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The keynote speakers at Friday night’s commencement exercises for the 258 members of the Cairo High School Class of 2021 made the audience both laugh and cry.
The speeches given by Valedictorian Camille Alyssa Dukes and Salutatorian Michelle Jamelid Morales were distinctly different, but no less impactful.
Morales, a first generation high school graduate, shared her testimony with her classmates and the audience that packed both the east and west stands at West Thomas Stadium.
“I want to begin by thanking everyone here today for joining me and my fellow graduates on this momentous occasion that marks the beginning of 258 distinct paths,” the salutatorian said.
“In Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken,’ he talks about having to choose between two different paths, but we should not limit ourselves to solely these two paths. There are an infinite number of paths that will lead us to the same destination in the end: happiness. We must choose the best one for us, not what society has deemed as the most ideal,” she said.
“College is what the school system has prepared us for next, but that is not the path for everyone. Some of us will be attending college, some may be going straight into the workforce, and to those of you joining the armed forces, I salute you. We will hit bumps along our journeys, and it will leave us changed. Whatever your path may be, I hope each and everyone of you will find success on the way to your destination.”
Morales reminded her classmates that change is hard and that most of them had grown up with the same people who were also graduating Friday night, but in the future they all would likely be surrounded by new faces.
“Before me, I have seen my parents face the greatest change in life. They’ve had to adjust to the societal norms of this country while fighting the stereotypes that follow them. But as Charles Darwin once said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.'”
This year’s salutatorian publicly thanked all of her teachers but spotlighted two.
“Mr. (Blair) Dickinson, thank you for teaching me to question everything and for crafting a class that was equally challenging and inspirational. Mr. (Thomas) Shyamala, thank you for instilling in me the love of STEM. Because of you, I will now be pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.”
Then as she closed, she spoke frankly to her classmates and the large audience of witnesses.
“To this country, thank you. Despite its many flaws, it has given me opportunities that my family could have never imagined in Mexico. I am a proud Mexican-American living the American dream. To my parents, thank you. They laid the foundation that has gotten me to where I am today and because of that, I owe each and every step in my upcoming path to them. In spite of immigrating to this country with nothing, they have never failed to give me everything I’ve needed in order to succeed. I am honored to be a first generation high school graduate. To my fellow first generation graduates, I applaud you as I know the road has not been easy. Today marks a first for my family, and I’m excited to see the firsts my classmates accomplish,” she said.
The salutatorian then addressed her parent’s in their native language, but was kind enough to translate it for the readers of The Messenger.
In addressing her parents in Spanish, Morales said, “To my mom and dad, thank you. You laid the foundation that has led me to where I am today and because of that, I owe each and every step in my upcoming path to you. In spite of immigrating to this country with nothing, you have never failed to give me everything I’ve needed in order to succeed. I do this because of you and for you. When you see me fly, remember that you have given me my wings. I love you so much.”
In closing, the 2021 salutatorian said, “My journey does not reflect everyone’s, but all of our journeys have brought us to the same place here today. As Herman Hesse once said, ‘It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.’ It has been an honor to walk these halls with every single one of you sitting here before me today; and as we step off this stage and into the next stage of our lives, I congratulate you all. Thank you and may God bless us all. Gracias y que Dios nos bendiga a todos.”
Michelle Jamelid Morales is the daughter of Artemio and Graciela Morales. She is the oldest of four, with two sisters, Ashley and Jessica, and one brother, Christopher.
She is an active member of the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church. Michelle has been involved in National Honor Society, KEY Club, Cairo Youth Council, Interact, and student council. She has been a member of the Syrupmaker Band all four years and served as the 2020-2021 Woodwind Captain.
She received the Georgia Certificate of Merit and was a Governor’s Honors semi-finalist in her junior year.
Michelle will be attending Georgia Tech on a full scholarship beginning in the summer to pursue a degree in chemical engineering.
Valedictorian Camille Alyssa Dukes struck a different tone with her entertaining and comical remarks.
“Reflecting on these past four years initially became a struggle, because every moment, every long-lasting friendship, and every experience has culminated into an incredible journey I’m sure we’ll never forget. But personally, this recap reminded me of the expectations I obtained as a kid before beginning my high school career. And looking back on it now, I was met with what I considered the most heartbreaking, devastating, and gut-wrenching truth of it all: ‘High School Musical’ lied to me! I mean I got scammed, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and led astray,” she said.
“Where was the continuous singing up and down the hallways to reaffirm that we’re truly all in this together? Where were the dance breaks and flash mobs that somehow every student magically knew the choreography to? After years and years of watching this movie, my childhood self presumed that my only concerns in high school would be getting the lead in the school play or winning the basketball championship. However, I, like many others, came to the sudden realization that hard work and a steady routine are what were demanded to survive,” the valedictorian said.
“I distinctly remember a moment in time when I felt as if I was just existing instead of truly living, like the lines between encouraging myself to do my work and losing motivation became infinitely blurred. And whether we choose to confess to these thoughts or not, one’s appearance or actions will instantly give them away,” Dukes said.
She went on to say, “For example, every first day of school, our best outfits are picked out, our binders and folders are organized and filled with college ruled paper, our book bags are immaculate, and a case full of pencils are ready to help us take on the new year. By the next month, we’re so tired that sweatshirts become our best friends, pencils have all magically disappeared, homework assignments are occasionally forgotten, and the bags under our eyes look so deep that they could carry groceries.”
“As all of you know, this year has been filled with trials, tribulations, and, at some points, even frustration at the things we can’t control. Some of us have had to deal with loss, with anxiety, with relationship problems, grades, tests, essays, SATs, college applications, scholarship applications, paying for college, figuring out a career path, looking for a job, deciding on colleges, balancing a busy schedule, dealing with stress, and the list goes on and on. And with finally finishing this chapter in our lives, the feeling of weariness is almost inescapable,” the valedictorian said.
“Whether you’re going to continue school or heading into the workforce, there is still progress to be made, a future filled with dreams and hopes to work towards. And dreaming is great, it’s what created the resources and amazing contributions we have in the world today. But dreaming means absolutely nothing if you do nothing to make it come to life,” she said.
“Remember the joy and accomplishment that you feel in this moment, the proud smiles of loved ones in the audience. Remember that anything worth having is worth fighting for and that your happiness, your career, and your future deserve that chance,” she said.
“Our graduation should serve as a launching point that propels us forward to wherever our futures are meant to take us, and I declare that we will be successful. We will thrive like no one ever thought was possible. We will learn from past mistakes. We will rise above every statistic that tries to dictate and hinder our future. And we will be a representation of what persistence and faith can do, because, hey, that’s what Syrupmakers do,” she proclaimed.
In closing, Valedictorian Dukes also paid tribute to her teachers as well as her parents and classmates.
“Once again, I would like to take a moment to thank you teachers, for pushing us, for encouraging us to press forward in the pursuit of knowledge, and for not giving up on us even when we wanted to give up on ourselves. And on behalf of my classmates, I’d like to thank you parents and families, for being our biggest support system and for pushing us to be the best that you know we can be. Personally, I also want to thank you, classmates, as well for showing me what true friendship feels like. As much as I hate to say this, there’s a universal truth we all have to face, whether we want to or not, everything eventually comes to an end. But I refuse to say goodbye, because goodbyes are too formal, too absolute. And one thing’s for sure, you can never truly say goodbye to family. So instead, see you later Cairo High School. Though we’re moving forward, we will never forget the sense of community and tenacity that you’ve gifted us with. This is the Class of 2021 signing off,” Dukes concluded.
Camille Alyssa Dukes is the daughter of Selena Dukes and Robert Dukes. She is the youngest of two, with one sister, Asia Haleen Dukes.
At Cairo High School she was involved in National Honor Society for three years, Fellowship of Christian Athletes as the treasurer, Helping Hands for three years, Interact Club for two years, and Theatre Club for two years. She was also able to partake in more volunteer work through her time in Cairo Youth Council in 9th grade and became introduced to the inner workings of the healthcare field through the school’s healthcare pathway and the club, HOSA, in her 11th grade year.
She is also heavily involved with various community service activities and has had the opportunity to uphold a temporary leadership position through her family’s Christian outreach ministry.
Throughout her high school career, Dukes has had the privilege to be recognized in Top Ten, as a recipient of the Georgia Certificate of Merit Award and has been on the Dean’s List through her college courses at Southern Regional Technical College.
Camille will be attending Mercer University in Macon on a $100,000 academic scholarship as well as with a community service/leadership scholarship in the fall. She will be majoring in biology with a plan to attend the Mercer School of Medicine shortly after her undergraduate years in hopes of becoming an anesthesiologist.
Mother Nature cooperated with Friday night’s ceremony with comfortable temperatures, a gentle breeze and no rain.
Student Council President Kaitlyn Donalson called the graduating class to order to open the ceremony.
Senior Class President Bryce Perry introduced special guests and recognized his fellow class officers: Jenin Ross – vice president; Hailey Jones – secretary; and Alexis Gray – treasurer.
During the ceremony Friday night, Cairo High School principal Chris Lokey took the opportunity to recognize members of his faculty who are retiring this year. Those individuals include: Cecilia Childree – 33 years; Tommy York – 34 years; John Everett – 14 years; Barbara Godwin – 35 years; Laura Elliott – 30 years and Tammy Donalson – 31 years.
This year’s graduating class also holds the distinction of being the first class to hold graduation on the new artificial turf newly installed at West Thomas Stadium.