When the Class of 2020 walked into the Verona Area High School for its final first day of school last September, no one envisioned they’d be ending it at home.
“As seniors, we missed out on a lot of things, our last prom … senior skip day, senior prank day and our senior class trip,” student speaker Tamiya Smith said. “But most importantly, we missed out on creating those last memories with our friends before we part ways for whatever comes next.”
The district held its 119th commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 on Saturday, July 25, after staff in May postponed it in hopes that COVID-19 restrictions would loosen in time to do an in-person celebration. But since then, while the state’s Safer at Home plan ended, Dane County’s Forward Dane plan has taken over and imposed legal restrictions on how many people are allowed to gather together at once.
Those restrictions tightened to only 10 people indoors, and 25 outdoors, after the county saw a large spike of cases in late June and early July, many of them attributed to clusters from bars and restaurants.
No graduates attended in person, but that didn’t stop the singing of the National Anthem by the VAHS Accidentals Vocal Jazz, which performed together virtually from behind computer screens.
The ceremony featured two student speakers, Derek Argall and Smith, who recorded their speeches prior to the ceremony. Smith was the speaker chosen by a vote from her peers, and Argall was the Summa Cum Laude speaker.
The ceremony also featured the reading of all of the students’ names, class superlatives and slides stating their future plans and favorite memories.
Principal Pam Hammen opened the ceremony, saying some of the most vital lessons students will learn, and have learned in the last few months, will take place outside of school buildings.
“We live in an unprecedented time, so it is appropriate in some ways for this graduation ceremony also to take place in an unprecedented way,” she said. “You too, are extraordinary, without precedent, and I have been privileged to watch you navigate the overwhelming difficulties of this spring in the upheaval of our world with resilience, integrity and mature perspective.”
Hammen also spoke of the national resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd in late May, and what students have taken away from it. Students didn’t learn these lessons about standing up for social justice in the classroom, Hammen added, but rather, they are the result of being encouraged to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.
“That great wave is rolling back to reveal the magnitude of work that we all need to do as a society to move forward toward a just future,” she said. “You learned that when the courage of your convictions compels you to speak up against a wrong, you are powerful enough to challenge the world, and you are brave enough to reflect on your place in it.”
Argall spoke of a feeling of consistency he got from being in school – each day, he had a good idea of what might happen. But COVID-19 changed that.
“I knew where I was heading, and the friends I would see passing in the halls – I knew where to sit, and who to talk to,” he said. “When schools shut down, everything that had become a constant became a variable, and I became pretty disheartened.”
For some clarity on the situation, Argall said he turned to Greco-Roman philosophers, namely Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, both Stoic philosophers who lived during the first and second century AD.
What it taught him was that the ability to control his mind and his emotions lie squarely within himself, Argall said. And while the world is out of your control, how you react to it is all based on you.
“The uncertainty of life can be overwhelming. Just the last four years have presented more opportunities for anxiety than you can count,” he said. “Trouble is bound to happen to everyone, and everything, and it is through struggling times that the human will is tested and built. Once you realize that turmoil is not happening to you, but for you, it comes easier to control your emotions and look objectively upon the world.”
Smith encouraged her classmates to reminisce on the great memories made throughout their years in high school rather than dwell on what they missed out on when schools were ordered to close in March.
“We have to make the best out of what is here,” she said. “We need to make sure we take this day to celebrate all of the hard work, and acknowledge each and every one, from all of the late night studies to early morning grind.
“We can’t run, but we’re still walking,” Smith added in reference to a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., that encouraged people to keep moving forward in any way possible. “Each and every one of us is capable of achieving our dreams, but it’s up to you to push through those tough times.
“Through all of this, we keep moving.”
Superintendent Dean Gorrell finished the speech portion of the ceremony by reading a letter he wrote to the graduates. Each year, Gorrell said he finds it hard to figure out what he’s going to say to the graduating class, but this year seems even harder.
“First, I feel compelled to say I’m sorry for what the coronavirus has done to your school experience,” he said, holding back tears. “Milestones and everyday activities that we both take for granted, and hold in great anticipation – canceled. It is a hollow feeling to end this way.
“Whether in the classroom, the community or on the field, the court or in the pool, you’ve made us all so proud,” Gorrell added. “These current moments don’t define you, but they surely will propel you.”