AUGUSTA — Michael Nicholas III said he forgot crowds existed, let alone, what it felt like to stand in front of one.

The last time the Erskine Academy valedictorian was in front of a crowd was during one of his lacrosse games — which he admitted, during the coronavirus pandemic, “wasn’t too impressive.”

But on Friday night, at Erskine Academy’s Class of 2021 graduation, Nicholas stood in front of a crowd again as he delivered his speech to 127 classmates and their families.

He spoke to the graduating class about its “unexpected” last two years at Erskine Academy and compared the first two years of high school as “learning how to ride a bike.”

“After taking the training wheels off, you can ride smoothly,” he said.

“Then we were told to ride a skateboard,” he said. “Well, we had never seen a skateboard before, and neither had the world.”

Nicholas went on to thank his teachers, who “never gave up.” He told his classmates to follow their passions and “stay true” to themselves. He talked about how he prepared for the speech as a self-described “shy” and “reserved” person.

Headmaster Michael McQuarrie opened the ceremony with a few words to the “eagles” in the room, a reference to the school mascot.

“To all the eagles in the room, I have to acknowledge the elephant in the room — COVID,” he said, before talking about how the school had to adjust to the challenges brought on by the pandemic, in order to “preserve traditions and relationships that keep our school special.”

Nicholas and McQuarrie’s speeches had a theme of coronavirus, each offering a different perspective on how the high school students managed to get through the pandemic, including the missed events and the end of their high school careers.

McQuarrie presented the diplomas, and to some students, he presented scholarships. He announced students’ post-graduation plans, including the subject they intend to study. Some students chose to join the armed forces, as well as continuing work in Maine.

Salutatorian Jane Blanchard said the pandemic made her realize the value of all jobs, not just careers at the front lines or the ones that are often known as “notable,” like a surgeon or Nobel Peace Prize winner. She told the audience the importance of all workers, in particular those jobs that came to light during the pandemic that were “ignored, dismissed or rendered invisible” before COVID-19.

“We have lost sight of how important it is to value those who aren’t in the spotlight,” Blanchard said. “… How important it is to value those who do the underappreciated work, the ‘side work,’ or the dirty work. The work that, without (it), our society would simply collapse. The workers who grease the gears that keeps everything running smoothly.”

Blanchard told her classmates, now, more than ever, to feel valued regardless of what path they take after graduation.

And in her speech, Sydni Plummer focused on the “little things” like “getting her license” and “growing two house plants,” which helped her get through the pandemic. She then recited a poem by Wendy Cope, titled “The Orange.”

Kristin Ray advised classmates to “not forget the hard times.”

“Nobody could have predicted the obstacles we faced the past two years,” Ray said in her speech. “But Class of ’21, we are stronger. We have proven to ourselves that we can conquer. Despite the twists and turns, we have triumphed.”

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