Every high school student looks forward to their senior year, when they will be the “top dogs” with many special activities – prom, senior trip, graduation itself, and often an all-night post-graduation chem-free party at a special venue. The Class of 2020 missed out on many of those special senior-year events. Their entire senior year changed overnight when the schools were ordered closed on March 13 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
How to hold commencement ceremonies became a logistical problem for school administrators. At Spencer Van Etten High School, “Plan A” was a virtual graduation ceremony, live-streamed. That was completely planned out when the possibility of a drive-in event was announced - where everyone would remain in cars. After planning for how to do that, the governor announced that groups of up to 150 could gather outside. That number is far fewer than the normal graduation attendance, which draws many friends and community members in addition to families.
“Plan C” took shape, even though the SVE administrators and senior class advisors, Liz Peters and Tanya Nash, could have just stayed with “Plan A” or “B” and saved themselves many days of extra work. As high school Principal Missy Jewell told Random Harvest, “It was the right thing to do for the kids,” so they went forward with “Plan C.”
“Plan C” had three separate ceremonies – two on Friday, June 26, and one Saturday morning, June 27. The first one on Friday morning was for the graduates and staff only – so they would all have a chance to be together as a class one more time and teachers from pre-K on up could celebrate this accomplishment with them. Friday night and Saturday morning, only one half of the class would come, with three guests. Seating was planned carefully with white squares painted on the football field keeping everyone six feet apart. The large posters with each graduate’s picture that had been posted in front of the high school on the highway were hung from the fence behind where the graduation speakers stood, in full view of all attendees. Guest chairs were placed around the perimeter with the graduates in the center.
Friday dawned with blue skies, bright sunshine, and not too hot. That good weather held for Friday night, too, but Saturday brought a steady downpour all morning, forcing the school to postpone the second ceremony-with-guests to Monday evening. Graduation speakers all knew they would be at the podium three times. The entire event was clothed in safety guidelines – with temperature checks, required hand sanitizing before entering, masks, social distancing, escorting to seats and none of the usual excited hugging of friends at their last time together as a class. Ms. Jewell wore gloves and wiped down the microphone and podium between each speaker. Every effort was made to follow health guidelines.
The actual commencement ceremony was somewhat different, too. The number of speakers was limited, per directions from the state. The Jazz Band typically plays, but instead, each member of that band performed separately at home and each of these parts were then mixed by music teacher Dan Miller and played digitally.
Salutatorian, Ava Bruehwiler, was not able to welcome her classmates because she was unfortunately in the hospital, having had a seizure. Everyone rose and gave her a standing ovation later when her name was called to receive her diploma. Valedictorian, Paige Grube, who was friends with Ava since Kindergarten, recounted highlights of their class’s four years together and how they had anticipated their senior year with so much excitement – until it all changed. “One day we were told to take our textbooks home. We thought we would be back soon, but our time never came,” she said. Despite the things they missed, Paige lauded the unwavering support of family and friends through every crisis. She shared how lucky they all are to live in a community that rallies around in a crisis and cares so much. She cited the huge fundraiser for her father, Brian Grube, when he was very ill, (“lifechanging, for both him and for me”) and how the community is all rallying around Ava in her medical crisis now. “This is not how we imagined our senior year, but we’re here now, and we have bright futures ahead of us,” she concluded.
The Class of 2020 chose “Coach K,” Jeremy Kastenhuber, a social studies teacher, to be their keynote speaker. “You persevered through the most trying year,” he told them. He, too, focused on the support offered to him by both faculty and students after he lost his father unexpectedly in October. “You welcomed me back with love and support” in what he called “his darkest hour.” Kastenhuber recounted a list of things he had learned from this class and ended it with, “Despite personal adversity, you can still smile! You defined the word ‘persistence.’” He concluded with words of advice: be strong and independent, be confident in your abilities, and if life doesn’t go as you planned, it’s OK to take a different route.
Missy Jewell spoke briefly by reminding this class that they were special from the beginning: many were reading in kindergarten, many knew geography and history as first graders, and in second grade, they organized a community service project to benefit an animal shelter. She told them that she knew then, “These kids are going to change the world!” Following her, each graduate was called to “walk” up front for their diploma and a photo. In place of the usual class photo that graces the hallways of SVE, where they are packed in shoulder to shoulder, the class photo this year was taken of them sitting six feet apart. It was probably the most unique graduation ceremony ever held at SVE and hopefully will never be repeated.