The Manitoulin Secondary School 2021 valedictorian speech

Darci Debassige, 2021 valedictorian

EDITOR’S NOTE: Darci Debassige of M’Chigeeng First Nation was selected as the valedictorian for the graduating class at Manitoulin Secondary School. She will be attending McMaster University this fall where she will be studying in the Social Sciences program. Darci’s speech follows below: 

Aanii boozhoo, Darci Debassige ndizhnikaaz, M’Chigeeng Mnidoo Mnsiing doonjibaa. Adik dodem, anishnabe kw ndow. I would like to acknowledge the traditional and ancestral territory of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. We pay our respects to the members past and present with honour and gratitude, those who have stewarded the land throughout the generations and are confident that we will continue to work together in harmony with the best of intentions.

Good afternoon parents, distinguished guests, teachers, Manitoulin Secondary staff, and fellow graduates. It’s a privilege and honour to deliver the valedictorian’s address for the graduating class of 2021. For this is a graduation like no other, as we are the first class in the last 100 years that can see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. These are uncertain times, and I know we’re all sick of hearing that phrase, but we got through something that no one else has had to face in a century, so being here is a feat in itself. It’s been a long road to get to where we are.

After all the homework, essays, exams, sports  tournaments and club meetings, we finally made it. Even with all the bumps in the road, we got through everything that was thrown at us. We kept at it and managed to keep the bar high in academics, extracurriculars and connections between students and teachers. And I for one am proud of us.

I want to thank everyone who helped us to get here because we’d be kidding ourselves if we said we did it alone. There are many contributors to our success: from the school support staff who counsel us, guide us, set up our gym times and keep the school running to the custodians who clean the hallways and cafeteria to make sure our school stays beautiful. I don’t know if we say thank you enough, or at all. So on behalf of all graduates who you’ve made feel welcome and safe everyday, thank you. 

One of the things this pandemic has done is provide an avenue for complacency, it gave people an out if they chose to take it. Teachers could have taken an easy path and done the bare minimum. But not MSS teachers! Our teachers always challenged us to fulfill our highest potential, and were always there for us when we needed them. Even if that meant setting up Google meets after school, the important part for them was learning and not necessarily teaching.

Our achievements over these last four years are due to the experiences we had in the previous nine. I can say for a fact that my years at Lakeview had a profound impact on my education, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the people who got us here. From our elementary teachers who influenced our academic careers, to coaches who nurtured our love for sports and competition, to the mentors who always believed in our hidden talents. Thank you for giving us the push we needed.

It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult to make it to this stage of our lives without our families. They are the ones who’ve watched us grow up, from our aunts, uncles, and siblings, to our grandparents and mums and dads. We want to thank you for being our coaches, chauffeurs, therapists, tutors, chefs, and most of all sources of income. We’ve taken a graduate poll and committed collectively to spending every dollar for college and university on school supplies and rent and not at the bar. You watched us at our last graduation and will be there at our next one, and we forget to tell you how much your support matters, and how much we love you for it.

It’s crazy to think that there will be a whole new set of faces at the school in the coming years because it feels like just yesterday we were the small, geeky grade nine’s who were only slightly terrified of the big bad seniors. When I think about the type of school these kids are going to go to, I’m happy with the impact that we made. I know that next year’s seniors will take good care of these kids and uphold our school’s reputation. 

We left our mark on MSS, whether it was being undefeated in sports, taking home North Shore School Association NSSA championships, wining robotics trophies, hosting impressive musicals, getting nicer café seats, or gaining a place where Indigenous youth can go to smudge and talk, I know I’m happy with the type of school my little sister will be going to next year.

Although we’re a small school, we’re not immune to the problems that others face, case in point being the cultural divide that we saw in politics and media, that came to our own front door during our high school careers. We were forced as parents, students, educators and community members to deal with these problems head on, and to deal with them through consultation and discourse. So that voices, including those of First Nations, are heard. As a result of these discussions we’ve made progress. First Nation culture and architecture is now woven into our schools, and safe spaces have been created for anyone who needs support. I hope that MSS and the Rainbow Board as  whole continue to make changes, not only cosmetic but in terms of new curriculum development, equitable hiring practices, breaking stereotypes, decolonization, and a commitment to Truth and Reconciliation.

When reflecting on our time at MSS or when we look back on high school as a whole, it’s not going to be the courses we we took or the marks we got that stand out or matter. It’s going to be the memories and connections that we made during our time together. And I can definitely say that we have that base covered. Our class has always had a source of passion. Whether it’s defending the basketball team or defending an answer on an English test, I know it’s that passion that is responsible for creating the memories that we’ll carry with us throughout our lives. There are definitely stand out moments that those in our grade can relate to, some of them are the results of the efforts of students, like theme days, powwows, or the unintentional creation of truck gang. Others are from teacher interactions-whether its Mr. Balfe’s rants about how bread is the root of all evil, Ms. Beck’s famous method of teaching physics with ice cream cake and nerf gun fights, or the presence of MSS’s own superhero enviroman encouraging us to make good choices. I know that many of these moments have taken place in the cafeteria, from food fights, to talent shows, movie days, musicals, and Kahoot competitions. This is a place where we all gathered, and I know that lunch with my favourite people was the best part of many of my days at MSS.

Now with that said, I’m not going to pretend like this pandemic hasn’t been hard on us. It’s unfortunate that we missed out on so many experiences and that our lives have been affected so drastically. There have been hard times during the past four years, but one thing that COVID has taught us is resiliency. It’s been difficult for many students, and as my fellow graduate, friend and doppelganger Malia Leighton so eloquently put it, ‘We missed out on sharing the excitement of our next chapter, which caused many people to not be as motivated to go to post-secondary or not feel as much praise as they deserve from peers  about their choices for next year.’ But the fact that we powered through to be here today, that we persevered through these challenges to make something meaningful and good out of a difficult situation, shows how strong and determined this class is. If we can make it through two years of learning through computer screens and dealing with the social and mental aspects of isolation, the real question is: What can’t we do? The world is literally at our fingertips, and something I know I’ve taken away from these experiences over the past two years is that we have to make every second count. Being here, I’m reminded of how I felt graduating elementary school, that graduation was some sort of big dramatic ending. Now I feel I know a bit more and can see that this is not only an end to a chapter of our lives, but a beginning to whatever amazing things we accomplish ahead.

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2021, take pride in every step you‘ve taken to get here, and every challenge that you have overcome. Miigwetch!