Speakers give history lessons at Holmes commencement


Members of the John A. Holmes Class of 2019 stand as relatives watch from the stands during the school’s commencement at the school’s football stadium in Edenton, Friday.


By Miles Layton
Chowan Herald

Sunday, June 16, 2019

EDENTON — The lessons of history were much on the minds of graduation speakers as they imparted words of wisdom to John A. Holmes’ graduating seniors Friday night.

One-hundred forty-four Holmes seniors received their diplomas at a ceremony held in the school’s football stadium.

Holmes’ Class of 2019 will be memorable for a number of achievements. Collectively, its members earned nearly $5.5 million in scholarships — the second-highest amount in school history. Also, during their four years as Aces, the school competed at the highest levels in academics and athletics, winning baseball and track state championships, and falling just short of a state title in varsity football.

Victoria Brinson, a history teacher at Holmes and Edenton-Chowan Schools’ Teacher of the Year for 2018-19, was the keynote speaker for Friday’s commencement. Her address focused on the life of President James Garfield, the U.S.’ 20th president and the second — after Abraham Lincoln — to be assassinated in office.

Brinson told graduates Garfield’s life offers important lessons for them as they leave high school and venture into the world.

“Lesson number one: James Garfield lost his father before he had the chance to meet him and spent most of his early life working to support his family,” Brinson said. “He had to work two jobs to pay for his school.”

The lesson to take away from Garfield’s early experiences, she said, is that “life is tough.”

“There will be times that you struggle, you will get knocked down and you will fail, but it is how you respond to these failures and challenges that will define your character,” Brinson told graduates.

When life presents them with challenges in college or at work, or even with their families, graduates need to “act like Garfield,” Brinson said.

“He was determined to be successful no matter the odds,” she said.

Graduates need to be no less determined to succeed, Brinson said.

“No matter what your circumstances, you can do whatever you set your mind to,” she said.

Brinson said the second lesson from Garfield’s life graduates should learn is how to take a stand. She noted how Garfield, an Ohio state senator and, later, a major general in the Union Army, took a strong stand against slavery.

“James Garfield was a politician who took a stand for what was right in spite of popular belief at the time,” she said. “He was considered a radical because he was an advocate for civil rights.”

Like Garfield, graduates will face situations where they need to take a stand, even if it means having their integrity challenged for doing so.

“You will reach a point in life, and you probably already have, when you need to stand up for someone or something in the face of adversity,” she said. “When faced with situations like this, hold true to the honor and integrity that James Garfield did.”

The final lesson to take from Garfield’s life, Brinson said, is not to wait for life to happen. Garfield achieved many things — he was a college president, state senator and congressman from Ohio, military general and U.S. president — before his death at age 49, six months after he was shot by a would-be assassin.

“As you leave John A. Holmes High School and begin your adult life, don’t wait,” Brinson said. “Start reaching toward your goals as soon as you can. Be kind to people and stand up for what is right even when it is not easy. Begin to build a legacy — a legacy that if your time ran out, you would be proud of.”

Co-valedictorians Briana Rodriguez and Ryan Tunney also reached out to history for life lessons in their speeches to fellow graduates.

Rodriguez talked about the boldness and heroism of the passengers and crew aboard Flight 93, whose sacrifice of their own lives during the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, likely saved the lives of countless others.

“Being bold is not a quality but a way of life. Boldness is not the absence of fear but the willingness to take a risk. Whatever bold actions you take, they will be confident and fearless,” Rodriguez said.

She recounted how the passengers and crew of Flight 93 showed the “ultimate display of boldness” by trying to take back their plane from terrorist hijackers intent on using the aircraft as a weapon.

“Upon realizing that their aircraft had been hijacked to commit an act of terrorism, they voted to revolt, knowing that they would ultimately be giving their own lives,” Rodriguez said. “They changed the course of history that day by choosing to crash (the plane) in a Pennsylvania field.”

The tragedy of that day cast a long shadow on the Class of 2019, but there was a lesson to be learned, she said.

“We may not remember the day, the headlines, or the people but we have lived in the shadow of the aftermath most of our lives,” Rodriguez said. “We emerged from those shadows, inspired by the bold responses to that day. People came together to change each others’ lives ... 10 at a time. Class of 2019, the responsibility is now ours. So go forth each day to be boldly compassionate. And change the world in the process.”

In his remarks, Tunney paid tribute to fellow graduates and the contributions each had made to the Class of 2019 by working together.

“We live for today and tomorrow always growing and always fighting to stay unparalleled. Some of us have been more athletically talented, while others more gifted in the arts,” he said. “But we’ve all come together using our strengths to achieve great things. Everyone here who’s about to walk on this stage and receive their diploma has contributed to our legacy in one way or another. No matter how big or small.”

Tunney ended with a quote from Vincent Van Gogh.

“‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together,’” he said, quoting the artist. “Together we will continue to achieve great things. Congratulations Class of 2019, on what we’ve all achieved and what we will go on to accomplish.”

The salutatorian of this year’s graduating class was Brady Armstrong.