

"We reached out to one another and began having conversations we might not have had while in class. We learned more about each other, as well as about ourselves," she said.

Before the ceremony, students gathering in their blue robes and mortar boards talked about the thing that made their class special: it's bond.

Lian Thompson, 17, said the pandemic made the connection even stronger. "We had to unite as a grade," she said.

Riley Fruth, 18, said the bond was forged back in preschool for many of them. But it embraces newcomers as well — like McKenzey Thompson, who arrived sophomore year "and found her pack."

McKenzey Thompson said working backstage on theater productions made her feel like she belonged after she moved up here from Texas.

She said attending Lyme-Old Lyme High School was so much better than her old school, where students were disrespectful and there were a lot of fights.

"I've never seen a fight here," she said. "Maybe there's a kid or two who slacks off, but teachers are always on them to get better."

Class President Lucas Wood-Muller during the ceremony talked about the bond between the classmates, as well as between the students and teachers, during a class welcome that also served as a goodbye.

"I love you all and I wouldn't be where I am today without you," he said. "I wish you all the best success and a happy life. Goodbye and good riddance. Woody out."

e.regan@theday.com

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