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'Tenacious and strong': Superior High School's Class of 2022 overcomes four years of uncertainty

“You are resilient, adaptable survivors, tenacious and strong,” Superior High School Assistant Principal Bill Punyko told the class of 2022.

A packed crowd at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex watches as the Superior High School graduating class of 2022 tosses their mortarboards in the air
A packed crowd at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex watches as the Superior High School graduating class of 2022 tosses their mortarboards in the air to finish out the ceremony Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Friends and families packed the football bleachers at Superior High School Friday, June 3, to watch the class of 2022 triumph over four years of flux. They carried flowers, sent up cheers and wiped away tears.

Nam Nguyen, Superior High School’s Student Council President, addresses the platform guests
Nam Nguyen, Superior High School’s Student Council president, addresses the platform guests during graduation outside at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Student council president Nam Nguyen summed up some of the barriers his class navigated during their high school years after the final diploma was handed out.

“If anyone out there is actually nervous about college, all I have to say is that we are the most prepared out of all of the grades before us. We started the school year with construction; half of us had to eat on the stairs. Our sophomore year was cut short. Last year wasn’t even real school, honestly. And then this year was a mix of normal school and the pandemic, so I would say we are very prepared for college,” Nguyen said.

The school handed out 295 diplomas to the class of 2022, according to Principal Rick Flaherty. Additional students are expected to earn their diplomas by the end of summer.

Student speaker Armella Lane said adapting to the continuous changes was tough.

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“But you’re sitting here, right now; that proves you can overcome anything,” she said.

The senior said she struggled with her mental health, especially during the isolation of junior year, and considered giving up school. Lane shared a piece of advice, one her mother had given her.

“You hold the key to your own life, your own happiness, your own success, your self love,” Lane said.

Brooke Hendry walks across the stage to get her diploma during the Superior High School graduation
Brooke Hendry walks across the stage to get her diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

She encouraged her classmates to carry those words with them as they move on.

Brodie Raygor raises his arms while walking down the ramp after receiving his diploma
Brodie Raygor raises his arms while walking down the ramp after receiving his diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“When you think all is lost; when you’re in the dark and you want to give up; when you feel like you can’t get out of bed; when you feel like one little pin drop will send you spiraling, I want you to remember your key,” Lane said. “I want you to remember that you hold your own happiness and self love. Your key cannot be taken away by anyone. So I encourage you, class of 2022, seniors, Spartans, graduates, use your key and open all of the doors in your life.”

Zakiya McCurtis choked up with tears as she gave her speech. A first-year student at SHS, McCurtis said she came in fearing it would be the worst time of her life; it ended up being her best year of high school due to support from her family, teachers and fellow students.

With tears running down her face, Zakiya McCurtis laughs as music plays from the crowd
With tears running down her face, Zakiya McCurtis laughs as music plays from the crowd as she begins her speech during the Superior High School graduation outside at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It started in the lunch room on her first day of school, as students came up to her to chat and make friends. Her fears about not fitting in started to lift.

“And as I look around, I see all of the students being themselves and not scared to wear what they wanted and be judged. And by the type of person I am, I am a loud, energetic person. A lot of y’all may know that,” McCurtis said. “And I instantly knew that this was the place for me to be me and make instant friendship connections.”

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She went on to found a Black student union at the school with some friends. It offers, McCurtis said, “a safe space for students of all races and cultures to feel free to speak their mind and let their ideas run free.”

She credited teachers at the school and counselor Heidi Sigfrids for helping her succeed, despite being behind in credits from the pandemic. Kari Saunders, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the district, also prompted her to audition for a graduation speaker spot.

Sean Hughes is silhouetted as he walks across the stage
Sean Hughes is silhouetted as he walks across the stage to get his diploma during Superior High School’s graduation outside at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Logan Tollefson, left, takes a selfie with school board member Steve Olson as he receives his diploma
Logan Tollefson, left, takes a selfie with school board member Steve Olson as he receives his diploma during the Superior High School graduation outside at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“I realized you didn't always have to have straight A's or be higher class to aspire to have opportunities, or to be the start of something great,” McCurtis said. “Just be you and focus on you. Opportunities will come. And in the words of Maya Angelou, ‘If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.’ And speaking of amazing, these experiences made me realize that sometimes all you need is someone who believes in you and thinks you already have something great.”

Assistant Principal Bill Punyko holds a carrot in the air to conclude his speech
Assistant Principal Bill Punyko holds a carrot in the air to conclude his speech to graduates during Superior High School’s graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3. Punyko, who is retiring at the end of the school year, is famous for carrying carrots in his pockets that he munches on throughout the day.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Assistant Principal Bill Punyko also spoke. He was among a number of SHS teachers and staff who are “graduating” to retirement. They’re fielding the same question graduates get: “So, what are you going to do now?”

“What I’ve learned through my experiences is that these transitions are a process, not a destination,” Punyko said. “You will discover your future. You may have a specific plan, but those plans change. You’ll discover what’s next, you’ll adapt to the changes.”

They’ve been through a pandemic and a refinery fire in addition to their other challenges.

“You are resilient, adaptable survivors, tenacious and strong,” Punyko said, pausing for a moment. “You guys are going to make me cry. With the help of your parents, teachers and friends, you’ve learned how to deal with adversity and success. You truly are Superior. Congratulations, class of 2022.”

Speaker Armella Lane gives a speech to her classmates
Speaker Armella Lane gives a speech to her classmates during Superior High School’s graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Adelaide Poskozim poses with school board member Brooke Taylor as she receives her diploma
Adelaide Poskozim poses with school board member Brooke Taylor as she receives her diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
The Spartan choir sings “Bridge over troubled waters” during Superior High School’s Commencement Exercise
The Spartan choir sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” during Superior High School’s graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Carter Kalin adjusts his mortarboard as he waits in line
Carter Kalin adjusts his mortarboard as he waits in line to walk across the stage during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Members of Superior High School’s Class of 2022 walk past the packed bleachers
Members of Superior High School’s Class of 2022 walk past the packed bleachers during graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Adriana Williams poses with her diploma on stage
Adriana Williams poses with her diploma on stage during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Xalia Raabel shows off their pride on their mortarboard
Xalia Raabel shows off their pride on their mortarboard while watching graduation at Superior High School at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Xander Dutkowski smiles as he wears 2022 glasses while he walks across the stage
Xander Dutkowski smiles while wearing 2022 glasses as he walks across the stage to get his diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Emma Sislo smiles with school board member Steve Olson as she receives her diploma
Emma Sislo smiles with school board member Steve Olson as she receives her diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Simon Stewart gives a thumbs up to the crowd
Simon Stewart gives a thumbs up to the crowd as he walks down the ramp during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Oliver Willie gives a big exhale as he walks down the ramp
Oliver Willie gives a big exhale as he walks down the ramp after receiving his diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Dale Summerfield Jr. gives a big smile while school board member Steve Olson laughs after an enthusiastic handshake
Dale Summerfield Jr. gives a big smile while school board member Steve Olson laughs after an enthusiastic handshake during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Justin Thompson celebrates his diploma as he walks down the ramp
Justin Thompson celebrates receiving his diploma during the Superior High School graduation at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex on Friday evening, June 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

This story was updated at 8:15 p.m. June 6 to clarify who encouraged Zakiya McCurtis. It was originally posted at 1:22 p.m. June 6.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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