While driving into work one morning several weeks ago, Washougal High School principal Sheree Gomez-Clark began to think about the speech she’d be delivering at the school’s upcoming graduation ceremony. She wondered how she could possibly sum up the character and grit of the class of 2022 and its accomplishments in a few sentences, and how she could say something to inspire a group of people that had inspired her for the past four years.
But at that moment, in a flash of serendipity, a voice wafted through her car speakers, filling Gomez-Clark’s ears with a musical message that provided her with the encouragement she needed: “Stand tall. It gets a little better. I see the wall that we can break down together. Stand strong. It gets a little better now.”
“Stand Tall,” a 2008 song by The Dirty Heads, a California reggae-rock band, provided her with the words that she had been seeking.
“Those lyrics stuck with me,” Clark said during Washougal High School’s 108th commencement ceremony, held Saturday, June 11, at Fishback Stadium. “You have stood tall and stood your ground for what you believe in. You didn’t let anything or anyone stop you from your accomplishments and goals. There wasn’t a wall that you couldn’t break down together. You have faced barriers and loss, and you stood tall in those moments. But you didn’t stand tall in isolation. You stood together stronger, and more beautiful through it. I knew that those words, that song, captured you.”
Washougal’s class of 2022, made up of 224 seniors, walked out of the stadium on Saturday with not only diplomas, but the knowledge that they overcame a significant amount of obstacles — many of them related to the COVID-19 pandemic — during their high-school years.
“(You don’t) let heartache, pain, hard work, challenge and difficulty take you down,” Clark told the graduates. “You took it and made it better for you and better for those coming behind you, so their legacy — your legacy — will continue to live on. … Continue to stand tall in who you are. Stand strong in your values and never, ever compromise your integrity. Continue to stay strong when adversity hits you. And never stand alone. Be the person that asks to stand with someone. Be the person who receives the help when someone stands with you.”
Other speakers at the June 11 commencement ceremony delivered monologues that contained similar themes and encouraged the graduates to seek happiness and satisfaction in themselves and those around them.
Outgoing Washougal High counselor Christina Mackey-Greene told the graduates there are five things young people who lead “joy-filled lives” have in common.
“Class of 2022, my hope is that 20 years from now, you’ll randomly be thinking about your graduation day, and the loud, sometimes obnoxious school counselor, and the advice that she gave you on how to live a fulfilled life — focus on what’s in your control, work hard, take risks, be kind and live in gratitude,” she said. “I hope that you will smile and think to yourself, ‘She was right.’ Class of 2022, go out and create your life. You’ve earned it.”
Three of the school’s 10 class valedictorians told their classmates to seek comfort in God during challenging times (Jaiden Bea), value relationships over accomplishments (Elise Moore) and prioritize their own happiness in the face of “hustle culture” (Lana White).
The class president, Tea Williams, told her classmates to never settle.
“When we stop settling, we find courage within ourselves and strive to do great things,” Williams said. “We are the class who spent half of our high school years wondering if life would ever return to normal, the class who persevered through loss and grief. But, most importantly, we are the class that never lost hope.”
Those themes continued to resonate during the school’s student awards presentation.
Taylor Poulsen, who helped to create “blessing boxes” that were given out to students in need during the pandemic, and the “Giving Gown Gala” events to ensure that all students have access to formal wear for school dances, earned the school’s Citizenship Award.
“Through her acts of service, she drew in the community of Washougal,” Gomez-Clark said of Poulsen. “We know (these projects) will continue to be a tradition here in Washougal and (be made) available to more community members, not just our students.”
Alexis Perry, who “consistently represented the WHS community with dignity and pride, improved the culture, and proudly and honorably led with the ‘Panther spirit,’” according to Gomez-Clark, earned the school’s Black and Orange Award.
“Alexis has taken advantage of multiple programs offered at WHS. Throughout her time here, she has been involved in leadership, Unite! Washougal, cheer, choir, and more,” Gomez-Clark said. “She has deep pride and love for the WHS community. She has faced a lot (of challenges), but you would never know it by the way she treats others and the high expectations she holds herself and others to.”
Amy Justis earned the Fran McCarty Award, formerly known as the Bootstrap Award. School leaders changed the name of the award to honor Fran McCarty, a longtime Washougal High library assistant who died of cancer on Jan. 1, 2022.
“Every year, I have students ask me, ‘What does it mean to pull yourself up by your bootstraps?’” Gomez-Clark said. “Every year, I swore that I was going to change the name, yet it still hadn’t happened. We just couldn’t come up with a name that fit the spirit of that award. So this year, when we lost our friend and fierce fighter for students, Fran McCarty, we knew this was the change to happen.”
“My friend Fran McCarty went through a lot of adversity in her life, but she was not only able to elevate herself, but elevate others,” said Washougal High drama teacher Kelly Gregersen. “She was a tireless champion of students, an amazing co-conspirator on a lot of our plays, and one of the strongest people I ever met. Fran didn’t have an easy life, but she raised herself up, and she raised those around her up. So not surprisingly, the person that we’re giving the inaugural Fran McCarty award to is someone who has been through outstanding loss but has chosen to raise themselves up and raise the people around them up.”
Later in the ceremony, Gomez-Clark called Amy Justis, whose husband and classmate at Washougal High, Zain Justis, died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on Sept. 29, 2021, back to the stage to receive Zain’s diploma.
The graduates also honored the memory of another classmate, Lucas Santon, who died in 2019.
“The legacy of Lucas (will live on) every September, when we stand together to make someone smile, and we will honor him,” Gomez-Clark said. “And every year, when the scholarship of Zane Justis is announced, we will stand together, knowing we are all better because of him.”