Morristown-Hamblen High School East graduation on Friday was defined by the word “strong.”

Valedictorian Mashiyat Akand called the Class of 2021 “the strongest, most exceptional class” to graduate from the school due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rigors associated with it.

“Over the last four years, and especially the last two years, we have learned a lot of valuable lessons,” Akand said. “What I was really educated on is reality. The reality of loss, change and perseverance. I think I speak for all of us when I say this senior class is very unique.”

The graduation was held Friday afternoon in the Walters State Expo Center in White Pine.

Akand said the transitions encountered by the Class of 2021 was not an easy task.

“It has made us recognize our own strengths and abilities,” she said. “Personally, I feel like I have really grown and matured. I feel like I have developed a perspective on life, which is being more thankful for the little things, like coming to school in person, and communicating with others face-to-face. I realized how much I took for granted in the past. Because of this, I have learned through endurance to appreciate every single day because of life’s uncertainty.”

Akand said that her class was forced to adjust when the world entered chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No one told us how to deal with it, because no one could,” she said. “Everyone was just as isolated and confused as we were. We all dealt with loss on so many levels. Simply being here today is evidence enough that we are blessed and already a major step in the right direction.

“If we can survive a global pandemic, we can do anything,” she said.

Student Council President Emma Bowen told her class that they have reached one of their most significant milestones, graduation.

“In four years a mouse lives its entire life, a baby learns to catch a ball, stand on one foot and name colors, Mercury orbits the sun 16 times,” she said. “By now, we’ve all fallen down or up the steps at least once, dropped our trays and have been tardy too many times. We have gotten our licenses, had our first prom and won our first East-West football game in recent memory. We’ve probably experienced our first car accident, like I did (Thursday) on my way here to graduation practice.”

Bowen said it may be easy on how much her class lost, including three classmates, this year, she instead talked about all the things her class did get to experience. Each change in the class’ lives allowed the class to grow and mature in different ways.

“COVID-19 cancelled many events in our senior year, but there are many things this pandemic can never take away,” she said. “It cannot take away our many laughs, friendships, bonds with our favorite teachers or the memories of our first day as freshmen, walking through the daunting halls of East High. The most important thing COVID-19 won’t take away is our personal growth through high school.”

Bowen advised the class to be happy, testing one’s boundaries, to be a better you, not a better someone else and to be confident in all that one pursues.

Salutatorian Adian Majid Siddiqi said that the show must go on, the future will move on whether we’re ready for it or not.

“Four years might seem like a substantial amount of time, but I stand here wishing I had a little more time,” he said. “So much has changed for me and everyone here, but I’m quite surprised that all that can happen in the high school experience.

“No matter where we go, it is always important to strive for success. I genuinely believe that the most important obstacle we face in defining ourselves consists of the limitations we have placed on ourselves. Don’t try to aspire to someone else’s standards. Be unapologetically and empathically yourself in everything you do.”

East High Principal Joseph Ely told the Class of 2021 that their lives are not about their past, but about their potential. As a science teacher, Ely compared potential to a can of unused gasoline on a shelf.

“A can of gasoline has the potential to explode,” he said. “This explosion can release tons of stored energy within. Without creating the right conditions that might never occur.”

Ely said that that can of gasoline can sit harmlessly in that can, in the garage forever and never releasing the energy within.

“In that scenario, that would be a total waste of that energy. In order for that can of gasoline to engage in a chemical reaction, explode and create that energy that will be useful, it has to be activated. Some kind of outside force must activate that.”

Ely also said that all the hard work to graduate high school won’t mean a thing if students don’t continue to activate their potential.

“Thank you for sharing with us over the past few years, your most precious treasures,” Principal Joseph Ely said. “Secondly, I want to thank the staff and faculty of East High School for their hard work and investment to the lives of these students. I would also like to thank the teachers and administrators of East Ridge, Meadowview, Fairview-Marguerite, Hillcrest, John Hay, Russellville, Union Heights and Whitesburg schools for providing these students with the foundation they’ll use to choose the pathway to success.”

Ely also thanked the Central Office staff for their support for the academic programs and of the students, as well as the Hamblen County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Jeff Perry.

The 337 graduates then walked the stage to receive their diploma covers, signifying the closing of one chapter and the beginning of the next one.