One year shy of Essex Agricultural and Technical High School's 100th birthday, the 111 students in the Class of 2012 received diplomas there last night.
They were then left with two key words by senior class advisers Jillian Plante and George Vanikiotis.
"Courage," Plante said, "and smiles."
Courage was at work in the seniors' initial decisions to leave their local school systems and attend Essex Aggie, Plante said.
"As students, you had to rely on your courage many times: when you got on your first horse here at the Aggie, or when you picked up a rodent, or something that made you squeal," she said.
It was in discovering their courage that the students found reasons to smile — "while taking care of animals or digging muck from the bottom of the pond," Plante said.
She closed by asking the class to look around at all the smiles that were on display "because of you": on the faces of teachers, family members and "two class advisers with cheesy grins."
"We hope you will remember to smile and trust in your courage as we do," Plante said.
Co-valedictorian Nicole Barry of Revere — who shared that title with Heather Hume of Georgetown — provoked plenty of smiles and laughter when she asked the senior class to close their eyes.
"Can we try a little experiment?" she asked.
After instructing classmates to place a hand on the shoulder of the person beside them, Barry said she had achieved one of her life's goals.
"Which is to touch every person in this room by my speech," she said.
Superintendent Roger Bourgeois described events he had attended over the past week, where he listened to students reflect on their experiences at Essex Aggie.
"Some of you have referenced this as a second family," he said, "and with tears in your eyes mentioned how quickly the last four years have passed — how you have experienced sadness and excitement at the same time."
Bourgeois said he had experienced a similar ambivalence, in his role as superintendent.
"Saturday, I welcomed the Class of 2016 and saw anxiety in the eyes of these incoming ninth-graders. At that moment, I thought of you," he said, "and how you arrived here four years ago. It reminded me of how special you are."
As the class comes to reflect, in future years, on what their diplomas "really mean," Bourgeois said he hoped they would recall certain things about Essex Aggie.
"That Aggie was a place where you could always be yourself," he said. "That the Aggie instilled in you an appreciation of agriculture and the agricultural sciences, and where you developed a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge."
Finally, Bourgeois hoped that students had learned that "our differences don't divide us."
"We believe your futures are bright, and we wish you much success and personal happiness," he said.