PERRY — A senior class of 40 Pavilion Golden Gophers — the “Middle of Nowhere Kids,” as they were so lovingly called by a country artist who performed a mini-concert during their outdoor commencement — celebrated graduation with sunshine and smiles on Sunday afternoon at the Silver Lake Twin Drive-In.
Each graduate had his or her own chair, one decorated with yellow and gold balloons, and they sat beside vehicles full of loved ones. Their radios were all tuned to the same frequency, as they awaited the ceremonial tassel flip, the presentation of diplomas and, of course, what is colloquially known as “the beginning of the rest of their lives.”
First, though, came speeches and memories shared.
“Life gave us something sour,” valedictorian Brett Lubberts mused, referencing a quote shared often by beloved classmate Charles Urbanczyk. “But we got through it...These challenges are what shape our lives. Challenges are what make us who we are, and boy did we have a big one. We finished our high-school career in the middle of a pandemic. Seriously, how crazy is that?”
After a pause, Lubberts reiterated that not all was lost — they’d learned from their experiences, and would emerge far stronger for them.
“You’re going to make it,” Lubberts assured the aspiring soldiers, scientists, cosmetologists, farmers and all the other dreamers. “I’m not saying it will be easy. But it’s always possible. We may very well be the generation that makes decisions with the fate of our planet hanging in the balance. So it’s more important than ever that we never give up, no matter what happens.”
The graduates did without handshakes with administrators. They stepped inside hula hoops to ensure that proper social distance was maintained during class photos, and, instead of the usual applause, were treated to a raucous round of beeping horns to punctuate the end of each speech, presented diploma, or song.
And with each passing moment, their adaptability and willingness to change was proven time and time again.
“What a strange and bizarre year this has been for all of us,” said retiring Superintendent Kenneth Ellison during his keynote address. “The events that played out since I made the call to close school on the evening of March 14 ... (have) tested our whole country in ways that we could never have imagined, and I’m sure we will continue to be tested in the coming months and years.”
But this was a graduation, after all, Ellison said. And so he soon shifted his focus to offer up messages better aligned with tradition and to, perhaps, teach a life lesson, as well.
He said he was saddened that the class missed out on so many “lasts,” including their senior prom, their senior trip, and countless other opportunities sometimes taken for granted, but that he was glad, too, for some of the new opportunities that emerged amidst the pandemic — a change-up in graduation music among them.
“I must admit, I’ve always had mixed feelings about ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’” he explained. “I respect the tradition, but I think the class of 2020 certainly deserves an unofficial deep track for the unique circumstances.”
And so he brought his phone close to the mic to share a few options — like the famed score from Jaws or the intro to the Twilight Zone — before that triumphant Rocky theme blared.
“That is much better,” Ellison said. “A theme that represents fighting back from adversity and achieving goals. This is far more fitting for this class ...”
A class, he said, that has revealed its commitment and dedication to all that’s important time and time again.
“Commitment represents dedication and obligation to a person or a cause,” Ellison said. “Commitment is on full display at PCS. That is one of the reasons I have full confidence that our graduates will have success in life.”
He then recounted the one fateful day when honoring a simple commitment he’d made — to wake up and go to class — changed his entire life for the better, leading him to education, and ultimately to PCS.
“The simple choice to honor my commitment to class, my parents, myself, put me in the room that day ... I will be forever grateful ... Remember, honor your commitments and pay attention to both the big and little decisions you make. You never know which ones may change your life forever.”
As the ceremony continued, and more speeches where shared, all emphasized the bittersweet realities the class of 2020 faced. But despite all the adversity, they were delivered with a sense of unrelenting optimism, too, and a sure excitement for whatever lay ahead.
Take the speech from class president, Cameron Milligan, whose sense of humor was not lost in formalities.
“As Ghandi once said,” Milligan boomed. He then halted, crumpling the paper and tossing it to the stage floor, because he couldn’t, he joked, finish reading the speech his mom had written for him.
His true speech was instead rife with pop culture references, and many inside jokes that made the graduates smile, and reflect on the memories they’d all shared in their abbreviated high school years.
When his classmate, salutatorian Owen Sidhu, took the mic, the graduates were then encouraged to never take anything for granted, not ever.
“My senior quote was from ‘The Office,’” Sidhu said. “It was Andy Bernard saying ‘I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.’ I believe that sums up our senior year. I know myself along with my other graduates would dread coming to school every day and just wanted it to be over with. But as soon as it was, all I was wishing to do was to go back to school.”
“... We all will be knocked down,” Sidhu later acknowledged. “But if you get knocked down 10 times, you get back up 11. So, I ask all my fellow graduates: What will be your championship? What will be your light bulb? What will be your home run?”
The students weren’t quite sure about the answers, yet. But as they tossed their caps into the air, they knew they had already accomplished at least one great thing: they were graduates, at last.