LEWISTON — It was just after 6 p.m. Friday when Lewiston High School seniors decked in blue marched through the Colisée.

It was an emotional moment. Two by two, with bedazzled caps and henna-decorated hands, the soon-to-be graduates walked and wheeled past overjoyed teachers, family and friends to the rhythm of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Two hundred and eighty students graduated Friday. Some come from generations of Lewiston graduates, while others were among the first in their family to earn a high school diploma.

But perhaps the most memorable moment of the ceremony was when Lewiston High School teacher Bernie Fortier entered the arena dressed as a gladiator.

The Lewiston High School Class of 2023 marches into the Colisee in Lewiston for their commencement ceremony on Friday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

As somber music played, Fortier slowly walked around then down the center of the hockey rink. Wearing armor, a red cape and a helmet with red plume, he brandished a pink plastic sword before the rapturous crowd.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” he said. “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones …” he said, feinting surprise. “I forgot that this is Lewiston in the year 2023 and not Rome in 44 BCE!”


He then slid off his helmet and pulled out his real speech.

When Fortier began teaching Latin and French at the high school 32 years ago, it was a “white, nondiverse school in a community that was struggling,” he said. Like many Maine schools, enrollment was declining.

Fortunately, he said, immigrants began flocking to Lewiston in the early 2000s. Now, the  district has students representing three dozen nations.

These new “Lewistonians” have brought energy and vitality to our school and community, just as the Irish and French-Canadians had done when they had immigrated to Lewiston many decades earlier,” he said. “As our students encountered others who were different from themselves, there were difficulties and challenges to be sure, but with time, there was greater understanding, tolerance and acceptance.”

Lewiston High School Latin and French teacher Bernie Fortier, dressed as a Roman gladiator, brandishes a pink plastic sword Friday before a rapturous crowd at graduation exercises at the Colisee in Lewiston. “I encourage you to be open to new experiences on your journeys,” he tells them. “Every stop and experience, even difficult and painful ones, will teach you something.” Vanessa Paolella/Sun Journal

He also spoke positively about growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.

When he began teaching in 1991, Fortier said he doesn’t remember “much discussion or even tolerance about this group of individuals.” In those years, he and other teachers would post a small triangle in their door window to let gay students know their classroom was a safe space.


Little by little, I noticed that we broached gay rights and equality more and more in the school and in our classrooms,” he said. “We now have a (gay straight trans alliance) group and I believe that these students feel far safer, more respected and welcome today than they did some 30 years ago.”

I encourage you to be open to new experiences on your journeys,” he told graduates. “Every stop and experience, even difficult and painful ones, will teach you something.”

This year is Fortier’s last “in a long and wonderful career at a special school,” he said, adding that he will retire when classes end.

But for the graduates, this month marks the start of something new: college, technical school, careers and more.

Miski Ali, center, takes a selfie Friday with fellow Lewiston High School graduates before the start the commencement ceremony at the Colisee in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

As an elementary school student, salutatorian Ben Cloutier recalls receiving a bright blue T-shirt with “Class of 2023” on the front. Then, the shirt was three sizes too big and hung down to his knees like a dress, he said.

It was the first time Cloutier had thought of himself as a member of the Class of 2023. Back then, high school graduation seemed so far away, he said.


“Fast forward to today, the idea of wearing a blue dress has obviously grown on me,” he joked.

Cloutier and valedictorian Jenny Zhao reminisced about the transformations they and their classmates experienced over the years in their speeches, from the challenges of middle school to the isolation and disruptions caused by the pandemic.

While people have advised her not to mention the pandemic “‘because it’s talked about too much,'” Zhao said she’s never agreed with this line of reasoning.

“The pandemic was a pivotal time for many of us,” she said. “It allowed us to become a version of ourselves that we are proud of and more confident in, and that’s something to celebrate. So why shouldn’t we talk about it?”

Lewiston High School graduate Caitlin D’Andrea, center, laughs Friday with friend Emily Bilodeau as they take photos with her retro film camera before their commencement ceremony at the Colisee in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“Ever since the pandemic began impacting our lives less, the world seemed to want us to move even faster,” she continued. “Our lives were put on hold, but then all of a sudden we were pressured to catch up.”

“We’re human, not carbon, so pressure plus pressure will equal stress and depression,” Zhao said. She said her hair began turning white during her sophomore year. “It’s not worth it to give 200% for it to only matter less than 10%.”

Her words of wisdom for the Class of 2023?

“While each of you walk the path to your futures, I want you to remember something,” she said. “Never let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, and what you can or can’t do.”

“I have family members who believe that boys will always be smarter than girls because it’s just in their genetics. Bullshit,” she said to a roar of applause. “I stand here today as a prime example of why you shouldn’t confine yourself to the limits others want to impose on you.”

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