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Surry County High graduates 44

Surry County High School’s June 12 graduation ceremony marked the first time the rural school division had held a traditional commencement since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The significance of having survived a school year interrupted by a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and over 3 million people worldwide was not lost on valedictorian McKenzie Presson.

“We unexpectedly started our senior year virtually; some of us came back, some of us did not,” Presson told her 43 fellow graduates that day. “However, we got through it. We made it. We’re sitting here today.”

She then paraphrased a quote from former South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who once remarked, “I never lose; I either win or I learn,” and from American civil rights leader Malcolm X, who once remarked, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

“Our class did not get to experience some of the normal things seniors do, but we are not normal; we are the Class of 2021,” Presson said.

Salutatorian Adam Seward told his fellow graduates a story.

“I was having a conversation with my grandfather about college and he and I were talking about classes,” Seward said. “I said my mother is actually scheduling most of my classes. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Adam, no one can live your life but you, not your mom, not your dad, not anyone else, just you.”

“He didn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to our elders, that we shouldn’t take advice, but when it comes down to it, the decisions that create who you are are all down to you and you alone,” Seward said.

This year’s commencement guest speaker was Dante Wright, a 2011 Surry County High School graduate who is now a lawyer and assistant commonwealth’s attorney for neighboring Sussex County.

“You were all promised the best year of your high school careers but instead what you received was a laptop and essentially told to figure it out,” Wright said. “What should have been your year of lifelong memories with your best friends and favorite teachers actually became searching for the nearest WiFi signal and virtual classrooms. What should have been your senior prom and hopefully Senior Skip Day … that was transformed into an entire year that happened to be skipped. You see, the fact that you are all sitting here today means that you are capable of enduring life’s struggle. It means that you are ready and willing to accept whatever challenge life has to offer to you. It means because you’ve seen struggle, you are ready for success.”

Wright then told the graduates a story. In 2018, he was set to graduate from North Carolina Central University with his law degree when he received a call from his brother, whom he had not seen in 17 years, asking him to visit.

“Now the question becomes why is it that I had not seen my brother in 17 years? That’s because he is serving a life sentence in a supermax prison,” Wright said. “As I’m there and I’m talking to him and he’s talking to me, he’s speaking with such intelligence and I can’t help but wonder how is it he’s speaking with shackles on him and there I sat about to receive my second diploma and become a lawyer? And what came to my mind is that I had a village of people that cared about me, that loved me. Hold on to your village. Those that are out there in this crowd today, the people that are going to cheer for you when you cross this stage and receive your diploma, those that are going to shed tears for you, screaming your name, those are your village.”

Surry County High School Principal Courtney Ward then announced that the 44 graduates had collectively committed to nearly 20 colleges, universities and community colleges for the fall, and had been awarded over a quarter of a million dollars in scholarships and financial aid.

“The pandemic did not limit you, your spirit or your talent,” she said.