Cottage Grove High School graduates were greeted with friendly faces behind masks during their ceremonies earlier this week. DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE

South Lane School District’s video graduation ceremonies for its two High Schools both opened to the traditional strains of “Pomp & Circumstance”, a tip of the hat to tradition, in what no one could describe as a traditional year. In a montage of congratulatory video messages from long-time South Lane educators, besides congratulating the graduates, touched on the uniqueness of Graduation 2020.

“A senior year that I am sure you will never forget,” “A very unique time that does not make us less proud of you,” “2020, it’s the year that you will be telling your children and grandchildren about! You are the class who made it through,” are some snippets which stood out.

On Saturday, June 6, AKHS staff proudly started their drive-through graduation ceremony right on time, at 10 a.m. Al Kennedy High School, is named for the South Lane teacher known for connecting with kids who didn’t do so well in the traditional classroom. Using rope tricks, hands-on projects, and teaching skills by doing, Kennedy is still an inspiration and periodically comes to speak and work with students at the school bearing his name.

As the vehicles started rolling up to have their student hop out to get their diploma and picture taken, the emotion of assembled staff, parents, and supporters was evident. Many of the students being recognized for their achievements had to overcome huge obstacles that would have intimidated souls of lesser grit. This was a moment for celebration!

Some had customized their forest green mortarboard caps and gowns, some stepped out of decorated vehicles filled with enthusiastic younger siblings and cousins, holding signs and shouting encouragement, but all beamed when they held up their hard-earned diploma in front of the AKHS mural.

This mural, added to the school last summer was an idea that came from a student with a love and talent for art. Samantha “Sam” Kelsey and teacher Heather Lawson collaborated on the project to bring pride and beautify the new campus location in Delight Valley, Saginaw. It was a learning curve for both and the result has been unifying for the campus, becoming the “Kennedy Brand” of sorts.

Everyone had to keep their distance. As the vehicles bearing the students were guided up and their name announced, Principal Kim Scrima placed their diploma on the podium and stepped away, no handshakes or hugs, the graduate retrieved it and moved over to the mural for a photo before hopping back in and pulling ahead to receive a bottle of bubbly Martinelli’s and gift from the Grad Night Lock Down, unable to happen this year because of COVID-19.

In the recorded graduation ceremony, many mentions were made of the hard work and grit of the Kennedy students. That hard work did not mean academic only. Kennedy students are known for the physical work they do in the conservation crew under Matt Hall. They regularly do the physically demanding labor of trail building, habitat restoration, invasive species removal, and lots of digging, often in cold, rainy conditions.

In the presentation students were recognized individually for earning over $30,000 in scholarships, and counting. Many of those scholarships came from the conservation work the students had done.

Principal Scrima, in her message to seniors, emphasized the efforts to teach them resilience and ability to navigate difficult situations. She lightheartedly apologized to graduates for the drastic virus-induced changes, “When it comes to apocalypse you all were promised zombies, and chaos, and anarchy. Instead you got distance learning with no toilet paper. It’s really not fair.”  She went on to elaborate on the theme that “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

The video presentation ended with an original song composed and performed by AKHS staff. It gave each graduate a customized shout-out reflecting on that student’s qualities and contributions. The inspirational tune’s chorus contained a line that describes so well what makes AKHS so unique, “At Kennedy the classroom has no walls,” a nod to the many outdoor activities and field trips that students participate in during their time at Kennedy.

While the rains held off for AKHS, Oregon being Oregon took a few liberties with the 2 p.m. graduation exercises over at Cottage Grove High School. 

In the video graduation ceremonies, broadcast earlier in the day, sunny skies prevailed. Included in the video were some poignant images of the football field all set up for graduation with the chairs, diplomas laid out, empty stands and not a human in sight. As the footage moved from the empty field through the empty campus and buildings, words accompanied the tour. “On your graduation day we know this is not how you pictured this year ending,” scrolled across the screen. The messages went on to reassure the seniors that despite being in the midst of all the chaos going on in the world today that they have made their families, classmates, teachers, school, and community proud, so Celebrate!  

Following the opening remarks and singing of the National Athem by Elise Smith, Principal Herrrington addressed the CGHS class of 2020 in an unconventional fashion. Dispensing with lofty language and Robert Frost poems, Herrington launched into a stream of pithy but practical, world-wise life suggestions. “Talent isn’t evenly distributed, get over it! What is evenly distributed is the ability to get better. You are going to make mistakes, you’re supposed to!” are just a few the Principal shared with his departing seniors.  

Herrington turned the podium over to class Caledictorian Lizbeth Zarate. While wishing for a chance be together as the Class of 2020 one more time she conceded, “It is what it is!” Addressing her classmates, “No one can take away what we have learned these past 13 years. Never let anyone define you,” Zarate said. She went on to thank all who had a hand in their success, parents, guardians, school staff, and especially teachers. She pointed out that often they are up early and work far into the night, taking the time to personally correct and add written suggestions for improvement to work of their students. After finishing her speech in English she repeated it in flawless Spanish.

The Principal then introduced the senior class officers who then took turns announcing the graduates, whose image appeared on screen along with their names. It was, overall, a very well-done presentation to replace the traditional in-person ceremony.

For the non-virtual graduation, students and their families assembled in the back parking lot of the high school in their vehicles beginning at 1 o’clock. When the signal was given, it was if a choreographed ballet occurred. Lines of cars and trucks, intermixed with a few stretch limos and party vans, began snaking out to head to the Gym where students were personally handed their diplomas by Principal Herrington. The logistics of how from random appearance of students, they were identified and connected to the appropriate diploma, was a treat to watch. In addition special awards were added to the mix when earned.

The procession then moved over to the High School’s main entrance where students had a photo op under a blue and gold balloon arch and were handed gift bags and graduation swag. Then following the signs posted along their route offering congratulations and well wishes headed off to their futures as freshly minted high school graduates.

To all of our Cottage Grove graduates, a hearty congratulations. You have had to absorb quite a nasty surprise in what was to be your special year and you rolled with the punches and powered through it. Congratulations! Go Bears, Go Lions, Go Class of 2020, a year to remember!