A difficult school year in Newton ended with graduation celebrations highlighting not only academic, athletic, and artistic triumphs, but also the spirit of a student body that helped lead the whole community through its grief after three students committed suicide in the space of a few months.
The graduates at Newton North High are the first class to spend all four years in the expansive and expensive new facility, but they are also the class that started their senior year with the death of a classmate.
And just as they had done in October, the 505 members of the class of 2014 bowed their heads for Karen Douglas, who was 18 when she took her own life in the woods near her girlhood home in Natick.
Two weeks later, 16-year-old Newton South sophomore Katie Stack also committed suicide. And in February, Newton South junior Roee Grutman, 17, killed himself.
The deaths taught the students in this city, and particularly the class of 2014, a resolve that Superintendent David Fleishman said he hopes helps them through their futures.
“It was a tough year,” he said. “But the words perseverance and connection keep coming up,” he said as he stood in Conte Forum at Boston College after Newton North’s graduation ceremony Tuesday night.
“I hope those lessons are things these students can carry with them,” he said.
Newton North principal Jennifer Price opened the ceremony with the moment of silence for Douglas, something she said she and the girl’s mother had discussed. “We chose to acknowledge her by name because she was a member of this class,” Price said.
At the Newton South graduation on Monday, principal Joel Stembridge chose not to mention Stack and Grutman by name, but instead talked about how the class of 2014 had helped the school heal after their deaths.
He told the story of April Fools’ Day, an occasion he said always causes school administrators to worry. “After an incredibly difficult and emotional six months, the senior class decided to sweeten up everyone’s April Fools’ Day with four stairs full of cupcakes in the morning,” he said, adding that every one of the treats — an unofficial count tallied 2,014 of them lining the stairwells — was homemade.
“It was a meaningful and significant gesture that nurtured our souls and palpably changed the tenor of the building for the remainder of the year,” he said.
Another gesture had to do with one class gift — a donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“This is an incredible class,” Newton South guidance counselor Aaron Lewis said before the graduation ceremony. “They were there to comfort the younger kids, and they really needed it. I’ve got a lot of hope for the future, theirs and ours, because of this class.”
Talking honestly with students about the suicides and treating the deaths as a community tragedy have been a concerted effort by school and city official.
“This year we as a community were challenged by tragic loss,” Mayor Setti Warren told graduates at both commencement exercises.
“As a result, what I believe we saw in Newton was our capacity for resilience, people from all walks of life coming toward one another and not away from one another. And that is the true meaning of community; facing difficulties that are sometimes inexplicable, and finding ways to bring people together to become stronger.”
While praised for the way they dealt with tragedy, the graduates were also reminded at both ceremonies that they have received the benefits of a top-notch education.
School Committee chairman Matt Hills, whose daughter Amanda was among the graduates at Newton North, told the students that earning a diploma from one of the city’s high schools means more than simply having passed a rigorous academic test.
“It means you’ve found your own voice while still hearing others,” he said. “A Newton education means you will be able to benefit from the many opportunities that life will offer, while having the confidence and self-esteem to remain true to your own values.”
And School Committee member Steven Siegel, whose daughter Celina graduated from Newton South, reminded students to “just go easy on yourself.
“You’ve worked hard and have a lot to show for it. Seek out what captures you but don’t be afraid to change direction if you later realize that you wish to reach for something different,” he said. “Every length of path you choose can lead to a place of meaning and satisfaction. Just go easy on yourself as you are traveling.”
It was the student speakers at each school who summed up the ceremonies.
Kylie Walters, Newton South senior class speaker, asked her classmates to always remember the little things in life.
“We have a choice about the pace of our lives. We decide whether we will have time to stop and appreciate the purple glue sticks and the glow of the moon, or if instead we will focus on only the things we are told matter,” she said.
And at Newton North, Jared Perlo told his classmates, “So carpe the diem.
“Thank your friends, your teachers, everybody who has somehow impacted your life for the better. Thank you to every parent, teacher, custodian, and especially taxpayer for creating opportunities.”