Class of ’22 lauded for perseverance through pandemic, gun violence

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As Roosevelt High School’s Class of 2022 walked through the Entertainment and Sports Arena in the District, hundreds of family members and friends cheered Tuesday to celebrate a class that has weathered a pandemic, seen a rise in school violence and faced mental health challenges.

Like the thousands across the country receiving their diplomas this graduation season, Roosevelt’s roughly 150 graduates had an unusual time in high school. As sophomores, the coronavirus pandemic forced them to learn at home. They thought they’d be back in two weeks, but they ended up not seeing one another for in-person instruction until their senior year, Roosevelt Principal Justin Ralston said in his graduation address. A majority of D.C. Public Schools students learned at home, virtually, during the 2020-2021 academic year.

But unlike previous classes who missed out on traditions like prom and in-person graduation ceremonies, this one was able to celebrate.

While still dealing with covid’s impacts, Roosevelt’s graduates also dealt with a city struggling with everyday gun violence. A freshman at the school, Malachi Jackson, was killed in April. At the time, he was the third teen under the age of 18 to be killed by gunfire in the District this year. When school resumed after spring break, mental health specialists were there to help students.

In schools across the country, administrators and teachers say violence has increased since students returned to in-person classes. And in addition to those incidents, a mass shooting last month at a Texas elementary school that left 19 students and two teachers dead led to many schools — including those in the D.C. area — tightening their safety protocols as students demonstrated in support of stronger gun laws. Less than 24 hours after the Texas shooting, a man was shot outside Roosevelt’s campus. Police were stationed outside the school the next day as students arrived.

“Class of 2022, you never lost sight of the bigger picture and you never let obstacles stand in your way,” Ralston said.

Across the city, hundreds of students from D.C. Public Schools’ 21 high schools were scheduled to graduate this week. Most of the ceremonies took place at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was scheduled to make an appearance at some of the events.

At Roosevelt’s ceremony Tuesday, class salutatorian Winston Page said that while each graduating class has had its own struggles, he doubted any other class had struggles “quite as unique as ours.” Still, the class persevered, he said.

“The Class of 2022 came to Roosevelt ready to display our talents, whether those talents were academic, artistic, musical or social,” Page said. “Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans … But we stepped up to the challenge and rose to the occasion.”

In the bleachers, Page’s mother, his former third-grade teacher, great-aunts and two siblings cheered him on. His mother, Danielle Boxley, wiped tears from her eyes. Page’s older brother didn’t get to have an in-person ceremony when he graduated with the Class of 2021, Boxley said, so seeing her youngest son walk across the stage was wonderful.

“I was so happy when I heard his name,” Boxley, 42, said. “I was overjoyed.”

Le’Greg Harrison, a marketing executive and lifelong Washingtonian, spoke to the graduates about the challenges ahead. He told them they would encounter barriers that could hinder their growth, and some barriers that could even destroy them.

“We witness it every day. We’re losing family and friends at a rapid pace, young people. I encourage you to stay focused,” Harrison said. “I encourage you to get serious, because at the next level, you don’t have an administrator or parent holding you by your own hand. You will be responsible for yourselves.”

Tawana Alston, Roosevelt’s 12th-grade assistant principal, noted the class was dubbed “extraordinary 2022″ in her graduation speech.

“Through it all, we’ve done masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing … to move through the school year and still have a little fun along the way,” Alston said. “It has truly been a pleasure for myself as well as the senior institute to just be by your side and support you.”

Ralston spoke last before diplomas were handed out. He held a moment of silence in recognition of all the family members and friends who have died since the coronavirus started spreading in the United States.

“We wish your families and you a lifetime of safety, good health, and we wish you all the best in your future endeavors,” Ralston said.

Page, the salutatorian, hugged his family as they met him outside the arena. His mom wore a custom T-shirt that had a photo of him printed on the front and his name on the back of it. Page will head to Fairmont State University in Fairmont, W.Va., where he received a football scholarship.

“It feels surreal,” Page, 17, said of being done with high school. “It still hasn’t hit me yet.”

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