Sophia Leung’s graduation speech: Seeing so much more clearly with shields down


PMHS Student Association President Sophia Leung.

The parents in the audience might not be struck by this quite as much as I am, but I can’t tell you how breathtaking it is to look out at a group of people with no plastic barriers between us. I had never appreciated how significant a simple face-to-face connection could be until this year. Not even close relationships or deep conversations. Just the simple glances in the hallways, the half-smiles to acquaintances and funny faces to friends.

For those of you who haven’t been in the building, or for those who have but, understandably, blocked it out of your memories, I’ll describe it for you.

The first day of in-person school since March 12, 2020. Only half the class is in the building. A luxurious five minutes, as opposed to the typical three, is afforded to students between their period 0 and period 1 classes. Students stroll into their homerooms to find what looks like a trifold poster board with the center of each panel cut out, sitting on their desks. They peel off a parchment-paper-like lining to discover thin, plastic shields set in front of them. For the first few days, it’s like looking at your teacher through a window. A week later, the window is a little foggy. A month in, mysterious scratches have appeared on the plastic, and students are placing bets on how long the shields will last. But you can still see your teachers, and they can still see you.

These shields endure the worst. They’re used as umbrellas in thunderstorms, shelters in gusting winds and who-knows-what in mid-winter blizzards. Everyone is secretly hoping that theirs will “accidentally” be destroyed, and maybe they won’t have to carry it to school anymore. But they persist. The shields become more like barriers. And still, the windows become foggier.

Now, nearly eight months later, they are abandoned on a Friday afternoon for the last time.

I was under the impression that through the year, despite everything, I had retained my friends, my relationships, my social skills as they were.

Boy, was I wrong.

I walked to school that next Monday feeling tangibly lighter. My friend and I were no longer bumping our plastic guards into each other on our walk to school. No more awkward maneuvering in the hallways—or at least, no more than in years past. In my first-period class, I turned to my friend and was able to have a short conversation about our weekend without contorting to hear her around a thin plastic wall. In my seventh-period class, I was able to share a look with my friend sitting next to me when our teacher said something funny. In my ninth-period class, my teacher seemed closer, friendlier. These were the connections that I had missed out on, that I had taken for granted.

What I’ve come to realize is that these connections are what make our small community so special. It’s easy at a larger school to get lost in the crowd, to maybe only recognize a few faces, to be able to hold a conversation with a teacher or two. But when those shields came down on May 14, I saw Pelham again so much more clearly.

What had more closely resembled lecture periods became personal classes taught by teachers who had done their very best to know each and every one of us, who had endured eight months of half faces and foggy windows and poor Wi-Fi and still somehow ensured that we were all cared for and as successful as we could be.

What I had thought were polite smiles and small talk became genuine discussion between friends who were essentially reuniting after more than a year of less-than-normal school.

I saw the breeze blowing through classroom windows as a friendly refresher rather than a destructive gust trying to take down my desk guard. The lights in the classrooms became helpful tools rather than glare-inducing impediments. My teachers were people, my classmates were friends.

Shields are down, and Pelham is on its way back. It’s sad to know that we’ll be missing its full reconnection, but I am more grateful than ever for the connections that I was able to make and remember in my time here.

Congratulations, Class of 2021. I hope we can stay connected in the years to come.

Sophia Leung was one of two students chosen to speak at Saturday’s graduation ceremony based on speeches submitted.