This is the story of two school years, two schools, and two very special graduating classes paired with one very lucky day to celebrate our graduates in the small, close-knit town of Cottage Grove. 

It’s an experience shared throughout the southern Willamette Valley. 

The 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years were like inverse evil twins. The previous school year started normal and devolved into uncertainty as the Covid pandemic developed in potency. This school year began with doubts and caution as school officials, parents, and students navigated the ever-changing restrictions and risk levels, but now seems headed toward normalcy at its conclusion.

One high school tradition came back to life with the “Prom Under the Stars” – held Friday, June 4. Students from Al Kennedy HS, Cottage Grove HS and 2020 grads mixed it up in the courtyard for a rite of passage that was canceled last year.  

A drive-through graduation celebration was the best that could be arranged for last year’s graduates, which was special but somehow just not the same. 

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Family and friends socialize afterward.

An indication of things getting back to normal was that both South Lane School District public high schools opted for in-person graduations this year as did the two charter schools A.C.E. and A Child’s Way. This reporter was lucky to attend both Al Kennedy and Cottage Grove graduations – and came away moved by the experiences.

Even as the threat of Covid diminishes, there was a presence of the long arm of the coronavirus in the precautions taken at each school’s celebration.

AKHS families sat, grouped, in chairs set up with their student’s name on them, physically distanced, of course. The microphone was conscientiously disinfected between each speaker, the graduates sat six feet apart and the ceremony was held outside under the covered shelter with the school greenhouse, orchard, and gardens in the background. 

One, perhaps unintended effect, was that the gathering families were serenaded by the local bird population that lined the fences and sang continuously during the proceedings, almost as if they were saluting the graduates. The chirps can be clearly heard on the video stream.

CGHS families and guests had to file through a phone registry that would enable contact tracing should an outbreak be traced to the graduation event. Tickets were limited and people were encouraged to sit in family groups and apart in the covered stands. Masks were present at both schools and usage was mixed. The CGHS “Senior Awards Night” was held remotely.

DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE

The skies seemed to be determined to keep school staff and graduates guessing. The CGHS senior breakfast/graduation practice on Friday, both scheduled outside, had to dodge the drops. At AKHS, gray skies gave way to halting sun, while over at CGHS in the afternoon the sun beat down on the blue-clad grads as families commiserated from the covered stands. During the ceremonies the clouds were changing constantly but hinting at rain. Increasing wind played havoc on the mortarboards, many creatively customized, as the grads filed across the stage to collect their diplomas. 

But the graduates were in God’s pocket. Despite all the craziness of the past two years they had their day of celebration and were recognized publicly in front of friends and family. It started raining by 7 p.m. as the darkening clouds made their intent reality.

Many of the student speakers at both schools made their case for this being quite the unique graduating class.

Mckeena “MJ” Raade, co-salutatorian at CGHS, pointed out that the 2021 class attended kindergarten at the start of the 2008 recession, were impacted by the Sandy Hook shooting through intruder drills, witnessed political politicization in middle school, only to be topped off by the pandemic and social awakening. What resulted was resiliency and a class that not only succeed but exceeded expectations – more than 30% of the seniors graduating with a 3.5 GPA or higher.  

Valedictorian Rhea Florez mentioned privilege, and having to face extraordinary years back to back. But absent was any rancor or regret that they were “robbed” of a normal senior experience. All student speakers were positive and spent considerable time expressing appreciation to families for support, mentioning teachers who had made an impression on them. They shared anecdotes to support their cases, and cited the importance of the friends who had their back and made them happy.

 Josh Cox, speaker at AKHS beforehand mentioned, “I have struggled to make this speech true to me but to not be too much of a downer.” His passion for drama was apparent in his remarks and choosing words of wisdom from the old tortoise, Master Oogway, from the “perfect trilogy Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, that is why it’s called the present.”

Another AKHS speaker, Isabella Dove, talked about the long-running Kennedy Conservation Crew and leader Matt Hall. Most Kennedy kids experience hands-on plant knowledge through Hall, who leads the crew and gets them to perform amazing restoration work and earn college scholarship funds all while getting paid.

Not to compare the two high schools in a competitive way but through the lens of student needs, the difference in the two approaches was readily apparent. At AKHS, the small setting, close relationships between staff, and personalized connections were demonstrated in how each student was presented their diploma or G.E.D. by a staff member close to them who shared stories about that student. The Kennedy way has allowed students to succeed at AKHS after being turned off in larger school settings.

Over at the much-larger CGHS, graduation returned to the traditional setting at the stadium. At the end of the ceremonies parents and guests applauded long and drummed with their feet to show their pride at the newly minted Lions Class of 2021. Afterward, guests spilled onto the field for a joyous mingling of graduates, family, and friends posing for pictures, giving flowers and gifts. Clearly the feeling of “Yes, finally something makes sense,” prevailed over the crowd.

Congratulations Classes of 2021 – you took two hard licks and came out standing tall!