Deerfield High School graduation speaker: 'The Warrior Spirit'

The following is the graduation address of Deerfield High School class speaker Jonah Simon at the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2022 on May 25 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

"You have a schedule conflict."

My heart sank as the dreaded words flashed across my screen.

Then another text, "Call me."

My carefully constructed senior schedule now in jeopardy, I saw my four-year plan burn to ashes before my eyes.

Unforeseen scenarios played out in my mind: "Would I have to change my history electives?" "Was there a problem fitting in band?"

I called my mom, who, stifling a nervous laugh, broke the news. If I wanted to fit senior teaching into my schedule, I would have to switch from Team Sports - with its curriculum of hockey, handball, and rugby - into Mindful Movement, a class described in the Deerfield High School program of studies as primarily focused on "meditation and breathing techniques, restorative yoga, journaling, and arts and crafts activities."

Spending a semester so far outside of my comfort zone was a bit of a leap of faith for someone who spent the past two years of physical education in Weights and Conditioning, cowered at any undertaking requiring glitter and glue, and once threw his back out in a desperate attempt to touch his toes.

Still, my excitement to be a senior teacher proved stronger than my concerns about learning yoga poses. Despite my apprehension, I said yes.

I came to Mindful Movement on day one prepared with my journal, a heart-rate strap, and a memorized monologue to explain to anyone willing to listen why I didn't actually belong in this class. I feigned toughness and rolled my eyes through the name games, but I was really just trying to hide how scared I was of spending a semester without the comfort of my friends or my weights.

On our Friday walks in Prairie Wolf Slough, I strolled alone. But, after a few weeks of this daily charade, something interesting happened. A group of girls, who I only knew from a few classes our freshman year, took me in. They invited me to join them during class discussions, sat by me in attendance circle, and even walked with me and exchanged stories and advice during Friday Slough day.

We may not have normally ran in the same crowds, but the more we opened up to each other, the more we realized how many experiences we shared. Suddenly, I was not just tolerating Mindful; I was looking forward to it.

Surrounded by supportive new friends, I found my quiet reflections becoming a little more reflective, my child's pose marginally less stiff.

By the end of the semester, our little gang had made a group chat, taken "family" pictures, and even choreographed a ribbon dance that we presented to the class as our final project.

We were fierce.

My time in Mindful Movement is not unique; it's actually quite common to our experiences as students at DHS. Those girls didn't welcome me into their group because they felt like they were doing me a favor. It was just who they were: friendly people who saw someone in need. And so, without hesitation, they did what we Warriors do - pick each other up so that we all stand taller in the end.

I have many more stories of kindness like this one from my time here at Deerfield High School. There's the enthusiastic senior who spent a year convincing me to join the marching band no matter how many times I rebuffed him. Eventually, I gave in, and over the next three years I made some of my most cherished high school memories as a part of the drum line.

There's the debate captain who prevented me from quitting the club after my first year, unknowingly keeping me in an activity that kindled my passion for public speaking.

I know I'm not alone in my faith in these connections we share here. Whether it's in the classroom or on the stage or the field, the Warrior bond runs deep. A mutual investment in building strong communities is the lifeblood of this school, the thing that holds us together even when those communities are shattered by forces beyond anyone's control.

In March 2020, we were shattered. A global pandemic forced us out of our classrooms and into our homes. The bustling sounds of crowded hallways during passing periods were quickly replaced by the quiet hum of our Chromebooks between Zooms.

I bet every one of you in this graduating class can remember what flashed through your mind after hearing that grim intercom announcement telling us that all school activities would be put on hold indefinitely, and when our teachers instructed us to bring home everything in our lockers in case the unimaginable happened.

My first thought was, I can't believe I'll have to wait another week for volleyball season. Looking back now, it's almost comical how narrow my vision was.

We couldn't have imagined then what we know now: that we'd all quickly become amateur epidemiologists, that we wouldn't be back in school full time for another 13 months, that we'd still be wearing masks at our senior homecoming, or that over the next two years many of us would become hosts to the virus ourselves.

But what we did know for certain was this: No matter how many feet we had to stand away from each other, we would not be driven apart. And that started on day one.

We joined class discussions from our kitchen tables, filmed plays in the courtyard, did workouts in our basements, and held activities online. No, it wasn't perfect - sometimes we wore pajamas to class, or our microphones didn't work, or our parents barged in during a test - but we never gave up.

In that messy, uncertain, unprecedented year, we still managed to have two digital arts shows, five theater productions, seven virtual concerts, over a dozen athletic seasons, hundreds of club meetings, and an in-person prom and graduation.

It is a true testament to this school, its administrators, faculty, and students, that even when things that we once did with ease suddenly demanded unprecedented amounts of foresight and flexibility and grit. We still worked tirelessly together to find innovative ways to stay connected, support one another and, most of all, keep our spark alive.

That demanded strong leadership, and I want to take this opportunity to thank Principal Anderson, the school and district administration, and the school board for their steadfast guidance over these two difficult years.

But it took every one of us stepping up as well. Whether that was teachers leading classrooms from their homes, parents resetting routers and stocking fridges, or students showing up every day with smiling faces and somewhat clean rooms, we all deserve to feel ownership over this success.

This was really hard work, and it would have been easy to let ourselves become fully occupied with just preserving our own little sphere, but we also never forgot our greater responsibility to look beyond our walls and use the resources that we have been given as a force for good. Without a single live event, our Student Council still managed to raise over $150,000 to aid in the fight against youth homelessness.

Even at a time when just getting through the day was a feat, we were still committed to looking beyond our own struggles to help those in our midst left even worse off. I can think of nothing that personifies our Warrior spirit better. Community, whether we define that as our school, our village, or our world, has always been our foundation.

The pandemic was scary because it reminded us of how quickly circumstances can change. One moment you're riding high. You're back to in-person school, your senior schedule is all in place, and the future looks bright. The next, a new variant has emerged, the first day of your final semester is back on Zoom, and you're struggling to focus in class as you worry about ICUs filled to capacity and another round of lockdowns and loss.

In those moments, let community be your safety net. Trust it to catch your fall and lift you back up stronger. For the last four years, we have found that security in our fellow Warriors.

And yet, looking out at the faces of my classmates this evening as we are about to cross the stage and accept our diplomas, I know that this powerful bond that we now share is on the cusp of transformation. As we spread out across the state, the country, and the world, for most of us there will come a moment when we realize we have started calling some other place "home." And when that time comes, I implore each of us to carry what we have learned from our time at DHS into our future communities.

I never expected that someone offering to help me tie my beaded bracelet in Mindful Movement could hold so much power. But the truth is that you never know when your small act of kindness will make the biggest impact.

Let us continue to include and to inspire those around us and be that shining example of what a good student, a good friend, or a good neighbor can be.

The Warrior Spirit is the lifeblood from which we draw our individual and collective strength, and as long as we remain dedicated to extending and sharing it, we will never truly be far from home.

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